THE BIRTH OF GODS IN THE NEOLITHIC
A Response to the Ideas of Jacques Cauvin
" 'Creation of the Man' by Prometheus, 4th-c.CE Roman sarcophagus. Marble."
When I read about this theory I was intrigued because -- without knowing about his work -- four years ago in 2013, I had written that another revolution of thought had occurred perhaps 50,000 years ago during the Paleolithic old-stone-age caveman era. And I believe it was this revolution that has determined our way of life ever since then.
This is the central idea that has guided and propelled human culture and civilization ever since. This idea allowed us to create agriculture in the Neolithic era and to send rockets to the moon in the 20th century. This idea was true for shamanistic religions, for polytheism and monotheism and is also true for science today. In fact it is the cornerstone of science.
Like Cauvin, I think this belief came first. So at the beginning of this period of development, humankind needed to believe the spirits were knowable. This faith then led to increased skills and knowledge. All of this was motivated by a basic animal instinct, the instinct for survival. Gaining knowledge and power meant that humans would have a better chance of surviving.
In 1994 French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin published his masterwork The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. Writing about the transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic, he put forward a radical idea. He claimed that before the Neolithic Revolution could occur and before agriculture could change the life of humans forever, there was a mental and psychological revolution, a "Revolution of the Symbols." He wrote that this thought-revolution had to occur first before the physical revolution of planting and domesticating animals came about, i.e., the Neolithic Revolution which led to cities and civilizations and the world we live in today.
He argued that this shift in thinking from nomadic hunter-gatherer Paleolithic peoples to agricultural sedentary Neolithic farmers had to do with a fundamental change in religious ideas. This new religion involved a conception of personalized anthropomorphic divinities that treated humans as special creatures, and so gave humans a different sense of themselves and their life on this Earth. Their relationship with these gods or God led to an understanding that humans were unique among the animals which then allowed humans to domesticate animals, to shape their own environment and in a sense to shape their own destiny. Humans identified with these gods and like the gods saw themselves as above nature. Humans believed the gods had given them power over nature so they could begin to shape and control natural forces. For example, if it did not rain, farmers learned to irrigate their crops.
27 God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.
New English Translation of the Bible
At the same time, this new relationship meant that humans also felt disconnected from the natural world that they had been a part of at the beginning of the Paleolithic era.
When Jacques Cauvin proposed this idea, it was startling. Archaeologists and researchers had all assumed that the Neolithic age began due to economic factors because farming seemed like the best strategy for survival.
Then in the same year that Cauvin's book came out, a major discovery seemed to confirm his ideas. A huge sophisticated pre-Neolithic complex in Turkey, called Gobekli Tepe, was found that had been buried for 11,000 years. After it was initially excavated, the evidence showed that it had been used by hunter-gatherers but contained huge straight, tall, finely finished stone columns and stone carvings of animals. All of this was crafted with stone tools. The quality of the workmanship was superb. Yet the people were not at the Neolithic point of development. The site appeared to be a religious gathering place that was used regularly by hunter-gatherers who did not live there. Klaus Schmidt, who was in charge of the archeological dig, said it was a "cathedral on a hill" and then later added "First came the temple, then the city," thus confirming Jacques Cauvin's principle idea.
When I recently came across these ideas of Jacques Cauvin, I was fascinated, because I had written blogs about the same subject. Many of my ideas were similar to his which I did not know at the time. My ideas are as follows.
Long before the Neolithic age, I believe there was an even more basic, fundamental shift in our symbols, one that happened early in our development, one that has determined our way of life and our fate ever since. And this change had to occur first before Cauvin's "Revolution of the Symbols" could take hold. In fact, Cauvin's theory of a shift to personalized divinities required the more fundamental shift that I wrote about. How did this happen? Read on.
19 The Lord God formed out of the ground every living animal of the field and every bird of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them, and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.
In most hunter-gatherer cultures:"There are invariably two temporal orders of existence, with an Early mythical or 'dreamtime' preceding the present. In the former, nature and culture are not yet fully separated. Out of this existence...crystallizes the distinction between humans and animals, even mortality itself, and virtually everything of cultural significance." Introduction: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERS
When homo sapiens sapiens evolved (meaning us modern humans) they/we were given a unique part of the brain that dealt with time. No other animal has this.
"This ability to hold on to a piece of information temporarily in order to complete a task is specifically human. [ED: my emphasis] It causes certain regions of the brain to become very active, in particular, the pre-frontal lobe. This region, at the very front of the brain, is highly developed in humans. It is the reason that we have such high, upright foreheads, compared with the receding foreheads of our cousins the apes. Hence it is no surprise that the part of the brain that seems most active during one of the most human of activities [ED: short-term memory] is located precisely in this prefrontal region that is well developed only in human beings."Perhaps the most extreme example of short-term memory is a chess master who can explore several possible solutions mentally before choosing the one that will lead to checkmate." SHORT-TERM MEMORY': McGill University, Montreal, Canada http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_07/d_07_cr/d_07_cr_tra/d_07_cr_tra.html
See my blog: Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of Time
I think it is quite possible that the human brain's unique ability to consider future actions in the short term became a model for time itself. This short-term understanding of time could have been developed and expanded through language and symbolism to include time in the long term. So the skill of considering whether to go right or left in the heat of a hunt could, over thousands of years, be extended to considering whether to go to the river or the mountains by the next full moon, for example.
