How would one describe the earliest forms of religious activity, before civilizations were built and histories were written?
Were we chanting in unison around fires to excite the gods? Or carving effigies in the hopes of finding food?
Without any documentation, anything is possible. However, there are clues that have been left behind by our ancient ancestors which thankfully shed some light on this dark area of our history.
One such example of early religious activity can be found at a burial site in the Middle East called the Qafzeh cave. Located at the bottom of Mount Precipice, south of Nazareth, the Qafzeh cave holds 15 skeletal human remains, seven of them adult, and the rest being children. 71 pieces of ochre were discovered along with the bodies, as well as deer horns in the hands of two of the deceased, indicating that some sort of ritualistic funeral practice had occurred.
Professor Kathryn Denning, an archaeologist and anthropologist at York who teaches courses such as Ancient Civilizations, and Archaeology and Society, explains how such archaeological findings are not always what they seem.
“For the very earliest cave burials without obvious ritual objects or modifications, it’s hard for us to know for certain whether it was done for pragmatic purposes, like ‘we don’t want our dead relatives to attract animals,’ versus something spiritually-oriented like ‘we want our dead relatives all to be in one place so they can hunt together on the other side, give us advice about things, or keep each other busy and not haunt us.’”
Despite the obvious ritualistic nature of the Qafzah cave burials, there is little else indicating these people were members of an organized religion, or believed in a god, gods, or something else entirely. As such, burials are hardly a trustworthy indicator of religion. Could the earliest known production of effigies be a more promising, rewarding venture when searching for the origins of religion?
Effigies are sculptures made in a human form. The Aurignacian-Lowenmensch figurine, one of the most ancient known carvings dating back to 38,000 BCE, interestingly had a mixture of both animal and human characteristics. Some researchers believe this to be one of the oldest deities, though it could have simply been the production of one of our more creative ancestors, with a desire to merge animal and human body parts. There is no way to tell, as at that point in time, there was no form of written communication. All we can do is speculate as to what this effigy could have represented.
Denning echoes the same sentiment: “We have to accept a certain amount of ambiguity: if we have a sculpture of a known animal (let’s say a bear), and it’s from so long ago that we don’t have accompanying oral traditions, then how do we know whether it’s a depiction of a generic bear, or of a particular bear, or a representation of a bear spirit, or something imbued with magic to keep the resident hibernating bear quiet, or the Almighty Bear God? We don’t, at least not for sure. But we can be sure that there was a story of some kind that was attached to the bear sculpture.”
Denning further elaborates on this thought: “Belief in a god, goddesses, or gods, is somewhat trickier to infer because the nature of divinity is very slippery, and ancient art tends not to be helpfully labelled ‘This is god X.’ Sometimes it is, but, of course, only for cultures with writing.”