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Picture of a half animal half human being in a Paleolithic cave painting in Dordogne, France. Some archeologists believe that cave paintings of half animal half human beings may be evidence for early shamanic practices during the Paleolithic

Paleolithic religion refers to the religious beliefs in the Paleolithic period, which lasted from 2.6 million years ago till 12,000 BP. All theories and hypotheses about the religious beliefs of Palaeolithic people stem from the evidence taken from archaeological findings of burials and artwork.[1] Religious behaviour is believed to have emerged by the Upper Palaeolithic, at least 30,000 years ago,[2] but behavioural patterns such as is evinced by burial rites that may be characterized as religious are found the Middle Palaeolithic, as early as 300,000 years ago, coinciding with the first appearance of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. Religious behaviour combines ritual, spirituality, mythology and magical thinking or animism, aspects that may have separate histories of development during the Middle Paleolithic before combining into "religion proper" of behavioral modernity.

It has been suggested that the first signs of religious or spiritual behaviour dates from the Lower Palaeolithic, significantly earlier than 300,000 years ago and characterized as pre-Homo sapien, but these are controversial and have limited support.


Lower Paleolithic

The Paleolithic

before Homo (Pliocene)

Lower Paleolithic (c. 2.6 Ma–100 ka) (genus Homo)

Olduwan (2.6–1.8 Ma) earliest stone tools
Acheulean (1.7–0.1 Ma) Controlled fire, earliest large game hunting
Clactonian (0.3–0.2 Ma)

Middle Paleolithic (300–30 ka) (Neanderthal, H. sapiens; earliest evidence of behavioral modernity (art and intentional burials); earliest undisputed evidence of cooking food; migration beyond Africa).

Mousterian (300–30 ka)
Aterian (82 ka)

Upper Paleolithic (50–10 ka) (behavioral modernity: abundant artwork, fully developed language)

Baradostian (36 ka)
Châtelperronian (35–29 ka)
Aurignacian (32–26 ka)
Gravettian (28–22 ka)
Solutrean (21–17 ka)
Magdalenian (18–10 ka)
Hamburg (14 ka)
Ahrensberg (13 ka)
Swiderian (10 ka)

James Harrod and Vincent W. Fallio propose that spirituality arose in Pre-Paleolithic Hominidae or Early Lower Paleolithic (Oldowan) societies, based on the observation of chimpanzee emotions.[3] The lower paleolithic spans the period 2.5 million-300,000 years ago. This period pre-dates the emergence of modern humans. The dominant human species during this period includes Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis. However, the established anthropological view holds that it is more probable that humankind first developed religious and spiritual beliefs during the Middle Paleolithic or Upper Paleolithic.[4]

Middle Paleolithic

The Middle Paleolithic and the Middle Stone Age span the period 300,000 - 50,000 years ago. It is during this period that some of the earliest significant evidence of religious practices are found. Intentional burial, particularly with grave goods may be one of the earliest detectable forms of religious practice since, as Philip Lieberman suggests, it may signify a "concern for the dead that transcends daily life."[5] Though disputed, evidence suggests that the Neanderthals were the first hominids to intentionally bury the dead, doing so in shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones.[citation needed] Exemplary sites include Shanidar in Iraq, Kebara Cave in Israel and Krapina in Croatia. Some scholars, however argue that these bodies may have been disposed of for secular reasons.[6] According to recent archeological findings from H. heidelbergensis sites in Atapuerca, humans may have begun burying their dead much earlier during the late Lower Paleolithic but this theory is widely questioned in the scientific community. Cut marks on Neanderthal bones from various sites such as Combe-Grenal and Abri Moula in France may imply that the Neanderthals like some contemporary human cultures may have practiced ritual defleshing for religious reasons.

