Anthropology 108 – The Genesis Of Belief

Paleolithic Religion: The Genesis Of Belief

Anthropology is the study of humanity. One of the questions the discipline has striven to answer from it’s very conception is the question of what it is that ultimately makes us human. Where is that unique distinction that takes us from being just another creature populating the world and the fossil record and pushes us that next step to something more?

According to Donald Johanson in his book From Lucy To Language,

A human is any of the species Homo sapiens (“wise man”), the only modern living member of the family Hominidae. The Hominidae, or hominids, are a group of upright-walking primates with relatively large brains. So all humans are hominids, though not all hominids could be called human. (1)

Under this definition, we are in some ways the last of our kind, though without doubt the most prolific. Yet it does beg the question of what was it exactly that changed us from “upright-walking primates” and turned us into the “wise man” of today. Some Anthropologists argue it is the formation and use of complex tools – except further research has shown all primates and even some other species grasp the concept of making and using tools. Others say it is our capacity for higher, rational thought – except current research into other non-primate species is showing again and again a grasp of abstraction and other cognitive capacities we formerly believed were the domain of humanity alone. So, now, the researchers’ theories have reached further into the abstract. Perhaps it is our capacity, our need, to believe in something; to possess a mythology, a history beyond history, to explain our existence and the existence of the world around us. Our concepts of symbolism, a belief in a spirit world and those people who have the ability to bridge the gap between our world and “theirs” through complex rituals, and our belief in some sort of existence after the death of our physical bodies are perhaps what ultimately make us “human.”

The term “Ur-Religion” refers to the beginnings of religion itself and causes many arguments in the academic and Anthropological world, simply because there is no way to know for sure what these first humans believed. We “…can draw on neither inscriptions nor texts; nor can [we] question prehistoric people about their beliefs” (Hinnells 4). But these first religious practitioners did not leave us totally without record of their beliefs and their lives. Perhaps one of the best sources of information on Paleolithic belief comes as close to straight from the mouths of these ancient peoples as possible – or, rather, from their fingers. These records are the art they left behind, decorating stone walls all across the globe with incredibly consistent images of running animals and spear-carrying hunters. Pictures of people seemingly crossed with those animals, and of surprisingly anatomically accurate depictions of all creatures great and small.

We cannot “read” these images and marks. Nevertheless, an extraordinarily complex composition has begun to seem organized, purposeful, notational, and part of a tradition that composed storied sequences or sums with a repertoire of images. This way of thinking is one we can understand. (Marshack 212)

By this assumption, the images are not simply pictures. They are part of a deeper symbolism that seems to have ranged all across the globe; we can begin to catch a glimpse of the rich religious world that our ancient ancestors lived within.

It is possible these many depictions of animals were intended to be totemic in nature. Perhaps by recreating the image of the animals they obviously (from evidence left within their dwellings: bones, cook fires, etc.) hunted and ate, they hoped to call those animals to them to ensure the successes of their hunts. Or perhaps the artwork had even deeper meanings. In some caves, we uncovered drawings that seem to be as much animal as human. These “therianthropes,” (a combination of the Greek words “therion”, meaning “wild animal” or “beast,” and “anthrōpos”, meaning “man”) perhaps represent mythological figures such as those that would emerge in the myths around the world much later, such as the Greek Minotaur and Centaur, or the werewolf. Or perhaps they represent a religious specialist working closely with an animal spirit or totem to the point that they have taken on aspects of that animal.

A famous example of this type of cave art is known as “The Shaman of Les Trois Freres.” This image, depicting an obvious human form with what appears to be the head and tail of a stag, posed in a leaning over, dance-like posture, is not the only therianthrope decorating the walls of caves around the world. All share some of the same characteristics – usually the head of an animal, a dance-like posture indicating some sort of ritualized movement of the figure (the human body imitating that of a quadrupedal animal, perhaps?), and sometimes a tail indicative of the animal who’s head graces the figure. Rather than depictions of mythology, it would seem that there is a much deeper meaning to this type of image. A meaning that, at it’s very core, tells us more about this primitive religion and its practitioners than perhaps any other evidence we have yet to discover. Perhaps these therianthropes are actually accurate depictions of the religious practitioners of the day – the true shamans of these ancient peoples.

As Alexander Marshack stated in The Roots Of Civilization:

It is interesting that of the many human figures found with animals in Upper Paleolithic art none have weapons in hand, whereas many do have ceremonial and symbolic dress or objects. The…image is usually of a man naked, or robed in animal skins, often with body and hand attitudes that seem to stress the ritual, ceremonial nature of the relation. (272)

This indicates, rather than being fantastical figures such as the mythological Minotaur, these are images of normal people with a connection to the spiritual world, expressing that connection with something similar to the Native American practice of skin dancing.

Many Native American tribes as well as some Neo-Pagans, and other, older pagan traditions, practice the art of skin dancing. This is usually accomplished by a person strapping on a full body animal skin, tying its legs to their legs and arms, resting its head atop or over the dancer’s head, and letting the tail dangle. The person then enters an altered state of consciousness through the use of rhythmic drumming or some sort of drug consumption, wherein the spirit of that animal (be it that specific animal’s spirit, or the totemic spirit that represents all of that type of animal) is believed to enter the dancer’s body. The dancer will then begin to dance, usually in a ritualistic circle around a fire or a central drum, with their body bent into the attitude of the animal whose spirit is being summoned. This appears to be exactly what is depicted in the attitude and actions of these therianthrope cave paintings that occur around the world. These are the lasting impressions made of the people who were the spiritual leaders of their time and their tribes.

All of this has made most Anthropologists agree that “Upper Paleolithic religion was in some sense shamanistic” (Hinnells 31), with these therianthropes being the shamans. Other activities these religious specialists might have engaged in can be inferred by observing the oldest surviving tribal traditions around the world, such as the Inuit and the Native American tribes.

