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Paleolithic Religion


PALEOLITHIC RELIGION . The term Paleolithic was coined more than a hundred years ago to distinguish the simple stone tools discovered in deep gravel pits or caves of the diluvial (or antediluvian) period from the polished stone tools of a later age, the Neolithic. Two incongruous criteriageologic or climatological data and cultural or technological datawere used to distinguish the periods. Later the use of pottery became characteristic of the Neolithic age, and agriculture was seen as its chief distinguishing mark. Nowadays the term Paleolithic is understood in its strict sense, as the cultural equivalent of the geologic and climatological period known as the Ice Age (today usually called the Pleistocene), in which polished stones, pottery, and agriculture were still unknown. When it became clear that with few exceptions the characteristic traits of the Neolithic age appeared only some time after the end of the Pleistocene, phenomena dating from the postglacial (Holocene) period but prior to the Neolithic came to be known as Epipaleolithic or, rather unfortunately, as Mesolithic.

To be sure, the radical geologic and climatological changes that took place at this time of transition, more than ten thousand years ago, certainly affected the conditions of life and culture, but a truly epochal cultural transformation that indicates the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period had occurred already about 35,000 years ago, that is, much earlier than the environmental change. In Europe, parts of Siberia, and southwestern Asia, and perhaps in some parts of Africa, the cultural transition is marked by the emergence of tools made of thin and slender stone blades and, in some areas, by the appearance of representational art. A more meaningful classification of periods would therefore merge the Lower and Middle Paleolithic into one period and distinguish it from the combined Upper Paleolithic and the Mesolithic. (Some scholars have proposed that terms Protolithic and Miolithic should be used, but the suggestion has not won acceptance.) Outside the context of Europe, and especially with reference to America, the term Paleolithic is, practically speaking, not used at all.

Although the end of the Paleolithic is usually identified by the beginning of the postglacial period (c. 8000 bce), there were no highly significant distinctions between the two periods. As far as is known today, the Paleolithic was mainly a time during which food was acquired solely by hunting (including fishing) and gathering. But such methods of subsistence were used throughout broad areas of the world during the postglacial period, too, and continue to be used in a few restricted areas today. With certain reservations, then, it is possible to show continuity between the Paleolithic period and present-day "primitive" societies that follow a similar way of life.

In theory, the Paleolithic age begins with the first appearance of human beings. In practice, both occurrences are equally difficult to pinpoint. The beginning of the Stone Ageand therefore of all prehistoryis characterized by the appearance of artificial stone tools that could be used not only for immediate tasks but also to make additional tools (Henri Bergson's "tools for making tools"). The oldest tools discovered so far are from East Africa and are between two and two and one-half million years old. Whether East Africa is therefore the real cradle of civilization or whether accidents of preservation and of research and discovery only make this seem to be the case must for the present remain an open question.

In the course of time human beings appeared in other areas of Africa and, between one and one and one-half million years ago, in parts of southern and western Europe. Finds in southeastern and eastern Asia are probably as old or even older. As early as 300,000 years ago humans appeared in numerous other parts of Europe and Asia. Even in Australia there is evidence of human presence more than twenty thousand years ago, and it is likely that by that time human beings had already entered broad areas of America, although their presence becomes certain only about 10,000 bce. Thereafter even the more northerly regions of Europe became increasingly populated.

Many developments and transformations occurred during this long stretch of time; very different cultures took shape in the various regions. It is questionable, therefore, whether Paleolithic religion is a meaningful concept at all. Rather, the point of departure for this article ought to be the existence of a variety of religions in the Paleolithic period. The nature and scarcity of the evidence (for the most part only fragmentary material remains) and its random character prevent researchers from convincingly distinguishing and defining any specific traits of these religions. The expression Paleolithic religion can really mean nothing more than the totality of ascertainable or inferred religious phenomena of the Paleolithic period. In addition, the term religion itself must be defined very broadly and be allowed to include everything that suggests dealings with a realm above and beyond natural phenomena.

Sources and Their Interpretation

Current knowledge of the Paleolithic period depends mainly on a functional interpretation of material remains, that is, a reconstruction of their use and cultural context in the life of prehistoric human beings. Such an interpretation relies, in turn, on a comparison of the available evidence with objects, facts, and processes that are directly known or have been transmitted in written, pictorial, or oral form from a relatively recent past. Since the situation in the prehistoric, and especially the Paleolithic, period is to be compared with that of present-day "primitive" societies rather than that of more "developed" ones, close attention must be given to conditions and modes of behavior examined in the studies of so-called primitive peoples. These studies can help in the interpretation of archaeological finds, but not infrequently they also show that similar material objects allow divergent functional interpretations.

