Humanity’s Earliest Rituals

Three passages on prehistoric religion from the book Becoming Human:


One of the pervasive themes of [this book] is that spirituality and materiality cannot be separated. The roots of religion are to be found in ritual practice. And ritual practice, as documented by the material record goes back before the Franco-Cantabrian “explosion”, back indeed before the Blombos engravings [70,000 kya], to repetitive activities undertaken very much earlier and documented in the material record, which we may infer were meaningful to their practitioners, and which may be regarded as ritual.

– Colin Renfrew, “Introduction,” in Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley eds., Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture, 8


The word “religion” refers broadly to a subcategory of high culture that comprises the fundamental beliefs that encapsulate and support the world-view of a society. In tracing the crucial role of language in constructing belief, I have called the governing representational form of traditional religious culture “mythic”, referring to its underlying logic of thought, which is based mostly on allegorical reasoning. Myths and mythologies are collectively remembered stories that tell people by example who they are, how to live, and what to value. Because their governing myths cut so deeply into the shared beliefs of a population, religions can shape the pattern of daily life in society, and dictate behavior in such mundane areas as birth, marriage, the treatment and consumption of food, and the proper progress of life, attitudes to death, and so on. These beliefs dominate other ideas. In the cognitive chain of command, myths rank at the top, in most societies.

      In traditional societies, art is one of the principal means by which the mythic component of this hierarchy, religion, exerts its influence. In such societies, the uses and themes of art tend to be dominated by religion, and sacred artworks intrude into daily life, keeping the mind “on track,” that is, under constant cognitive regulation by the dominant worldview…. Art and religion have thus been closely interwoven during the emergence of modern culture, usually with art in an important subsidiary role, and religion (that is, the mythic component of cognitive regulation) in the dominant role…. Historically, most cultures have not made an explicit distinction between religion and other aspects of cultural life, including visual art, music, and literature…. One might say that, for many cultures, art is the quintessence of religious expression….

      There is no reason to think that visual art in the Upper Paleolithic came from a different creative source than it does today. The human brain is the biological constraint on, and ultimate source of, creativity. Culture provides the specific semantic fields that determine meaning.

      Thus, we cannot expect that the inspiration for Upper Paleolithic parietal art was somehow outside of the socio-cognitive networks that have shaped its modern equivalents. Artists must work within a tradition. Images, technologies, and cultural archetypes do not spring fully formed from artists (if they did, they would not work, since the audience must share them). Total originality is an illusion, even in cases of great genius….

      The rise to dominance of “theoretic” culture during the post-Enlightenment period has shattered the pattern of traditional cultural-cognitive regulation. Its emergence has been rapid and seemingly unstoppable. Because of this shift, the artistic elites of the Western world have declared their independence of religion, and the uses of art have thus been split between secular and religious ends.

– Merlin Donald, “The Roots of Art & Religion in Ancient Material,” in Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley eds., Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture, 96-97, 98, 99, 100, 101-102


Theology and the history of religion are disciplines that deal with the supernatural and the impact of the supernatural beliefs on human affairs. Routinely, they distinguish between animism, ancestor worship, polytheism, monotheism, and some sort of impersonal “Something” that is said to underlie all creation. All these distinctions are in fact negligible. It does not really matter if Upper Paleolithic people were polytheists or monotheists—unless one wishes to place them in an evolutionary sequence that ends with monotheistic “higher” religions. There is something much more important than those categories….

      What remains today is the greatest hurdle that the Church (and all religion) has had to face, greater by far than the robust challenge of nineteenth-century evolutionism. Neurology is now uncovering not just what happened at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, but the fundamental, continuing generation of religious experiences in the human brain. There is no place left for the supernatural and the divisive impact that beliefs about it have on human communities. Instead of atavistically yearning for some indefinable spirituality that is bound up with supernaturalism and that we are said to have “lost,” we should rejoice that a way out of the entangling undergrowth of supernatural beliefs has opened up.

      Curiously, this is an issue on which most archaeologists decline to comment. Some judge the moral standing of researchers who think that Neanderthals were “less advanced” than Homo sapiens people, but cannot bring themselves to face and discuss openly the larger issue of the role of belief in the supernatural, not just vestigially in the West but throughout the world and deep human history. Today archaeologists accept that their work is conducted within, and has a political impact on, the community in which they live; they speak out on controversial political issues, such as nationalism, gender relations, colonialism and land rights. But they shy away from saying anything about present-day religion and supernaturalism. Yet there is no reason why those topics should be no-go areas. Archaeology provides a uniquely valuable time-breadth and inter-disciplinary complexity for discussions between religionists and scientists.

– David Lewis-Williams, “Of People and Pictures: the nexus of Upper Paleolithic religion, social discrimination, and art,” in Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley eds., Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture, 154-155.