The origin of religion

ResearchBlogging.orgThe amount of creationist claptrap in my previous post obscured an otherwise intriguing story: the origin of religion. But I didn’t have enough space to go into as much detail as I would’ve liked, but then I remembered, I own this blog! I can have as much space as I want. So, without further ado, I give you the (pre)history of religion.

The earliest evidence of religion comes surprisingly from the present, in the form of chimps. Now, before you get carried away, this isn’t evidence of chimps worshipping a giant stone rock or anything so exciting. Instead, they simply seem to “mourn” their dead, with a mother engaging in unique behaviours when their child dies, approaching and retreating from the body repeatedly.

Of course, this doesn’t mean chimps have a religion (and thankfully so, for that would be further confirmation the chimp uprising is getting closer) but it does show they have an understanding of death. That might not be as interesting as believing the soul goes somewhere when it dies, but it is important to note that understanding it is no longer here is a fundamental foundation of such a belief.

Although quite far removed from the religions we see around us today it would seem that here, amongst the chimps we can see the beginning of the origin of religion.

But does the fact chimps have it mean our ancestors had it? That’s difficult to say, since this is a behavioural trait and behaviour does not preserve especially well. However, there are some sites which suggest they did, notably Atapuerca in Spain. This cave contains hundreds of 500,000 year old fossil of Homo heidelbergensis (or possibly H. neanderthalensis) yet lacks any tools or other indicators people lived there.

It seems to have been a location where hominins put their dead and the fact they are differentiating them in this manner suggests they too had an understanding of death. That life has disappeared from the body and so it can be tossed in a pit.

When I said there were no tools, I lied. They found....excaliber! (which is just what they called this handaxe)

But, like with chimps, understanding death does not mean they were religious. The first indications of a general supernatural belief don’t arise until after Homo sapiens had appeared, 190,000 years ago.

At Es Skhul cave in the Levant – between 130,000 and 100,000 years ago – our ancestors took a dead individual and buried them. It was careful, it was deliberate and it would’ve required effort. And putting in such effort isn’t something you do if you merely think life has left the body. There was something more going on here.

These people thought something that drove them to do this, something supernatural. Why else treat the body with respect? Ultimatley we only do so because the pile of meat is home to life but once that life is gone it is just a sack of organs again. Why respect it, unless they thought the life continued somewhere. That it still existed and so their body needed respect.

It seems they believed in an afterlife.

Of course that conclusion is pushing at the very bounds of what we can infer from remains. There may be another reason people buried their dead but given how widespread the phenomenon is, a supernatural belief seems to be the most parsimonious explanation. Taken with a pinch of salt.

The burial from Es Skhul, unburied.

Here our tale takes a turn for the unexpected: after these first few burials the majority are made by H. neanderthalensis, not us! Our “dumb” cousins, it would seem, had spiritual beliefs too.

Why few are made by us may have something to do with the fact our species returned to Africa, but why the abandoned the practice of making burials along with their territory is unknown. Regardless, we eventually returned to Europe around 40,000 years ago and buried our dead more frequently.

As we did so, the beliefs associated with this burial became more complex. We started burying them with gravegoods and engaged in more extensive symbolic behaviour. 23,000 years ago, for example, a Russian was buried with over 3,000 beads! And there are several bones that are caked in pigment because the body was painted prior to burial.

Prehistoric bling

And it’s not just the burials which become complicated. Throughout this period we made more elaborate art than before. Most of it is of real things but a few items are of things which do not exist. The most famous of these is the “lion man,” a 32,000 year old sculpture of a half man, half lion creature. It’s clearly fantasy, but is this fantasy part of religion? We do not know.

It seems more apparent that the “fish men” from Lepenski Vir are part of religion. Lepenski Vir is an interesting site as it was a hunter-gatherer settlement but the river was so bountiful they could live there year round and not have to move. And they repeatedly anthropomorphised the source of their nourishment in the form of these “fish men.”

The relationship between their survival and these statues suggests that these represent important fantasy elements. And their made frequently, suggesting this fantastical belief was wide-spread. Surely that makes them part of religion.

Thank Cod I know my Plaice

Lepenski Vir marks the beginning of the end for prehistory. Shortly afterwards societies started getting more complicated, constructing the large buildings I talked about in my previous post. As they got organised, so did the groups of people within them. Governments and codified religions emerged.

And so, the early supernatural beliefs which prompted our ancestors to bury their dead became the religions we know and love today, such as that which spawned the creationist my previous post was responding to. And that post prompted this one.