These remarks about interpretation apply to a high degree to religion because it is primarily a spiritual phenomenon in which the sacred or supernatural word plays an important role. It is clear that manifestations of religion cannot be determined from archaeological research because material remains are silent. Only indirectly and in special circumstances do archaeological finds yield a religious meaning. Thus the first question that students of prehistoric religion must ask is "Which objects and findings can be regarded as signs of religious intentions, experiences, and activities?" Although religion is primarily a spiritual phenomenon, it nonetheless uses a wide range of material accessories: artifacts and places that have a cultic and ceremonial significance, images and symbols, sacrificial and votive offerings. In many cases religion makes use of art; to a certain extent inferences about religious conceptions can also be drawn from burial customs.

The interpretation of such sources by analogy with present-day religious practices implies that a more or less complete correspondence or at least a great similarity is inferred from an observed partial correspondence. But not infrequently particular findings can be interpreted in different ways. For example, it is often not clear to which religious category a find belongs; sacrifices and burials, cannibalism and human sacrifices, and animal sacrifices and animal cults are not clearly distinguishable by archaeological criteria. It is not enough, therefore, to select a few religious phenomena from contemporary primitive societies and apply them to the archaeological material. Instead, it is necessary to conduct comprehensive comparative studies in order to obtain a sufficiently wide range of correlations and establish a basic correspondence of meanings. Admittedly such studies make it possible to register only general characteristics and not concrete particularities. Even then it is still possible in many cases to give divergent interpretations, and it therefore becomes necessary to choose the one that is most likely.

The first rule, therefore, that must be observed in the interpretation of prehistoric finds is to compare them only with such recent phenomena as occur in a basically similar or corresponding context. For example, it is not possible to simply select a religious phenomenon connected with food cultivation (for example, feminine figurines of the Magna Mater type from Mediterranean and Eastern civilizations) and use it to explain one or another find connected with the culture of Paleolithic hunters and gatherers.

The vast stretch of time separating the Paleolithic period and today, the numerous opportunities for a shift in the meaning of things, and the modern dissemination and variety of phenomena all call for critical judgment in the use of ethnographic and historical analogies. One should be especially cautious in comparing prehistoric phenomena with contemporary primitive religions. On the other hand, as is clear from not a few cases, the very long interval of time that has passed does not necessarily mean that radical changes have occurred; often enough, strong tendencies toward stability are also observable. The lapse of time must be judged in relation to fundamental conditions; progressive development is accompanied by an acceleration. The first really epochal change took place only about 35,000 years ago, at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period. Thirty-five thousand years seems a short and insignificant span of time when compared with the hundreds of thousands of years' existence of the earliest human beings. It is therefore not as unimaginable as it might first appear that fundamental elements from a very early time should be preserved to the present day under comparable conditions. Furthermore, in comparison with the modern multiplicity and variety of phenomena, the number of possibilities realizable under simple conditions is limited.

A spiritual phenomenon such as religion does not develop in complete independence and isolation but depends to some degree on functional interrelations and limitations, including those of an economic and ecological kind. Careful account must be taken of duration and the interaction of tendencies toward stability or change, the multiplicity of possibilities and the limitation placed on them by general conditions, independent development, and functional interdependence. The divergent value judgments made of these criteria are the main reason for the debates among scholars about the significance and persuasiveness of the inferences they draw from comparisons.

Survey and Assessment

Current understanding of Paleolithic religion is essentially based on objects whose form and attributes themselves indicate religious or magical use or whose manner of deposition (burial, for example) or other contextual peculiarities suggests such a use, as well as on works of art whose content or situation reflects religious or magical meaning. For most of the Paleolithic (spatially as well as temporally) there are no such objects or artworks. Traces of these increase in Europe and some neighboring regions in the last part of the Paleolithic period. Previously, and outside these areas, they are scarce. Only in the immediately preceding timethe Middle Paleolithic (back to about 100,000 years ago)does one find oneself on somewhat reliable ground.

