Spirituality and Symbolism in the Late Stone Age

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How the origins of ritual and religious thought could lie in the art and ritual of our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors of 10,000 – 40,000 years ago

The process of becoming human has indeed been slow and gradual. Early indications of self-awareness and what may be termed spirituality are seen first in Africa, and then in Europe and Australia.

And it is the Upper Palaeolithic, or Late Stone Age period in Europe of between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago has left an abundance of evidence for symbolic activities, such as direct representations of animals and other features of the natural world, personal adornments and elaborate burials, as well as other vestiges that are more abstract and cryptic, including possibilities of shamanism.

It was at this time that artistic sensibility bloomed with cave paintings, such as those at Lascaux and Grotte Chauvet in France, and at Altamira in Spain – petroglyphs and Venus figurines.

Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Types of Human

Could they have devolved from hallucinatory experiences perhaps caused by the ingestion of naturally occurring psychotropic, or entheogenic vegetative substances? How can we attempt to understand how consciousness differed between various types of human, such as Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, and shouldn’t that endeavour be given equal weight to the assessment of intelligence, as Professor David Lewis-Williams, of the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, has suggested?

The impressive Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture is the volume to turn to for enlightening essays from 15 internationally renowned scholars who explore the relationship between symbolism, spirituality and humanity in the prehistoric societies of Europe and traditional societies elsewhere, as behavioural modernity appeared, but prior to the advent of agriculture.

These essays help with the interpretation of prehistoric activities, and consider what they tell us about the beliefs and priorities of the people who carried them out, and how these behaviours relate to ideology, cosmology and an understanding of the world. The question of the emergence of ritual and religious thought is addressed, and how the activities of humans in prehistoric Europe compare with those of their predecessors discovered on that continent and elsewhere.

Cave Art as Roots of Ritual and Spirituality

Intriguingly, as Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley, the illustrious editors of this book point out in their introduction, the remarkable creative explosion which led to cave painting in Europe did not have a counterpart in Asia or the Americas, and so cannot be generalised as representing a stage in human cognitive and spiritual development. But it could indicate where the roots of ritual and spirituality lie.

Colin Renfrew is Senior Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, and formerly Disney Professor of Archaeology and Director of the McDonald Institute. Among his current research interests are the theory of archaeology, European prehistory (especially the Aegean), archaeological science (with particular interest in DNA and molecular genetics), and the origins of linguistic diversity.

Iain Morley is a Research Fellow of Darwin College and Fellow of the McDonald Institute. He lectures and tutors on human evolution and the evolution of human cognition for the BA degree in human sciences and the MSc degree in cognitive and evolutionary anthropology. His research interests focus on the Palaeolithic archaeology and evolutionary origins of musical, ritual and religious behaviours. He has excavated at a range of prehistoric and classical archaeology sites.