The Elements of Evolution – Religion in Prehistory


Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life. ~ Indian guru Buddha

Early human artifacts indicate rich mental lives. Many relics without obvious function appear imbued with symbolism. In numerous instances, ceremonial edifices were built by unsettled peoples. A cluster of 11,000-year-old buildings with spectacular statues – a cathedral on a hill – was found in Göbeklitepe, Turkey. The people who built them were nomads, not farmers.

The famous prehistoric monument Stonehenge in England dates to ~3100 bce. Stonehenge comprised a complex of monuments and buildings that people did not live in. Indeed, the site has a surfeit of burial mounds – the living do not reside in the land of the dead. The earliest structures in the Stonehenge area arose ~8000 bce, suggesting that the location was long considered sacred ground.

One the oldest cities built by the Mayans was Ceibal in Guatemala. Itinerant folk came together for ceremonies and rituals in the jungle 3,000 years ago. Durable residences were not built there until centuries later.

The struggles of life motivate the mind for a handle of control on the forces of vicissitudinous fortune. Solace is found in the company of others. Larger answers and assistance are sought by belief in religious agents.

Motivations that increase interdependence – such as the motivation for social connection with others – also appear to influence religious representations. Religious agents are generally perceived to be strong sources of social connection and support. ~ American psychologists Nicholas Epley & Adam Waytz

Early humans came together for cultural reasons: not to trade goods, but to share experiences, practice spiritual rites, and celebrate life. Spirituality, not agriculture, was the propellant for cultural and societal evolution.

In contrast to spirituality bringing folk together, gods that vent their wrath upon sinners only emerged after complex societies evolved. The distinction is a social glue versus a societal lash. Spirituality as a salve morphed into religion as a tool to coerce cooperation among strangers.

Complex societies precede moralizing gods. ~ English anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse et al

Gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers. ~ American sociocultural anthropologist Benjamin Purzycki et al