I don't have an opinion or an answer here, because I don't know enough about it. What I'm wondering is, what is the earliest well-characterized religion? Not a speculation based on a small handful of artifacts, but rather what is the earliest known religious theology? Was it ancient Egypt? Elsewhere - in the fertile crescent? India? East Asia? South America?

Im curious, thinking about the evolution of religions, did they evolve independently, with convergent evolution, or did they evolve from a single, primordial religion? Did religion create human society, or did human society create religion? Or did they co-evolve? It might be good to start with a "first".

Tags: evolution, religious

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The origins of religions lie deep in prehistory. Tantalising clues from the archaeological record continue to be assembled. The subject is enormous. The works of scholars of comparative religion like Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell summarise knowledge and provide vast numbers of references.

My interest stems from specialising in research into the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods when early farmers were struggling for success in their precarious environment. This includes the megalithic period of Europe and Asia and the meanings behind the surviving monuments.

A perspective that embraces a fertility duality between Mother Earth and Sky Father seems to be a quasi-universal concept emanating from the human psyche.

I argue that the two were viewed as coming together in marital union (the Marriage of the Gods) at portentous times of the year (including the solstices and equinoxes). This watched, visual, union (between rising sun and a megalithic structure on earth, as at Stonehenge and Avebury) reassured the community as to the continuing fertility of their world (of animals, crops, women) that was deemed essential for successfully supporting their way of life.

These were pre-literate times. There were no books from which to recite dogma. Just traditions to pass down. The organising of exaggerated and fictional stories into books is what later helped the monotheistic religions to succeed.

As a lifelong atheist I can view these matters with equanimity and judge the data objectively and fairly. Most Christian and Jewish archaeologists have biased prejudices which can block rational thinking. The introduction of farming settled people who previously had been wandering hunter-gatherers. They worked the land, they built monuments, and they developed a religious-based culture. [Similar developments likely applied among native Amerindian societies].
I have lectured widely on this. It forms part of my lecture series at a summer school on European prehistory that I give in Sardinia each July. I’ll attach a session abstract from a Euro conference on archaeology held in Malta in September 2008. The session’s dozen papers will appear in book form.
In short, I am suggesting that the origins of Mother Earth belief lie in a fundamental concept that emerges from within the human psyche. This can explain why the idea of Mother Earth is to be found on all inhabited pre-civilised continents independently of one another.
AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF MOTHER EARTH SITES AND SANCTUARIES:
RETHINKING SYMBOLS AND IMAGES, ART AND ARTEFACTS FROM HISTORY AND PREHISTORY
G. Terence Meaden, Oxford University Department of Continuing Education (Archaeology), Kellogg College, Oxford, UK terence.meaden@conted.ox.ac.uk
Nikos Chausidis, University of Skopje, Institute for History of Art and Archaeology, Macedonia. chausidis@gmail.com

Session Abstract: We view it as timely to visit anew this classical subject—to see how it can be freshly approached in the 21st century by archaeologists and anthropologists using the latest data and knowledge.
Mother Earth is a basic anthropological world view which reappears in time in different fields. In many Neolithic and later societies, as in the Mediterranean and other parts of the world including the contemporary lands of the Amerindians and Hindu Indians, Mother Earth sites and sanctuaries are known not only from prehistory but from historical times too. Additionally, there is material evidence from the nature of art and artefacts and there can be inferential evidence from the character of symbols and images. Some sanctuaries may be identifiable by their position and shape. At some sites, rocks or standing stones have inscribed images of anthropomorphic form, or megaliths are arranged, or tombs designed, in such a fashion as to imply that a culture of Earth Mother belief may be inferred if not already known. In other places, as with geometrized man-made objects such as settlements or necropolises, non-iconic patterns sometimes support the same symbolism. Although the concept of Mother Earth may seem to favour one gender, we are interested in the study of the anthropomorphization of the world, how geomorphology has sometimes supported projections of the human body, male and female.
It is proposed that papers in this session discuss the various forms of evidence not only from definite known sites but from others for which an expression of Earth Mother belief may be reasonably inferred as possible or likely, especially where the work is based on new discoveries.
Dr. Meaden, since the session is made up of Archaelogists and Anthrologists (and not biologists, or Evolutionary Psychologists) I'm curious as to whether any of the papers in the section treated the Mother Earth beliefs from a memetic evolution standpoint. Please understand that I make no judgments as to the importance of one emphasis or another (at this point, I frankly do not know enough).