The Middle Paleolithic

This discussion begins with finds from the Middle Paleolithic and not with the oldest finds, for one can make some useful statements about this period, especially on the basis of burials. In this context are human beings known as the Neanderthals. Because of their external appearance, Neanderthals were initially regarded as incapable of religious ideas, unlike the more recent Homo sapiens. But the picture of these early human beings has since changed substantially.

Neanderthal skeletons often exhibit severe injuries, but for the most part researchers are not able to say with certainty whether they resulted from fights and battles. Some of the head injuries had healed; others were evidently fatal, and the hipbone of a man from a site on Mount Carmel (Israel) apparently has been pierced by some lancelike object. Not a few Neanderthals survived not only wounds but also numerous illnesses. This was apparent also from the skeleton of the original Neanderthalthe find that gave the Neanderthals their namewho despite numerous afflictions had reached the age of fifty or so, a very advanced age for his time. Evidence of illnesses is also observable in other finds, especially that of an elderly Neanderthal at Shanidar (Iraq) who was probably blind from childhood and whose right forearm had been amputated. He had survived a number of illnesses and injuries, something possible only if he enjoyed the protection and care of a community, although he was probably of little economic value to it. There is no way of knowing whether this man had other abilities and knowledge that might have made him a respected member of the group. In any case, this instance, as well as others, indicates that Neanderthals were by no means the crude savages they are sometimes made out to be but lived in a kind of community in which not only the law of the jungle and economic utility carried weight.

Burials also provide evidence of the same situation. The dead are typically found with their legs slightly flexed, usually in elongated pits; in some Near Eastern finds, however, the dead are in a tightly crouched position, as though they had been forced down into narrow holes. With some regularity they are laid on an east-west axis, usually with the head to the east and, in the majority of cases, the body lying on its right side. It is not always possible to say with certainty whether animal bones and tools found near the corpse were burial gifts.

Noteworthy, however, is the little cemetery at La Ferrassie (France) where three fine stone artifacts, suited for adults, were found in the grave of three children, including a newborn or stillborn infant. Tools of the same kind were also found with adults, and some sites have yielded pits containing animal bones and artifacts, as well as reddish fragments. For example, the head of an elderly man found at La Chapelle aux Saints (France) was covered with large plates made of bone; his body was surrounded by pieces of jasper and quartz and fragments of a red material.

There are other instances in which the deadand especially their heads, which were often protected by stoneswere partly surrounded by large bones. For example, the grave of an approximately eight-year-old boy at Teshik-Tash in the foothills of the Tian Shan (Kyrgyzstan) was surrounded by a circle of horns. The corpse of a man found in the cave of Shanidar was surrounded by blossoms of flowers that are almost all used as curatives in popular medicine today. (Although graves containing flowers may have been more numerous, only one example has been discovered, thanks to a fortunate combination of circumstances and to modern investigative techniques.)

In all these cases are found clear signs that Neanderthals took care of their fellow human beings. The burial gifts really leave no reasonable doubt that the dead were thought to continue to live in some manner. This belief explains why objects were buried along with the dead, to be used in the future; even children were provided with objects that they certainly could not have used during their lifetime. What particular shape these general ideas took one cannot say. It can at least asserted, however, that the Neanderthals had an understanding of death and had somehow come to grips with it.

In the cemetery at La Ferrassie, a skull of a child was found in a burial pit about a meter away from the skeleton. Isolated skulls were also found elsewhere. In a cave on Monte Circeo, about a hundred kilometers southeast of Rome (Italy), a Neanderthal skull was found on the surface of the cave floor, with the basal opening (which had evidently been widened artificially) facing upward; it was surrounded by a circle of stones, and nearby there were three heaps of auroch and deer bones. The basal openings of most of the numerous skulls found in isolationsome from an even earlier periodare believed to have been artificially enlarged, probably to facilitate removal of the brain. This practice was probably connected with the consciousness of death and may indicate a special relationship between the living and the dead; researchers are not in a position, however, to hypothesize about the particulars of these ideas and activities.

In the burial site at Regourdou near Montignac (France), the skull and some other bones of a brown bear were found under a large block of stone. There are also reports of finds, not associated with human burials, of individual skulls of bears, especially of the great cave bear, together with some long bones. Stone chests containing the vertebrae of the neck still attached to the skulls were reportedly found in a few caves in Switzerland, but these finds are poorly documented and uncertain. Nonetheless it would not be wise to completely doubt the validity of these finds, as many do.