It is very likely these religious specialists engaged in many different types of rituals for the betterment of their family groups or tribes. Evidence of vision questing – elaborate paintings found within caves scarcely large enough to house one person indicate a shaman alone, painting the visions the spirits sent him on his journeys – is found in many caves throughout the world.

Unfortunately, however, we don’t have much other than these image filled corridors to go by when we consider what types of rituals these Paleolithic peoples might have engaged in. A good assumption based on interpretation is that the three most common types of rituals would have been observed – hunting, fertility, and burial.

Evidence of the hunting rituals that may have been practiced is an easy way to interpret cave art that depicts human hunters carrying spears and the impaled bodies of running animals. This meshes with what we know of the hunter/gatherer culture through other artifacts left behind, such as their atl atl’s, or spear-throwers, as well as the heads of these spears themselves, and the marks left on the bones of butchered prey animals. Perhaps the paintings were created in a ritualistic fashion, believing that by painting an abundance of prey images, they would in turn influence an abundance of prey.

Images of aroused male forms and rendered female forms in both carvings and paintings are also found around the world, indicating perhaps fertility rituals for the continuation of the families and tribes. Some items like this have even been found in carefully prepared graves, as Marshack noted in The Roots Of Civilization:

Near each knee there lay a quickly made, crudely carved bone figure shaped like an abstract “goddess” image, with a head and ovaloid body. Apparently the figurines had been made for the burial as part of the participation of the living in the myth and to strengthen the corpse’s own participation. There were other symbolic items in the grave as well. (317)

Items such as the described female figure obviously had more significance than just fertility rituals, as its inclusion with a body in burial indicates. Perhaps such items were also indicative of burial rituals as well, and maybe even a belief in rebirth.

It is true that of all the rituals these Paleolithic peoples might have preformed, we know the most about their burial rituals. By their very nature, they were designed to protect the body of the deceased person and in some cases even preserve it. This careful care indicates the evolution of the belief that there is something beyond this life – some reason that the deceased would be able to see or even feel how their body is treated after death. Again, much like the cave art and the shamanistic tendencies of these people, the evidence of death rituals is fairly uniform across the world.

This behavior is even observed in a different species of hominid, our early contemporaries, the Neanderthals. The same general structure applies to these Neanderthal burials as well as early human ones, wherein “…remains have been found whole, or nearly so, with bones in their correct anatomical positions. Since such a so-called articulated skeleton, common from the Upper Paleolithic, must have been protected from the elements and scavengers, the body probably received burial at the time of death” (Harder 1).

This commonality of vision when it comes to the death of a fellow creature is not unique to humanity. Grieving behavior has been observed in many different animals, but the concept of burying the dead, and especially the inclusion of personal possessions (grave goods) within the grave indicates the evolution of a higher type of thinking – the type of abstract thought that gives birth to religious belief. Despite the fact that the act of burial is a fairly common practice among Paleolithic people, the methods with which the burial was carried out, the goods included with the body, and even the position of the body itself was fairly different across the board, as White indicates in Dark Caves, Bright Visions:

The European Upper Paleolithic shows a wide range of burial treatment within given regions. There is a staggering diversity in such features as the position of the body (flexed, extended, highly flexed), ritual treatment of the corpse, nature and quantity of grave goods accompanying the corpse, structures associated with the burial, number of corpses interred in the same grave, and the way in which the body was clothed or decorated. (91)

A uniform item that seems to be used in over 90 percent of Paleolithic burials is the pigment red ochre. Made by heating yellow ochre over a fire until the iron oxides inside it turn red, this pigment is present as a sprinkling over the deceased person and was used to create markings on the person’s skin as well as on the items placed within the grave. It indicates a lot of thought and preparation being put into the ritual of burying this person to prepare them for whatever journey it was believed they would undergo after passing from their physical lives. This careful preparation indicates a belief, in some form, in the human soul or some part of us that would live on after death.

No Anthropologist possesses a time machine. It is impossible for us to return to the time of these ancient peoples and observe their religion, their rituals, their religious specialists, and to watch them paint their symbols on the cave walls. But through a modern interpretation of the artifacts and images left behind by these people all across the world, we can begin to understand that fundamental curiosity and driving force behind that which makes us different from all other life on earth – the creation of abstract religious thought.

Through modern interpretation and the mediums of film and television, perhaps we will one day have what amounts to a time machine that will let us observe the people that lived on this planet during the last Ice Age and beyond. Films such as Disney’s Brother Bear (2004) depict an Ice Age culture rich in animism, totemism, shamanistic practices, and a powerful belief in the magic that exists all around us in nature. It is through these mediums we gain a deeper insight and interpretation of our ancestors long past, and we will perhaps be left with a more powerful understanding of which changed us from “upright-walking primates,” and facilitated the transformation into the fantastically spiritual and intelligent creatures that we are today.


Works Cited

Blaise, Aaron, et al. Brother Bear. Disney DVD. [United States]: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2004.

Harder, Ben. “Evolving in Their Graves: Early Burials Hold Clues to Human Origins | Science News | Find Articles at BNET.” Find Articles at BNET | News Articles, Magazine Back Issues & Reference Articles on All Topics. Science News, 15 Dec. 2001. Web. 19 May 2010.

Hinnells, John R. A Handbook of Ancient Religions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

Johanson, Donald C., and Blake Edgar. From Lucy to Language. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006. Print.

Marshack, Alexander. The Roots of Civilization: the Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation. Mount Kisco, N.Y.: Moyer Bell, 1991. Print.

White, Randall. Dark Caves, Bright Visions: Life in Ice Age Europe. New York:
American Museum of Natural History in Association with W.W. Norton, 1986.