Monday, January 01, 2007

Ancient Religion?

Two recent discoveries address what may be early religious activities. The younger of the two discoveries have precedent, but are still extraordinary. Plastered skulls 11,500 years old were discovered in Tell Aswad, Syria. The skulls were coated with plaster, simulating flesh and skin, after death and painted to look more lifelike. Not only are these skulls earlier than those found at Jericho and elsewhere, they are far more impressive. Dating to the very beginning of settled life and the transition to food production, the uses of these skulls are uncertain. Guesses usually suggest family, ancestors, and ritual.

A find without precedent in Botswana dates back to what may be the beginning of modern human thought. Deposits of spear points around a rock sculpted into the form of a python appear to date to over 70,000 BP. The patterned deposition of these artifacts around a large image of an animal important to human concepts of nature and supernature may well be some of the earliest evidence of more complex ritual or religious behavior for Homo sapiens sapiens. Intriguingly, this is not far in time or space from the earliest evidence for human art. Blombos Cave, in neighboring South Africa, has produced the earliest evidence for symbolic creation of material culture. Shells were pierced for hanging on necklaces, and most intriguingly, zig-zag geometric patterns were carved into bars of red ochre, all around 77,000 BP. I would not be surprised to see other evidence of modern human behavior appearing in Southern Africa in the future.

Of course, other later hominids (such as Neanderthals) show some evidence of mortuary practices that may hint at symbolic thought. But so far not much evidence of symbolic material culture outside of mortuary practices. I'll leave the splitting between modern human behavior and other humans to those with more expertise in these fields.

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