The specific meaning of such finds is again unclear. Perhaps they represent simple sacrifices of the especially important parts of the prey; perhaps Neanderthal hunters, like those of a later period, buried the bones in order to ensure the survival of the animals and their species. Such a theory may explain why parts of the skull, backbone, and long bones of a bovine were placed under a great stone at the entrance of the above-mentioned cave at La Chapelle.

The Lower Paleolithic

All in all, researchers find clear indications that the people of the Middle Paleolithic were concerned with the phenomenon of death and with existence in another world. Some of their practices display no secular meaning but, like burial rites, show a commitment to certain binding customs.

Hominids from the Lower Paleolithic period, who date as far back as over a half million years ago, have skulls with primitive proportions and generally smaller brains than modern man. These characteristics led some researchers to doubt that these hominids were capable of achievements comparable with those of human beings from later periods. But objective findings show that the way of life of these hominids must on the whole have been the same as that of the Neanderthals. Occasionally researchers have found shelters from the Lower Paleolithic that are superior to those of the Middle Paleolithic, although they have assumed, probably with justification, that the lack of such dwellings in later times should be attributed to the unfavorable conditions of preservation.

The opposite argument has been used to explain the lack of some kinds of finds from the Lower Paleolithic, especially the absence of burials. In fact, however, even burials from the Middle Paleolithic are found only in restricted areas and in caves. Because Lower Paleolithic archaeological finds have rarely been unearthed in caves, it is not surprising that researchers should know of no burials in caves dating from that period. It is not known whether the hominids of the Lower Paleolithic may have buried their dead elsewhere; if they did, perhaps the evidence has simply vanished. The spiritual background and ideas that can be inferred from burials may well have existed even if they have not manifested themselves in burials.

Skulls from the Lower Paleolithic, like those from the Middle Paleolithic, are often found in isolation, as with Java men, for example. Some of these as well as some of the skulls found at the site of Peking man have a basal opening that seems to have been artificially widened. Far more skulls, and especially tops of skulls, were found than other parts of the skeleton, suggesting that the skulls were buried apart from the rest of the body. (The fact that in some strata the skulls were found in no particular order as well as mingled with animal bones has led some to hypothesize that cannibalism was practiced. If so, the cannibalism must have been carried out elsewhere and the skulls and a few other bones subsequently brought to the site. But the bones could have just as well been brought to the site without cannibalism entering the picture.) The only thing researchers can say is that the skulls probably received special treatment and were deposited apart. As no convincing secular explanation of the phenomenon has been offered, it should simply be assumed that there existed practices in which the skull played a special role that transcended the life of the individual in question.

There are no similar indications for the earliest Paleolithic, which began at least two million years ago, perhaps even earlier. Yet even sites from this time have yielded artificial stone tools that are at least as complex as those of Peking man, as well as smashed and, in various places, collected bones of animals. Some finds from this period also suggest the presence of huts or shelters from the wind. Were these finds from a later date, no one would doubt such an interpretation. But because the hominids of the earliest Paleolithic had a very small brain, some researchers think that the archaeological finds of the period are not to be interpreted as they would be if they belonged to later human beings. (Although biological factors and archaeological evidence points to the existence of communities made up of small groups of nuclear families, many scholars think they should not assume that such "human" characteristics existed during the earliest Paleolithic.) If other explanations of these early finds are sought (they are not very convincing), it is for two reasons: The finds are very old and doubtless simple, and the hominids of that period were physically "more primitive" than Peking man or the Neanderthals. Whether these are persuasive reasons may be left unanswered for the moment, but it will be important for a general assessment of these early hominids.

The Upper Paleolithic

The people of the Upper Paleolithic are equal to present-day humans in physical appearance, and they are therefore given the same name, Homo sapiens. People of this time were still living as hunters and gatherers. Only in the course of the later Upper Paleolithic are more definite signs of specialization, differentiation, and an accumulation of cultural possessions to be seen. As an example is mentioned only the pronounced presence of personal ornaments, which are also to be found in graves. This fact differentiates the people of the Upper Paleolithic from those of the Middle Paleolithic, but it does not necessarily indicate any substantial distinction between them. Only rarely do individual dead persons seem to have been given more special attention than others.