The next three steps probably happened over and over and went around and around and back and forth. Which came first or which led to which is difficult to determine. I suspect that it was a what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg type of situation.
Because of our ability to perceive time, we began to see patterns.
I believe the human sense of time -- hundreds of thousands of years before civilization began -- gave us the edge as a species. Because without an ability to recall the past, we would not have the data necessary to discern a pattern. Before we could perceive patterns we had to have had a clear memory and a detailed understanding of what we had seen and experienced so we could connect the dots. Yet the combination of the two: a sophisticated understanding of time combined with a sophisticated perception of patterns, gave us a tremendous advantage.
There is another aspect to perceiving patterns. For example, knowing astronomical patterns gave humans predictive power. Once people saw a certain star(s) appear they learned to predict how the weather and seasons would change. This ability to predict the future gave humans a godlike power that no other animal had.
Symbolism and the beginnings of religion:
We know from burial evidence that humans were beginning to have religious thoughts as early as 100,000 years ago. Burial rites are often seen by anthropologists as a sign of religious rituals.
"The earliest undisputed human burial dates back 100,000 years. Human skeletal remains stained with red ochre were discovered in the Skhul cave and Qafzeh, Israel." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic_religionAt some point, perhaps around 50,000 years ago, there was a major shift in the way humans operated. Known as "symbolic culture" or the "human revolution," it referred to: The symbolic world of shared language and concepts that each one of us carries within us and is a creation of our culture.
"Symbolic culture is a domain of objective facts whose existence depends, paradoxically, on collective belief. [ED: such as money or marriage]
"Long before the late twentieth-century invention of the Internet, evolution allowed humans to flit between two realms, reality on the one hand, virtual reality on the other. Symbolic culture is an environment of virtual entities lacking counterparts in the real world."
"Symbolism was not an optional extra – life following the transition became fundamentally organized through symbols." (A summation of the thinking of Christopher Henshilwood and Ian Watts)
As the ability to work with symbols advanced, humans noticed more patterns and gained more control. When the ability to perceive patterns allowed humans to make predictions, a religious explanation often accompanied the observations. Science and religion were inseparable from the beginning. Knowing and celebrating the winter solstice was both an astronomical event and a religious time, for example.
As consciousness, language, and symbolism developed, humans became aware that they were quite different from all the other animals. They walked upright, they did not have fur, they used fire and tools and they spoke a language. As a result, they wondered why they were so distinct and more intelligent. My guess is that humans began to think of themselves as special and as having a special purpose. The development of religion helped explain why they were special and also the reason they were put on the Earth.
NOTE: This idea of being special was probably a feeling that was not well articulated in the beginning. However, around the time of the Neolithic, as Cauvin suggested, it burst into bloom and a fully developed mythology arose with powerful human-like divinities. It was believed that gods or God created human beings in their own image or acted as their guardians or mentors. See the Afterword in this blog.
"Monreale, Sicily: cathedral, mosaic of the creation of Adam"
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. Nicholas Wade https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_origin_of_religions
From what we know about recent and contemporary hunter-gatherers, the first religions were shamanistic. "A shaman is someone who is regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits..."
"Valentin Hagdaev - head shaman of Olkhon. Lake Baikal. Buryatia. Siberia"
All religions, from the very beginning, contained a fundamental assumption about the human relation to the gods or the spirit world.
The following underlying assumption has been part of religion and science and guided human development. This is the central idea that has propelled human culture and civilization ever since. This was true for shamanistic religions, for polytheism and monotheism and is also true for science today.
From the most 'primitive' beliefs to the most modern religions and science,
Other people may have different ideas about how and why this happened. I welcome additional models. But I believe my basic concept is sound.
Also I would like to add: Its been only about 350 years ago since science and religion were closely intertwined. The break between the two began in the 17th century. In 1661 the clear difference between chemistry and alchemy was elucidated in the book The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle. Newton's discovery of the precise laws of motion and gravity (published 1687) also spawned a very different idea of God, i.e., God the great watchmaker of the Universe.
Yet for thousands of years, scientific observations such as the motions of the planets and their identification with the gods were part of human thinking. For example, the ability to determine the exact time of the winter solstice was both an astronomical achievement and a time for religious celebrations. BTW this intertwining is still true today with Christmas in the West occurring just days after the winter solstice.
The star, top left, was the symbol for the goddess Ishtar -- see her picture next.
" 'Burney Relief' ...from about 1800-1750 BC."