Likewise a number of archeologists propose that Middle Paleolithic societies such as Neanderthal societies may also have practiced the earliest form of totemism or animal worship in addition to their (presumably religious) burial of the dead. Emil Bächler in particular suggests (based on archeological evidence from Middle Paleolithic caves) that a widespread Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal bear cult existed (Wunn, 2000, p. 434-435). Additional evidence in support of Middle Paleolithic animal worship originates from the Tsodilo Hills (c 70,000 BCE) in the African Kalahari desert where a giant rock resembling a python that is accompanied by large amounts of colored broken spear points and a secret chamber has been discovered inside a cave. The Broken spear points were most likely sacrificial offerings and the python is also important to and worshipped by contemporary Bushmen Hunter-gatherers who are the descendants of the people who devised the ritual at the Tsodilo Hills and may have inherited their worship of the python from their distant Middle Paleolithic ancestors.[7] Animal cults in the following Upper Paleolithic period such as the bear cult may have had their origins in these hypothetical Middle Paleolithic animal cults.[8] Animal worship during the Upper Paleolithic was intertwined with hunting rites.[8] For instance archeological evidence from art and bear remains reveals that the Bear cult apparently had involved a type of sacrificial bear ceremonialism in which a bear was shot with arrows and then was finished off by a shot in the lungs and ritualistically buried near a clay bear statue covered by a bear fur with the skull and the body of the bear buried separately.[8]

The earliest undisputed human burial dates back 90,000 years. Human skeletal remains stained with red ochre were discovered in the Skhul cave at Qafzeh, Israel. A variety of grave goods were present at the site, including the mandible of a wild boar in the arms of one of the skeletons.[9] It may be that the anatomically modern human emigrants from Africa inhabiting the Middle East during that time, as opposed to the Neanderthals, invented this form of ritualized burial practice.[9] Middle stone age sites in Africa dating to around the same time frame also show an increased use of red ochre, a pigment thought to have only symbolic value.[10][11][12] These findings have led researchers like Lieberman to believe that the religious mind has been in existence for at least 100,000 years.

Upper Paleolithic

The Venus of Willendorf, a statue that has been suggested as having had a religious function for Paleolithic peoples.

Other scholars believe that religion only appeared around 50,000 years ago during the transition from the middle to the Upper Paleolithic. Increasing evidence of burial with grave goods and the appearance of anthropomorphic images and cave paintings may suggest that humans in the Upper Paleolithic were the first to believe in supernatural beings.[13] The cave paintings of Chauvet have been dated to 32,000 and those at Lascaux have been dated to 17,000 years ago. At Lascaux the anthropomorphic paintings show depictions of strange beasts such as ones that are half human and half bird and half human and half lion. Consequently some have suggested that these are indications of shamanistic beliefs[14]. The earliest known undisputed burial of a shaman dates back to the early Upper Paleolithic era (c. 30,000 BC) in what is now the Czech Republic[15] howbeit, it was probably more common during the early Upper Paleolithic for religious ceremonies to receive equal and full participation from all members of the Band in contrast to the religious traditions of later periods when religious authorities and part-time ritual specialists such as shamans, priests and medicine men were relatively common and integral to religious life.[16] The earliest known Paleolithic shaman(c. 30,000 BC) was female.[15] Additionally it is also possible that Upper Paleolithic religions like contemporary and historical animistic and polytheistic religions believed in the existence of a single creator deity in addition to other supernatural beings such as animistic spirits.[17]

Vincent W. Fallio writes that ancestor cults first emerged in complex Upper Paleolithic societies. Vincent W. Fallio argues that the elites of complex Upper Paleolithic societies (like the elites of many more contemporary complex hunter-gatherers such as the Tlingit) may have used special rituals and ancestor worship to solidify control over their societies by convincing their subjects that they possess a link to the spirit world that gives them control over both the earthly realm and access to the spiritual realm.[18] Secret societies may have served a similar function in these complex quasi-theocratic societies by dividing the religious practices of these cultures into the separate spheres of Popular Religion and Elite Religion.[18]

Religion was often apotropaic; specifically, it involved sympathetic magic.[19] The Venus figurines which are abundant in the Upper Paleolithic archeological record provide an example of Paleolithic sympathetic magic, as they may have been used for ensuring success in hunting and to bring about fertility of the land and women.[20] The Upper Paleolithic Venus figurines have been sometimes explained as depictions of an earth goddess similar to Gaia or as representations of a goddess who is the ruler or mother of the animals.[8][21] Additionally, they have described by James Harrod as representative of female (and male) shamanistic spiritual transformation processes.[22]