Of special interest is the grave of a powerfully built man found at Brno (Czechoslovakia) and dating from the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. A great deal of red material was used for the burial; near the skull were over six hundred cut, tubelike fossil mollusks (Dentalium badense ). A find of particular importance at this site, however, is the only certainly masculine figurine thus far known from the Upper Paleolithic; it is distinguished by other characteristics as well. In addition, the grave contained two stone rings of a kind previously known from only a very few examples; perhaps all of them were connected with graves. Furthermore, the grave at Brno is the only one in which a large number of round disks made of stone, bone, and ivory have been found. Thus there are a number of objects that are rarely found elsewhere or at least rarely or never appear in graves (the anthropomorphic figurine, for example). It is hard not to think that the interred man was involved in some capacity with cultic or magical things.

The most important sources of information about religion during the Upper Paleolithic are works of art. Although the well-known paintings and drawings on the walls and roofs of caves are expressive, they do not display a great wealth of motifs. They primarily depict animals and only rarely, and then most often crudely, represent human beings. In many instances, moreover, the humans are not presented simply as humans but with animal attributes or as hybrid human-animal forms. Only a small number of the animals are depicted as prey, as indicated by the projectiles being thrown at them. Many anthropomorphic figures with animal attributes are regarded as masked dancers or sorcerers, but a good number are better described as composite figures. In any case, masking cannot be seen in images of animals that combine the attributes of various animals without any anthropomorphic element. There are even strange pictures for which no models could have been found in the fauna of the time. In many cases certain species predominate, but for the most part they are not the ones also found in the correlative strata of cultural relics.

A good deal of emphasis has been put on the fact that two species of animals or two groups of species frequently predominate in the pictures of a cave, but this dualism is by no means as clearly marked as is sometimes claimed. (At least there is no convincing evidence of a contrast between male and female.) At least as important is the fact that the pictures are generally unrelated to one another and that one will often cover and ruin another so that it has been possible to speak exaggeratedly of pictures being "consumed." By and large, it is the animal or, more rarely, an anthropomorphic being that is the focus of the artist's interest. The pictures are often drawn in parts of the caves that are dark and far from the entrances and, less frequently, in more accessible places. In some cases the old entrance has been blocked by a kind of stone wall. Often it is possible to view the pictures only with difficulty. Everything militates against the view that this is l'art pour l'art, "art for art's sake."

The pictures represent, above all, the essential character of the animal, sometimes in relation to the hunt, sometimes in relation to human beings or to anthropomorphic figures, especially when the latter show a mergence of human and animal forms. Animals clearly played an extremely important part in the mental world of these hunters, insofar as this world is reflected in their art. One may probably assume that to a certain extent the artworks mirror the real role of animals; they probably point even more clearly, however, to the special evaluation of animals and of certain species in particular. Paintings in which humans and animal forms and attributes are depicted together and in which the forms and attributes of various animal species are portrayed show the close connection between the animal world and other spheres of life.

It is probable that researchers are dealing, at least in principle, with a manifestation similar to one that still characterizes the mental world of numerous more developed hunting cultures. Central to this "animalism" are close relations between animals and humans and a heightened importance of the animal world even outside and above the natural realms. The animalist outlook is fleshed out and developed in ways that often differ widely in their details. Thus one often finds the notion of the animal as tutelary spirit and alter ego, the idea that human and animal forms are easily and often interchanged, and the idea of a higher being who is thought to have an animal shape or to be capable of changing and combining shapes and who is regarded as a kind of lord of animals, hunters, and the hunting grounds, as well as of the spirits of game and of the bush. Such zoomorphic higher beings are often group progenitors and culture heroes and appear also as mediators and as hypostases and personifications of a supreme god. In short, animalism is a widely found and dominant manifestation and yet, by its very nature, it should be seen as a lower or marginal sphere of religion, one that is frequently interspersed with other motifs and attitudes, including those of a magical type.

Because paintings and objects can be put in the service of both religion and magic, it is difficult and often impossible to distinguish between these two purposes. There is, however, no reason to regard rock paintings solely as instruments of magic. (This assumption arose when the study of Paleolithic art was in its infancy. The paintings were then regarded primarily as evidence of totemism; totemism, in turn, was seen as a manifestation of the magical mentality.) Researchers have no way of knowing which of the many possible uses was actually intended for Paleolithic painting.