We have come full circle.

Bermúdez de Castro, J., Martinón-Torres, M., Carbonell, E., Sarmiento, S., Rosas, A., van der Made, J., & Lozano, M. (2004). The Atapuerca sites and their contribution to the knowledge of human evolution in Europe Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 13 (1), 25-41 DOI: 10.1002/evan.10130
Cronin KA, van Leeuwen EJ, Mulenga IC, & Bodamer MD (2011). Behavioral response of a chimpanzee mother toward her dead infant. American journal of primatology, 73 (5), 415-21 PMID: 21259302
Grün R, Stringer C, McDermott F, Nathan R, Porat N, Robertson S, Taylor L, Mortimer G, Eggins S, & McCulloch M (2005). U-series and ESR analyses of bones and teeth relating to the human burials from Skhul. Journal of human evolution, 49 (3), 316-34 PMID: 15970310
Hovers, E., Ilani, S., Bar‐Yosef, O., & Vandermeersch, B. (2003). An Early Case of Color Symbolism: Ochre Use by Modern Humans in Qafzeh Cave Current Anthropology, 44 (4), 491-522 DOI: 10.1086/375869
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13 thoughts on “The origin of religion

  1. I would argue that the mothering instinct, a behavioural trait, has been preserved remarkably well since the dinosaurs! The ‘religious instinct’ as well looks like it may have been preserved, but as you say we can’t really affirm this.

    Could we not have been burying the dead because we don’t like being reminded of our own mortality? People tend not to like hanging round dead bodies, so maybe it started off non-religious? but as our imaginations expanded through the boredom of settlement maybe the tradition of burial became more elaborate?

    • But as the earlier sites like Atapuerca show, there are ways to dispose of the dead without burying them. Burial is ritualistic (some caves contain bodies all positioned in the same way) and requires a good bit of effort so its a step above simple disposal.

      Maybe those very early disposals were for the reasons you suggest but by the time burial appears it seems there is something more going on.

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  3. It’s way too big a leap to conclude that earliest burials = idea of afterlife. What if burial wasn’t even “about” the deceased at all, but rather the process by which the clan erased the hole in its social structure that the death caused?

    • I think the fact they’re investing more than is necessary in the body itself strongly indicates that they believe there is a continuity, that the person continues to exist and thus they must continue to invest additional effort in them. However, there are many other explanations and whilst I think that one is the best, ultimately that is not saying much. Without a testable way to differentiate between them we can’t really say what is going on.

      • What do you make of this report about jays surrounding a dead jay — just like the chimps do one of their own in the video?

        http://tinyurl.com/8p26fbm

        What if burial evolved out of this, which the authors consider to be a kind of warning behavior. Is it possible that humans could have been well down the road to producing artifacts, including decorated burials, without really having a conscious awareness of what they were doing,
        as we understand the term? Maybe this is a novel idea for an anthropologist, though not for a free-ranging psychologist. I’ll sketch it out a little further as soon as I’ve had time to read all of the 57 comments to your earlier post.

        • That’s certainly interesting and seems to suggest that the “germ” of religious thought – realising that death is different to life – is a lot more widespread than previously thought. However I don’t think we can really conclude that burials were thus unconscious affairs. Almost everything we do exists in an unconscious form in the animal world and yet our thought process has wormed its way into all of them.

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  5. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I heard we started burying the dead so the dead body didn’t attract predators, which to me would be a beginning to a religion. I’d have to be less hungover as I am now to explain better, but I’m sure you probably came across such a theory before. Do you find it credible?

    • That is a possibility, although it isn’t a behaviour we really see in any other animal which raises doubts over whether early humans would’ve been thinking along these lines

  6. The notion that pre-humans began burying their dead to keep the
    bodies from being consumed by scavenger carnivores seems
    plausible and parsimonious, if impossible to prove.
    Why would it be important to keep a body from being eaten?
    The video of the chimps gathered around one of their dead
    implies the existence of strong social bonds among individuals
    at a stage of evolution way before the arrival of cognition,
    not to mention religion, as we know it.

    In the beginning, pre-humans experienced the loss of a
    “loved one” in either of two ways: through death by a predator animal
    that eats it, or through death by some other means…and then being
    eaten by a scavenger animal some time later. In the latter case,
    perhaps the social bond effectively exists until the scavenger
    arrives. Therefore, to the extent that social bonds are important,
    if follows that behavior would be selected for that extends
    the perception of social bonds. In the case of death, this would
    be the protection the body.

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