  • 300,000 – first (disputed) evidence of intentional burial of the dead. Sites such as at Atapuerca in Spain, bones of over 32 individuals are found in pit within a cave[23].
  • 130,000 ya – Earliest undisputed evidence for intentional burial. Neanderthals are burying their dead at sites such as Krapina in Croatia[23].
  • 100,000 ya – The oldest ritual burial of modern humans is thought to be from a Qafzeh in Israel. There is a double burial of what is thought to be a mother and child. The bones have been stained with red ochre. By 100,000 years ago anatomically modern humans migrated to the middle east from Africa. However the fossil record of these humans ends after 100kya, leading scholars to believe that population either died out or returned to Africa.[24][25]
  • 100,000 to 50,000 ya – Increased use of red ochre at several Middle Stone Age sites. Red Ochre is thought to have played an important role in ritual.
  • 70,000 – traces of worship of the python discovered in the Ngamiland region of Botswana.[26]
  • 50,000 – Humans have evolved the traits associated with modern human behavior. Much of the evidence is from Late Stone Age sites in Africa. Modern human behavior includes abilities such as modern language, abstract thought, symbolism and religion[25].
  • 42,000 ya – Ritual burial of Man at Lake Mungo in Australia. The body is sprinkled with copious amounts of red ochre. this is seen as evidence that the Australians had brought along with them religious rituals from Africa.
  • 40,000 ya – Upper Paleolithic begins in Europe. There is an abundance of fossil evidence including elaborate burials of the dead, venus figurines and cave art. Venus figurines are thought to represent fertility goddesses. The cave paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux are believed to represent religious thought.
  • 30,000 ya – Earliest known burial of a shaman.[15]
  • 11,000 ya – The Neolithic Revolution begins.

See also


  1. ^ Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Page 1. Blackwell. 1999.
  2. ^ Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Annette Michelson, The Religion of the Caves: Magic or Metaphysics?, October 37, The MIT Press, pp. 6-17. "[ cave art ] born 30,000 years before our era ... would appear to have developed simultaneously with the first explicit manifestations of concern with the supernatural." (p. 6)
  3. ^ Oldowan Art, Religion, Symbols, Mind by James Harrod
  4. ^ About OriginsNet by James Harrod
  5. ^ Uniquely Human. 1991. ISBN 0674921836. 
  6. ^ Evolving in their graves: early burials hold clues to human origins - research of burial rituals of Neanderthals
  7. ^ World's Oldest Ritual Discovered -- Worshipped The Python 70,000 Years Ago The Research Council of Norway (2006, November 30). World's Oldest Ritual Discovered -- Worshipped The Python 70,000 Years Ago. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 2, 2008, from /releases/2006/11/061130081347.htm
  8. ^ a b c d Karl J. Narr. "Prehistoric religion". Britannica online encyclopedia 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-28. 
  9. ^ a b Uniquely Human page 163
  10. ^ The Religious Mind and the Evolution of Religion
  11. ^ An early case of color symbolism
  12. ^ Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: The Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex
  13. ^ The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. Thames & Hudson. 1996. ISBN 0-500-05081-3. 
  14. ^ Ryan (1999). "Poesy en Masse". The Strong Eye of Shamanism. ISBN 0892817097.,M1. 
  15. ^ a b c Tedlock, Barbara. 2005. The Woman in the Shaman's Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine. New York: Bantam.
  16. ^ Stavrianos, pg 10
  17. ^ Lerro, Bruce (2000). From earth spirits to sky gods Socioecological Origins of Monotheism. Lanham MD: Lexington Press. pp. 327. ISBN 073910098X.,M1.  pages 17–20
  18. ^ a b Vincent W. Fallio (2006). New Developments in Consciousness Research. New York, United States: Nova Publishers. ISBN 1600212476.,M1.  [,M1 Pages 98 to 109]
  19. ^ Miller, Barbra; Bernard Wood, Andrew Balansky, Julio Mercader, Melissa Panger (2006). Boston Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon. pp. 768. ISBN 0205320244. 
  20. ^ McClellan (2006). Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction. Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press. ISBN 0801883601.  Page 8-12
  21. ^ Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, "Women in the Stone Age," in the essay "The Venus of Willendorf" (accessed March 13, 2008)
  22. ^ Upper Paleolithic Art, Religion, Symbols, Mind By James Harrod
  23. ^ a b When Burial Begins
  24. ^ Museum of Natural History article on human human evolution
  25. ^ a b The beginning of religion at the beginning of the neolithic
  26. ^ Vogt, Yngve; Alan Louis Belardinelli (translation) (30 November 2006). "World's oldest ritual discovered. Worshipped the python 70,000 years ago". Apollon. University of Oslo. Retrieved 17 May 2009. 


  • D. Bruce Dickson, The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe (1990), ISBN 978-0-8165-1336-9.


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