Here's what I've been reading about the history of religion.
Paleolithic is the old Stone Age
wikipedia, the history of religions. All pics here are from wikipedia, due to public domain, and links are provided to each.
Religion is important because it has shaped all human cultures.
Religion has shaped moral codes and laws, social structure, art, and music. I suspect also, religion has shaped pre-modern science, agriculture, and political structures.
Evidence of religion may extend back 300,000 years, as shown by human burials. Burials with objects may be suggestive of thoughts about afterlife. There is controversy regarding the older date, which is Lower Paleolithic, pre Homo sapiens. This article states 30,000 years ago at the latest. Some Neanderthals buried their dead with tools and animal bones. It is thought there was a Neanderthal bear-cult. Not all scientists agree that burials represent religious thought - instead, burial may indicate hygiene. (As someone who likes CSI mysteries, maybe they could be efforts to hide a body - a paleolithic murder?)
From NOVA, a Neanderthal burial
Also some info here from scilogs.edu stating religion evolved twice - once in Neanderthal, and once in Homo sapiens. (my question - could Homo sapiens have learned religion from Neanderthal?)
Potentially religious artifacts have been found, dating back to 50,000 years ago to 13,000 years ago.
Upper paleolithic carving. Approx 25,000 years old. "Venus of Laussel" Southwest France.
Paleolithic cave painting from Dordogne France. The painting shows half-cow, half-human,
The "lion-Human", from Germany, approx 40,000 years old. Some references state "Lion-Man" but that is a modern sexist application of male gender to an object that does not have genitalia or humanoid secondary sexual characteristics.
Venus of Willendorf , about 24,000 years old. Found in Austria.
Hundreds of "Venus figurines" have been found. Whether these are religious icons, representations of goddesses, or pornographic images, is speculative.
This timeline of religion comes from the wikipedia article, edited for brevity..
Then comes the Neolithic period, which begins the human agricultural revolution. Separate topic / new (neo) period. To follow as separate topic.
As these readings are part of a learning process, I expect to add more in the comments. Readers feel free to comment or add readings as well.
When I lived just outside Kenai, Alaska, at a USA army receiver site, I made friends with the local native population. They taught me and included me in many ancient rituals and told stories of animal spirits. There were many different animals, birds and fish represented. Of course salmon was one, and bear, elk, moose, hooligan (smelt), eagle, crow, coyote, shrew to name just a few. They talked of these animals as if they were human. I asked if these were human/animal characters and they said they were not. It was more of the spirit of an eagle, for example, represented the spirit of the hunter going out for food for the tribe, or coyote that represented the spirit of a mischievous person or trickster, or the shrew as a quick, clever, snatcher of things.
"Writers on the Palaeolithic have often made the assumption that evidence of symbolic activity must perforce be indicative of animistic thought and practice but we as yet have no firm grounds to make this leap in judgement."
~ Bob Seery on Helium.com:
It makes sense to me that religion of our ancient ancestors was animistic. Making sense to me doesn't mean it's fact, of course. It's what most of the writers who I have found on the topic, also say. The animals who were sources of foods, sources of comfort, sources of danger and death - as we went from precognitive to cognitive as a species, our thoughts about those animals must have taken shape gradually, converting subconscious "knowledge" into animistic beliefs. I think the same would be true of the mother goddesses.