Prehistoric Religious Inclinations

Deductions about the religious beliefs and practices of prehistoric people rest largely on archaeological evidence. Grave goods and burial practices, carved figures, cave paintings, and designs on potshards may be the only scraps left of a rich and intricate cosmogony. Graves dating back more than 50,000 years indicate that burials were deliberate, which by itself may imply belief in an afterlife.

Whether bodies were interred to trap ghosts, show respect, or facilitate travel to another world is not known. The bodies of several Neanderthals buried in the Zagros Mountains of Iraq between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago were positioned and possibly buried with herbs and flowers. Other Neanderthal sites in Europe feature stacked bones of cave bears.

In France, Neanderthal bodies were sprinkled with red ocher and buried with tools. A lump of red ocher showing intentional scraping was found near burials in the Qafzeh Cave in Israel and is believed to be 90,000 years old. Alignment of the body with the Sun might have had ritual importance.

Red ocher may have represented blood or rebirth; grave goods including food, tools, and shell ornaments may have been stored for use in the afterlife or as status symbols. Modern interpretations of cave paintings, such as paintings some 17,000 years old at Lascaux, France, may have had great ritual and religious meaning but cannot be accurately interpreted today.

Ethnographic studies of tribal people in the recent past may shed light on the beliefs of ancient humans, but comparisons can also be misleading. Mircea Eliade saw parallels between the shamanism and trances of 20th-century hunters and pastoralists and those of the Paleolithic age implied in their art and artifacts.

Eliade, a historian of religion, posited that the difference between tribal and modern people is the perception of the entire world and time itself as a reflection of a sacred cosmos.

Within this view he linked early hunters, animism, and blood sacrifices to later aggressive military conquests. The growth of agriculture gave rise to new creation myths and a strong link between women, food, and ritual. Women controlled reproduction; lunar phases, seasonal renewals, and harvests all reflected feminine power.

By the time cities emerged in the Neolithic age religious statuary emphasized femininity and linked it with death and rebirth. Crones are often paired with birds of prey, and men with bulls or horned animals. Dancing and feasting have ritualized meanings, and masks are used in ceremonies.

The evidence of early beliefs are also fragmentary in that only a miniscule part of people’s art and iconography survived at all and only through fortuitous accidents. By 3000 b.c.e. the writings of Sumer, Egypt, and other lands describe a hierarchy of deities and formulas for their worship. Some of these formulas may have been handed down orally for centuries or millennia; others may have been new and innovative.