Earliest Evidence of Religious Beliefs

Ritual cave art -- a Paleolithic bison painted on a wall in Altamira, Spain.
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Pinpointing the first signs of religious stirrings in human civilization is tricky because every culture seems to have left behind grave rituals, totems, paintings, carvings and other evidence of a belief in the supernatural. New archaeological discoveries push back the dates when humans or their predecessors created religious concepts and sacred rites. Not surprising, divine worship in Africa predates the known spiritual inclinations of other cultures.

1 Stories in Stone

The oldest evidence of a space dedicated to ritual appeasing or supplicating a spirit or deity is in Botswana, in the Tsodilo Hills. Norwegian archaeologists discovered a python-shaped rock on a cave wall that appeared to have been carved to highlight its resemblance to the snake. Artifacts and carving tools unearthed near the python date from about 70,000 years ago. There was no evidence of human settlement at the site -- leading researchers to conclude that it was a place reserved for veneration. The Tsodilo Hills are still sacred to the indigenous San people, or Bushmen, who believe they are the home of the gods and that humans descended from the sacred python. The discovery indicates that prehistoric Africans performed advanced religious rituals requiring sophisticated organization and abstract thinking a full 30,000 years before similar developments in Europe.

2 Caves and Graves

Graves provide direct confirmation of a culture's belief in an afterlife. Grave goods are included with corpses -- mummified, confined in coffins or laid simply into the ground -- to show the rank or profession of the deceased and to provide utilitarian value in the underworld. In Vietnam, the Con Moong Cave holds Paleolithic stone tools and the remains of four people who lived more than 10,000 years ago. Cave art is even more compelling. In southern France and northern Spain, Neanderthal-era humans sketched and painted a glorious bestiary of bison, horses, rhinos, lions, birds, stags, aurochs, ibexes and woolly mammoths on cave walls 32,000 years ago. The art and its making were extremely sophisticated in caves like Lascaux, Altamira and Chauvet. Patterns in the art are linked to fertility cycles and models of the cosmos. One archaeological theory is that the paintings may depict a creation myth and a three-tiered underworld, middle world and upper realm visited by journeying tribal shamans.

3 Pillars and Pilgrimage

Long before the pharaohs erected their massive funerary monuments along the Nile, Neolithic builders convened on a hill in what is now southern Turkey to create a towering pilgrimage site. Gobekli Tepe, Potbelly Hill, contains at least twenty rings of carved, standing pillars, chipped and shaped from massive slabs of limestone nearly 12,000 years ago. Some of the pillars are 18 feet tall and weigh 16 tons and all are covered with elaborate designs of animals -- abstract, symbolic and realistic. The art is fearsome; vicious scorpions, enraged lions and wild boars are common. Gobekli Tepe is clearly a center for ritual and pilgrimage -- there is no housing nearby and the work would have required an unusual amount of cooperation and collaboration from small nomadic tribes to complete.

4 Dragons and Oracle Bones

China's Yangshao culture predates the eras of the dynasties, dating from around 5,000 B.C. and exhibiting all the signs of a spirited belief in life-after-death and ancestor worship. The Neolithic people of the Yellow River region developed intricate burial practices and fertility rituals. In Banpo Village near present-day Xi'an, the Banpo buried their shamans and other dead with pottery containing food and utensils, clam-shell figures representing two iconic Chinese power animals, tigers and dragons, and jade jewelry. The dead were positioned with their heads to the west, the direction of the setting sun. A subsequent civilization on the same site, the Longshan, emphasized ancestor worship and divination, casting oracle bones to access a spiritual glimpse into the future.

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .