Thursday, April 16, 2015

Religion of Prehistoric People

Anyone who has followed my blog over the past year knows that I’ve taken a keen interest in religion.  Last year, I read the whole Bible and wrote The Bible: a Book Report.  Currently, I’m reading the Qur’an for a project I call The Qur’an: a Book Report.  To further understand the interesting phenomenon of religion in the world, I’ve begun reading scholar Mircea Eliade’s epic three-volume A History of Religious Ideas.  I get a real thrill from taking big and complex ideas and trying to make them more communicable via my blog and zines.  Thus, I’m going to try to sum up what I learn from Eliade’s books in a series of blog posts I’m calling A Brief History of Religion.  Here’s my first report, on the religion of “prehistoric” humans.

The term “prehistoric” strikes me as a bit misleading, as it implies that people living before the advent of written language somehow don’t count.  But this is an arrogant view.  Certainly, human beings were living full and imaginative lives before they started writing things down.  And, as Eliade points out, the people we classify as “prehistoric” actually did leave us a wealth of “documents” in the form of tools, weapons, cave paintings, burial sites, sculpture, and other clues regarding their understanding of themselves and their world.  These people were, undoubtedly, religious, even if we don’t fully understand their spirituality.  I’d like to discuss a few of these prehistoric “documents” and what they suggest about the religious lives of our oldest human ancestors.

Burial Sites

The burial of the dead has long been regarded as a practice laden with spiritual significance.  Numerous prehistoric burial sites have been discovered and they suggest profound religious significance.  Some of these sites show human remains buried in the fetal position, suggesting hope of rebirth.  Others show burials oriented toward the east, to connect the fate of the soul with the course of the sun, again suggesting a belief in rebirth, or even an afterlife.  Some notable examples of burials with religious significance include: the Neanterthal child discovered at Teshik Tash, buried surrounded by several ibex horns, the remains found at Mt. Carmel (Israel) showing evidence of humans buried with flowers, and the so-called "Old Man" found at La Chapelle aux-Saints in France.

Burial site at Mt Carmel (Israel) dating to 13,700 years ago (with artist re-creation).

Cave Paintings

I was recently re-introduced to the beauty and mystery of prehistoric cave paintings by the recent Werner Herzog documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which focuses on 30,000 year old Chauvet cave paintings in France.  These exquisitely beautiful and well-preserved paintings have a kind of poetry and mysticism about them.  Depictions of animals, hunters, dancers, and human/animal hybrid characters suggest a kind of "spiritual solidarity" between humans and animals, a belief still held by cultures which practice shamanism.  One interesting feature of the Lascaux caves is a scene of a man and bison in an activity that suggests a kind of shamanic seance, an ecstatic experience.

Cave painting from Chauvet.

The Trois Freres cave paintings in France show a human/animal hybrid creature that reflects belief in a kind of deity which anthropologists have called the "Lord of the Wild Beasts" or "The Sorcerer," a figure common in hunting and pastoralist cultures.  The fact that these cave paintings are often difficult to reach and are relatively inhospitable has led some scholars to describe them as religious sanctuaries, perhaps even sites of ritual and initiation.

Female Figurines (or, Venuses)

Sculptures of prehistoric female figurines (suggesting goddesses/dieties) have been found in France, Italy, and as far away as Siberia.  These female figurines have been described as fertility figures, mythical ancestresses of tribes, spiritual protectors, and as "portable sanctuaries."  Notable examples of these "Venus" female/goddess figurines include the "Venus of Brassempouy" which is around 25,000 years old and is the oldest realistic representation of a human face.  Others include the Venus of Willendorf, and the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, the earliest discovered use of ceramics (about 30,000 years old).

The Venus of Brassempouy.

Anthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan, who studied these various "documents" of prehistoric peoples has written: "The representations cover an extremely complex and rich system, a system far richer and more complex than had been previously imagined.  Reflecting on the religious legacy of "prehistoric" peoples, Mircea Eliade writes: "Ecstasy of the shamanic type appears to be documented in the Paleolithic.  This implies, on the one hand, belief in a "soul," able to leave the body and travel freely through the world and, on the other hand, the conviction that, during such a journey, the soul can meet certain superhuman beings and ask them for help or a blessing."

Andre Leroi-Gourhan.

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