A number of paintings of bears show peculiarities of one kind or another and occur in an unusual context. They may well have played a part in bear ceremonialism. Here the slain or to-be-slain bear is at the center of various rituals in which it is treated as a guest to whom respect is due or as an ancestor or mythical forefather. The climax of a festive meal is often the consumption of the bear's brain; the skull and long bones or even the entire skeleton are buried. Perhaps the bones and skulls of bears found at Paleolithic sites are to be interpreted along similar lines. Contemporary hunting peoples frequently bury parts of their prey to ensure a resuscitation of the animal and the preservation of its species. The deeper meaning of this ritual, however, is that it probably mystically returns the bear to the lord of the animals.

Bones of other animals are also occasionally found in circumstances indicating an intentional deposition that cannot be explained in secular terms. At some sites parts of reindeer have been discovered: head, neck, and the front part of the trunk, including the forelegs. A small scratch-drawing found at one site might depict a similar ceremony using a bovine. A deposition containing these parts of the skeleton was also found at the earlier-mentioned cave of La Chapelle. Once again, there is no way of determining whether there was a real sacrifice.

The significance of a painting of a birdlike man in the cave of Lascaux (France) has been much debated. The correct interpretation is probably that the picture depicts a man in a trance. His birdlike head and the bird shown on a pole may represent a shaman and a helping spirit. Anthropomorphic figures with the heads of birds may be interpreted similarly. The figurines of birds that have been found at sites in eastern Europe and Siberia and that were apparently nailed or hung remind observers of parts of a shaman's clothing. Other pictures may likewise depict shamansfor example, the drawing of the so-called Sorcerer of Les Trois Frèresbut here as in most cases other interpretations are also possible.

Whether small scratch-drawings from the early Upper Paleolithic can be interpreted as pubic triangles or vulvas is uncertain. Only later do the so-called Venus figures make their appearance. These are distinguished for the most part by their ample bodies and large breasts, which perhaps indicate pregnancy in some cases; there is no special emphasis on the primary sexual characteristics. Most of the figures do not have feet, and their arms, which are always very thin, often display decorative bracelets. Frequently, too, care has been taken to represent the style of hair or a head covering, whereas the face is not developed at all. The emphasis is clearly on the areas of the body connected with pregnancy, birth, and nursing. It is reasonable therefore to assume that these little figures are associated with the idea of fertility, but this need not be their only significance. The fact that the figures always appear in dwellings or camps may indicate that they were protectors of dwellings. Even today there is frequently found, among peoples of the Northern Hemisphere, the idea of a higher feminine being who is, among other things, a mother or mistress of the animals, a divinity of the underworld (to which a shaman travels on his journey), a helper in the hunt and a provider of prey, a mistress of the land, of other regions, and of the powers of nature. But here again researchers cannot tie themselves down to details and specific traits. In the figures and scratch-drawings of a later period it is usually possible to conclude only indirectly that women are intended. Sexual characteristics often no longer play any part in these figures, but there is a great deal of emphasis on the buttocks. Whether these figures have the same meaning as the Venus figures is an open question. But perhaps the feminine need not always be expressed in such an extreme way.

Many other questions about religion during the Paleolithic remain mysterious and unexplained. Current knowledge covers only a small part of what once existed. It is clear enough, however, that one must rule out any attempt to impose a single general explanation on everything. Nonetheless, it also seems clear that animals and shapes with animal attributes, on the one hand, and a female principle, on the other, often played a part in the mental and spiritual world of the Paleolithic and fit in with the peculiar character of a world of gatherers and specialized hunters.

Theories about Paleolithic Religion

Finds from the Upper Paleolithic period, though relatively rich and potentially informative when compared with those of previous periods, surely reflect only a small part of the religious phenomena of the time. It is not even known whether the finds lead to the heart of the religion in question or simply represent marginal and secondary manifestations of it. Observations and conclusions about the Middle Paleolithic are much scantier; they are especially important, however, because here one leaves the world of human beings who are "modern" in their physical appearance and yet still finds clues pointing to ideas of a world beyond this one and to precise customs connected with such concepts. If one goes still farther back in time, the archaeological picture becomes more obscure. On the one hand, the conditions needed for the preservation and discovery of relics and traces of religious activities are much less favorable; on the other hand, one finds no break in the continuity of material remains that can be compared with the break between the Middle and the Upper Paleolithic in Europe. Any claim of division that separates later periods from an era in which religious ideas and activities were impossible is arbitrary. In this matter researchers are simply groping in the dark.

