In my last post, Hunters, the First Readers to Write a Story, I suggested that the first narrative went something like this: “A young deer passed this way.” Now I offer a story of the development of stories, the story of religion. (This will be a controversial one for some of you, so feel free to include your version in the comments below.)
Language and symbolic thought require brains. As hominids developed, brain size tripled, peaking about 500,000 years ago. Most of this growth took place in the neo-cortex, the part of brain where emotion, self-consciousness, and language happen. Social variables, such as group size and complexity of mating behaviors, determine the size of the neocortex. In chimpanzees, the neocortex is 50% of the brain, whereas in modern humans it takes up 80% of the brain. A study by Robin Dunbar “based on a regression analysis of neocortex size plotted against a number of social behaviors of living and extinct hominids” showed that it was only after the development of archaic homo sapiens (the Neandrathals) about 500,000 years that the neocortex was sufficiently large enough to support complex social phenomena such as language and religion.” Once we had a brain big enough, we began using symbolic forms of communications regularly to hunt, gather, and organize. We began to tell ourselves simple stories, but those stories got a lot more complicated when we realized we were going to die.
Stories come from God. And God comes from death. A young Neanderthal holding her mother’s dead body realized that she would also die one day. So she begins to tell the story of her dead mother, in tone, gestures, and simple words, to preserve her memory, to give her mother life after death, and to find a way to extend her own life and those of her children. The stories she began to tell led to the further development of language and became the real origins of story-telling. Story-telling back in the day was religion, music, dance, art and fashion all in one.
The earliest evidence of religion is the burial of the dead, something other animals don’t do. The oldest known burial was in Atapuerca, Sapin where thirty individuals, probably Homo heidelbergensis, were buried in a pit. Neanderthals buried their dead in shallow graves with stone tools and animal bones, often sprinkling the bodies with red ocher. Grave goods apparently indicate a belief in life after death, goods for the dead to use in the next life. Red ocher is still used extensively by hunter gatherer tribes, symbolizing blood, life, sex, and death.
Religion depends upon a systems of symbolic communication, such as art and language, in order to be transmitted from one individual to another. Science writer Nicholas Wade states: “Like most behaviors that are found in societies throughout the world, religion must have been present in the ancestral human population before the dispersal from Africa 50,000 years ago. Although religious rituals usually involve dance and music, they are also very verbal, since the sacred truths have to be stated. If so, religion, at least in its modern form, cannot pre-date the emergence of language. It has been argued earlier that language attained its modern state shortly before the exodus from Africa. If religion had to await the evolution of modern, articulate language, then it too would have emerged shortly before 50,000 years ago.”
Archeologist Steven Mithen says that religious and spiritual beliefs are commonly expressed through the use of symbolism. “Because supernatural beings violate the principles of the natural world, there will always be difficulty in communicating and sharing supernatural concepts with others. This problem can be overcome by anchoring these supernatural beings in material form through representational art. When translated into material form, supernatural concepts become easier to communicate and understand.”
Who were these supernatural beings? Animals and women. Women give birth. Since women were the ones to gather plants, they were the ones to notice that the earth gives birth to the plants and the animals. When things die, they return to the earth. So the goddess of life was also the goddess of death. The oldest religious statuettes were of women; venus figurines began appearing about 35,000 years ago. Male-dominated religions, in contrast, only showed up about 6000 years ago. Sorry guys. The story of stories is the story of religion and the story of religion is, first of all, a story of women coming to terms with birth and death.
Adapted from the Wikipedia article “Evolutionary Origin of Religions.”
Dunbar, Robin. “The Social Brain: Mind, Language, and Society in Evolutionary Perspective“. Annual Reviews. 2003: 32 163-81.
Lieberman, Philip. Uniquely Human. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Mithen, Stephen. “Symbolism and the Supernatural.” The Evolution of Culture. Ed. Robert Dunbar, Chris Knight and Camilla Power. Rutgers University Press, 1999.
Wade, Nicholas. Before The Dawn, Discovering the lost history of our ancestors. Penguin Books, London, 2006.