Prehistoric Religions: An Overview

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The term prehistory refers to the vast period of time between the appearance of humanity's early hominid ancestors and the beginning of the historical period. Since the invention of writing is used to mark the transition between prehistory and history, the date of this boundary varies greatly from region to region. The study of prehistoric religion, therefore, can refer to religious beliefs and practices from as early as 60,000 bce to almost the present day. Generally, however, the term prehistory is defined by its European application and hence refers to the period from the Paleolithic period, which occurred during the Pleistocene epoch, to the protohistoric Neolithic period and the Bronze and Iron ages.

The biases of a literate culture are apparent in the term. Clearly, a people's literacy bespeaks their accessibility by a literate culture, but it is not, as has often been assumed, an adequate criterion for determining intellectual or cultural depth and complexity. To divide human cultures by the single invention of writing suggests that literacy somehow marks a specific stage of mental development or a radical turning point within the development of human culture conceived of according to an evolutionary scheme. Neither such a radical break nor such an inevitable evolutionary development can, however, be demonstrated.

This division notwithstanding, it should be noted that prehistory is understood to be singularly human. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein quips, "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him." Wittgenstein is suggesting that language would not enable us to understand a "world," or perspective, that was so radically distinct in kind from our own. In contrast to Wittgenstein's lion, prehistoric humanity is regarded as understandable: a psychic unity between prehistorical and historical humanity is assumed. We believe that with sufficient evidence the prehistoric "world" can be grasped. The problem is accessibility, not difference in kind.

Access to a prehistoric culture, however, is highly problematic. And when one attempts to understand a phenomenon such as religion, the problem becomes acute. We understand religion primarily in terms of "language," that is, its principal characteristics are its interpretive meanings and valuations. The wordless archaeological remains of prehistoric religioncultic or ceremonial artifacts and sites, pictures and symbols, sacrificeshave provided limited access to the religious "language" of prehistoric cultures. For example, knowledge of how corpses were disposed during the Neolithic period does not reveal why they were so disposed. Consequently, even when there is clear evidence of a prehistoric religious practice, interpretation of the nature of prehistoric religions remains highly speculative and disproportionately dependent upon analogies to contemporary "primitive" cultures.

Our knowledge of prehistoric religion is therefore the product of reconstructing a "language" from its silent material accessories. Among the oldest material forms of cultic practice are burial sites, dating from the Middle Paleolithic. One can trace, from the Upper Paleolithic on, a growing richness and diversity of grave goods that reach extravagant proportions during the Iron Age. The practices of second burials, the burning of bodies, and the ritual disposition of skulls are also common. Megalithic graves date back to the Neolithic period. Despite the cultic implications of these massive stone constructions (e.g., ancestor cults), a uniform religious meaning remains undemonstrated.

Evidences of sacrifices from the Middle Paleolithic period in the form of varied quantities of animal bones near burial sites suggest offerings to the dead. Sacrificial traditions that were associated with game (e.g., bear ceremonialism) date back to the Upper Paleolithic. There is no evidence of human sacrifice prior to the Neolithic period, and hence this practice is associated with the transition from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agrarian culture and, consequently, with the domestication of plants and animals.

Prehistoric works of art dating back to the Paleolithic periodpaintings, drawings, engravings, and sculptureare the richest form of access to prehistoric religion. The primary subjects of these earliest examples of graphic art were animals; humans, rarely depicted, were often drawn with animal attributes. The intimate and unique role of animals in the physical and mental lives of these early hunter-gatherers is clearly demonstrated. (This role is also evidenced in the sacrificial traditions.) Though some form of animalism is suggested, the religious significance of these animal figures is difficult to interpret.

Shamanistic practices are also reflected in this art, especially in the paintings of birds and of animals that have projectiles drawn through their bodies. Common in prehistoric sculpture is the female statuette. Although frequently related to fertility, these figurines are open to numerous interpretations of equal plausibility (e.g., spirit abodes, ancestor representations, house gods, as well as spirit rulers over animals, lands and other physical or spiritual regions, hunting practices, and natural forces).

It is unlikely that we shall ever be able adequately to interpret the "language" of prehistoric religion. The material evidence is too scarce and the nature of religious phenomena too complex. There is, however, a meaning in these wordless fragments that is itself significant for any study of religion. The power and depth of these silent archaeological remains cause one to recognize the limitation of written language as a purveyor of religious meaning. The connections one is able, however tenuously, to draw between the evidences of religious life among prehistoric peoples and the beliefs and practices of their descendants address the conditions that have inspired human beings, from our beginnings, to express our deepest selves in art and ritual.

See Also

Animals; Funeral Rites; Lord of the Animals; Neolithic Religion; Paleolithic Religion; Sacrifice.


Breuil, Henri, and Raymond Lantier. The Men of the Old Stone Age: Palaeolithic and Mesolithic (1965). Translated by B. B. Rafter. Reprint, Westport, Conn., 1980.

James, E. O. The Beginnings of Religions: An Introductory and Scientific Study (1948). Reprint, Westport, Conn., 1973.

Jensen, Adolf E. Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples. Translated by Marianna T. Choldin and Wolfgang Weissleder. Chicago, 1963.

Levy, Gertrude R. The Gate of Horn: A Study of the Religious Conceptions of the Old Stone Age (1948). Reprint, New York, 1963.

Maringer, Johannes. The Gods of Prehistoric Man. Translated and edited by Mary Ilford. New York, 1960.

Ucko, Peter J. Anthropomorphic Figurines of Predynastic Egypt and Neolithic Crete. London, 1968.

Mary Edwardsen (1987)

James Waller (1987)

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Prehistoric Religions: An Overview

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