I ask because the two topics seem so fruitful in recent research:
a) a selective advantage for the holders of such a world view, and
b) the memetic fitness (or eventual lack of fitness)of an idea to be reproduced and how a religious idea changes to enhance its fitness.

Given my lack of expertise in archaelogy, can you give a quick example of what type of 'latest data and knowledge' applies in the Mother Earth examinations? Any spoilers will not prevent me from buying the book when released. :)

Regards,
You are raising an issue that is remote from the traditional research worlds of archaeology and anthropology.
The best that archaeologists can do is to attempt to rationalise the scattered and incomplete sets of clues that have survived the passage of time since the disappearance of those who inhabited that faraway illiterate realm on Earth.
Some maintain that the fertility world, as known to simple farmers regarding their women, animals and crops, was carried into the divine sphere by inventing an Earth Mother and a Sky Father whose annual consummation of marriage would psychologically restore and vitalise their desires for fertility success. It was merely simple farmers who dreamed up this rather pleasing if not beautiful, loving idea, which may have held a selective advantage for holders of such a perspective. Researchers today are unfolding this part of the past by dissecting monuments and analysing types and distributions of artefacts and offerings. The Earth Mother perspective held, it seems, a needed fitness of purpose which led to a faithful following and long life. Being common to all continents by different peoples at different times, one can look to the psyche for an explanation. A well-loved and naturally human religious concept can persist for ages—as we all know because we ourselves are surrounded these days by daft religious ideas that are faithfully supported despite a high content of violence, horror and hate. This idea of sacred marriage which is well known to students of classical Greek mythology appears to have been heralded two to three millennia earlier across the European Neolithic (possibly spread by the first farmers). It was probably the same in early Aryan /Hindu India, since when an initial simple idea of Divine Marriage developed into the complexity of modern Hinduism “to enhance its fitness”. The ‘latest data’ refer to excavations reported from all continents in which artefactual findings bear symbolism and images symptomatic of Earth Mother belief systems. Maybe psychologists should enter the field to help us.
Thank you for the expansion. Now I've got a feel for 'the frame size' of your paper session and the current research.

Cheers!
Alex - I'd like to know where you found the information on Neanderthal religion. This is one of my primary interests. We see Neanderthal burials with animal bones near or on them all the time. This probably just meant that they put all the dead "things" in the same area.

Heidelbergensis is most probably the ancestor of both Sapiens and Neanderthalensis. They buried their dead and archaeologists have found evidence of other types of rituals. This evidence is over 400,000 years old - well before Sapiens and Neanderthalensis.

I agree that religion definitely evolves. We can all see the evidence for that in our own lifetimes.
This was an awesome article. I found it on RichardDawkins.net the other day but I didn't catch the fact that a suicide girl had originally posted it! Thanks for bringing my attention back to it (and them!).
One thing we have to consider in defining religion. Are we defining religion as an institution, or do we define it as a belief for individuals or a collective set of people. Many Native Americans, at least in the California region, would believe that everything had a spirit, but some were weak and some were strong. Stones for example, were weak. But they didn't always agree with other people around them, But there was no issue about disagreements and non belief.

They did fight each other when it was thought that their enemies were casting curses.
A brief interlude of levity:

>>Do we define religions as institutions or the beliefs of individuals?

By a rare coincidence, on the related issue of what is the purpose of religious institutions, I happened across this video earlier today...

It's a touch crude so for those of you with a sensitive disposition, cover your ears...
"a touch crude"?

Excuse the phrase but 'holy crap' that's funny.
Surely, from now on 'holy crap' should be referred to as 'purity bricks' ;)

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