It may be asked whether early human beings possessed a religion, or it may even be asserted that a being, regardless of his appearance, who does not possess some form of religion cannot be regarded as truly human. (Humanity could also be determined by the development of language and other indicators.) The question becomes more pragmatic if one does not make religion the sole criterion for humanity but seek to discover whether there are other material manifestations pointing to a psyche, of a kind that allows researchers to infer some degree of what is specifically human and justifies their speaking of human beings in the true meaning of the word. In any event, the statement that early human beings did or did not possess a religion is an eminently anthropological one. But behind it, as behind all anthropological statements, lie fundamental anthropological assumptions.

The position researchers take on the question of early religion depends not least on their picture of early human beings. Some interpreters regard the earliest stone artifacts as evidence of low intelligence and a primitive mentality; nothing else, they claim, could be expected given the small brain of the hominids of that time. Others, however, will point out that stone artifacts indicate a mediated relation to nature, such as is characteristic of human beings, and reveal that these early hominids had human insight into the nature of things. This second group of researchers is therefore inclined to regard even the early hominids as fully human in principle, although they had not yet fully evolved in every respect and would undergo further developments. In any case, the earliest archaeological finds are such that they fit without difficulty into the picture of a group of hunters and gatherers of the Homo sapiens type. (The main argument to the contrary, whether or not it is expressed, is that early hominid toolmakers differed physically from modern man; in particular their brain was smaller and had different proportions from the brain of Homo sapiens. No one, however, is in a position to say what size and form a brain must have to develop religious ideas.)

These divergent points of view then become the basis on which other matters and questions are discussed and interpreted. For example, some researchers (who, in the final analysis, belong to the evolutionist tradition of the nineteenth century) think they must deny that early humans had permanent nuclear families, the basic form of human society. Scholars differ even more on whether beliefs in psychic phenomena and other forms of religion existed among early human beings.

In this type of discussion it is all too easy to forget that in dealing with other aspects of the early period, much is postulated that is not directly documented by finds. (For example, some scholars believe that at least half a million years ago human beings crossed parts of the Mediterranean where there was no land bridge and must therefore have had some kind of craft, although no remains of these have been found.) It is necessary in particular to avoid taking the simplicity of stone tools as the measure of everything else. For example, in the site at Huaca Prieta (Peru), equally primitive stone tools coexist later than 3000 bce with cultivated plants and textiles. If one were to adopt that criterion, the presence of very simple stone tools in "more developed" cultures from later periods would almost certainly lead to erroneous judgments.

Two basic judgments on the nature of early human beings are thus possible; neither of them can be strictly demonstrated nor strictly refuted. So, too, are there two basic attitudes that can be adopted toward the question of early religion. One current view is that early human beings possessed no religion initially and only at a late date gradually moved beyond "low" conceptions of the supernatural and ascended to the level of "authentic" religion. Others, on the contrary, believe that the possession of some form of religion is a universal human trait. According to this position, if early hominids show human traits in the areas accessible through archaeological finds, they probably practiced some form of religion. No theory on the nature and development of the religion of early human beings can be based directly on these finds; all are hypotheses developed on the basis of later phenomena. The question in every case is whether the archaeological evidence from the Paleolithic can provideand does providematerial grounds for these theories.

The nature and reciprocal relationship of religion and magic have played an important part in these discussions. Because the Upper Paleolithic was at one time widely regarded as a period in which belief in magic predominated, it was thoughtand still is in many quartersthat researchers had a fixed point to which they could refer. To the extent that magic was considered to be an early form or a forerunner of authentic religion, the development of genuine religious forms could only have begun at a later time.

Another view, however, holds that belief in a personal god who creates and preserves the world and its order is the earliest and original form of religion; magic, according to this position, is a secondary form of religion and a product of decadence. To the extent that this view recognizes the special importance of magic in the Upper Paleolithic, it also sees authentic religion as having begun at a correspondingly earlier date. It is extremely unlikely, however, that magic occupied such a great role that it can be considered a stage in the development of religion, whether it is seen as a precursor to religion or as a degenerative form. However religion (in the strict sense) and magic are conceived and defined in detail, the two should be viewed as different types of attitudes toward the supernatural. Although these two attitudes are opposed, they are not always strictly distinguishable, with one capable of acquiring greater importance when the other regresses. When circumstances allow, both magic and religion use the same "artifacts," so that it is often impossible to distinguish between them at the archaeological level.

