Anthropologists called it "primitive" religion, but "primitive" was considered a derogatory designation. "Primal" religion began to be used – and still is by some, but the encyclopedia Wikipedia uses "prehistoric" or "Paleolithic" religion.
The word "religion" itself needs some clarification. Wikipedia describes it as "a cultural system of behaviors and practices, worldviews, ethics, and social organization that relate humanity to an order of existence." University scholars like to start their discussion of religion with archaeological evidence, and as D. Bruce Dickenson writes in The Dawn of Belief, "Archaeology is a discipline obsessed with things." My interest is more with ancient peoples attempting to understand, explain and get by in their world as best they can.
Turning first to knowledge of religion from archaeology, the oldest known ritual burial of modern humans dates from 80,000 to 100,000 years ago in a cave at Qafzeh in what today is Israel (involving hunter-gatherers not to be confused with ancient Jewish people). And 40,000 or so years later in Europe there elaborate burials of the dead. In these burials, archaeologists found figurines they thought might represent a fertility goddesses, and they found cave art they believe contained religious significance. Also, 30,000 years ago, according to Wikipedia, archaeologists found the "earliest known burial of a shaman," a woman. (A shaman is someone who acts as an intermediary between living people and the spiritual world)."
Turning to the mindset of common people before there was science or rigorous thinking that could be called philosophy, people were assuming that things that moved did so, not from an external force but from a will within. Physical forces acting on anything was something of science that would come later. The sun moved across the sky because it had a will of its own, just as they, the observers had will (anthropomorphism). Will was spirit. Humans had a spirit and the sun was a spirit. There was lots of movement and many spirits. It was polytheistic. The moon was a spirit. The ants were little gods moving as they wished to move, not just responding to their biology.) Tides were the work of the spirit of the sea. Birds were spirits that could hang on the air rather than fall to the ground because they will it.
Early humanity didn't differentiate to an extent that people of science would. They didn't differentiate between the animate and inanimate. They believed that if they ate the flesh of a strong beast they might acquire its spirit, or if they ate a portion of the body of a leader who had died they might acquire his special qualities. A body went lifeless because its spirit had left for the place where those who die go. When people saw their reflection on water they thought they were seeing their spirit. People might see lines on a rock as the face of a dead relative and consider the rock as housing a spirit of a dead that relative that had moved into the rock.
Not understanding their reflection on a surface of water – created by light waves – people assumed that what they were seeing of themselves was not an image but their actual spirit. (Into the 20th-century, people in pre-industrial indigenous societies would object to being photographed, believing that the foreigner with the camera was taking possession of their spirit.)
People didn't believe in waiting for more information before making conclusions. That would come later with scientific methodology. Every society had its stories, without recognition of a difference between fact and fantasy. Storytellers were free to imagine and innovate. There was no written account to refer to for consistency. Every society had a creation story, and there were stories that explained things going bad, stories of evil and dread, stories about demons which produced more excitement than stories without danger.
Rather than believing in physical causation, people believed that everything happened through the power of magic. And people believed that they too had the power of magic. Japan's aborigines, the Ainu, tried to win favor from their god with a magical offering, and if the god didn't respond they might withhold the offering until it did. Sacrifices were attempts at magic – sending the spirit of an animal or human to a god by killing it.
To protect against demons one might wear a pendant made from a small stone, or perhaps a piece of copper thinned by pounding.
An early form of religious ritual was an attempt at magic through imitation – such as painting a face on the belly of a pregnant woman in hope that it would encourage birth. There were the rituals of fasting or trances that were believed to invoke the magic needed to be a good hunter or warrior. In hunter-gatherer societies, shamans strutted, danced and made shouting noises to advertise their powers. Some shamans claimed magical healing powers. In some hunter-gatherer societies the person of greatest influence was a shaman.
In contrast to demonic spirits, people saw the most powerful of spirits as having supplied them with what they needed to survive and as having their interests at heart. In his book The Forest People, Colin Turnbull wrote of the Mbuti Pygmies in central Africa as seeing themselves dependent upon their forest. The referred to the spirit of the forest as a parent – a provider. No authoritarian supreme being ready with punishments, If things were not going well the Mbuti believed that their Forest Spirit must be sleeping, and through ritual they tried to awaken it.
CONTINUE READING: Beginning Civilization and Religion in China
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.