Even if one accepts that early human beings had a religion, a further question must be posed: Are there forms of religion that they could not have possibly had? It must be acknowledged that there is usually a close association between certain special manifestations of religion and the general conditions in which people live; the model on which society is actually based plays a part in determining it conceptions of the supernatural. Among simple hunters and gatherers who live in small and essentially egalitarian groups, there will hardly be a place for a proper hierarchy of divinities such as is found in hierarchically ordered civilizations.

These differences are in fact only differences of expression. This author does not see, however, why any of the fundamental religious categories cannot be ascribed to early humanity when one is trying to assess him as homo religiosus. In this area the criterion of early humanity's simplicity is sometimes invokedbut then one may ask: Is not the concrete and the personal more congenial to a simple mentality than abstractions of any kind? And if so, will not simple societies of hunters and gatherers, who are trying to achieve a basic understanding of things and processes for which they see no real explanation but on which they nonetheless depend, tend to think of personal supernatural beings (divinities) instead of more abstract powers and forces?


General surveys of prehistory, including religion, can be found in my Urgeschichte der Kultur (Stuttgart, 1961) and in my Handbuch der Urgeschichte, vol. 1, Ältere und mittlere Steinzeit: Jäger- und Sammlerkulturen (Bern, 1966).

For early surveys of prehistory that assert the agnosticism of early humans, see John Lubbock's Pre-Historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages (London, 1865) and Gabriel de Mortillet's Le préhistorique: Antiquité de l'homme, 2d ed. (Paris, 1885). Contrasting views regarding the religious thought of early man can be found in Thomas Lucien Mainage's Les religions de la préhistoire: L'âge paléolithique (Paris, 1921); Johannes Maringer's De Godsdienst der Praehistorie (Roermond en Masseik, 1952), translated by Mary Ilford as The Gods of Prehistoric Man (New York, 1960); and my "Approaches to the Religion of Early Paleolithic Man," History of Religions 4 (Summer 1964): 122. Mainage's book is still the essential work in this area, Maringer's discussion follows the view of the Vienna school, and my essay attempts a general evaluation.

The meaning and content of Paleolithic art are discussed in the following works.

Leroi-Gourhan, André. Art et religion au paléolithique supérieur. 2d ed. Paris, 1963.

Leroi-Gourhan, André. Préhistoire de l'art occidental. Paris, 1965. Translated by Norbert Guterman as The Art of Prehistoric Man in Western Europe (London, 1968). A dualistic interpretation in the sexual sense.

Narr, Karl J. "Bärenzeremoniell und Schamanismus in der Älteren Steinzeit Europas." Saeculum 10 (1959): 233272.

Narr, Karl J. "Weibliche Symbol-Plastik der älteren Steinzeit." Antaios 2 (July 1960): 132157.

Narr, Karl J. "Sentido del arte Paleolitico." Orbis Catholicus: Revista Iberamericana Internacional 4 (1961): 197210.

Narr, Karl J. "Felsbild und Weltbild: Zu Magie und Schamanismus im jungpaläolithischen Jägertum." In Sehnsucht nach dem Ursprung, edited by Hans P. Duerr, pp. 118136. Frankfurt, 1983.

Reinach, Salomon. "L'art et la magie: À propos des peintures et des gravures de l'âge du renne." L'anthropologie 14 (1903): 257266. Starting from totemistic interpretation and asserting magic meaning.

Ucko, Peter J., and Andrée Rosenfeld. Palaeolithic Cave Art. New York, 1967. A critical review, neglecting animalism.

New Sources

Burkert, Walter. "The Problem of Ritual Killing." In Violent Origins, pp. 149176. Stanford, Calif., 1987.

Dickson, D. Bruce. The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe. Tucson, 1990.

Leroi-Gourhan, André. Les Religions de la préhistoire: paléolithique. Paris, 1986.

Talalay, Lauren E., and Richard Handler. "The Present in the Past: Archaeological Objectivity and Interpetation of Stone Age Figurines." American Journal of Archaeology 90 (April 1986): 185.

Young, Dudley. Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War. New York, 1991.

Karl J. Narr (1987)

Translated from German by Matthew J. O'Connell
Revised Bibliography

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