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

Watch A Neanderthal Burial on PBS. See more from NOVA.


Also some info here from 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.

Venus von Willendorf 01.jpg


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..


  • 300,000 years ago – first (disputed) evidence of intentional burial of the dead. 
  • 130,000 years ago – Earliest undisputed evidence for intentional burial.   Neanderthal.
  • 100,000 years ago – The oldest known ritual burial of modern humans 
  • 100,000 to 50,000 years ago – Increased use of red ochre at several Middle Stone Age sites. Red Ochre is thought to have played an important role in ritual.
  • 50,000 years ago – Humans have evolved the traits associated with modern human behavior.... such as modern language, abstract thought, symbolism and religion.[23]
  • 42,000 years ago – Ritual burial of a man at Lake Mungo in Australia. The body is sprinkled with copious amounts of red ochre - seen as evidence that the Australians had brought along with them religious rituals from Africa.
  • 40,000 years ago – Upper Paleolithic begins in Europe... elaborate burials of the dead, Venus figurines and cave art. Venus figurines are thought to represent fertility goddesses. The cave paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux are believed to represent religious thought.
  • 30,000 years ago – Earliest known burial of a shaman.
  • 11,000 years ago – The Neolithic Revolution begins.


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.



Views: 4782

Replies to This Discussion

This fascinating study taps into many fine references and is loaded with information. I have read only part of it, and will continue to follow it. Thank you. 

May I suggest two authors? 

Marija Gimbutas

Riane Eisler

Joan, these are excellent resources.  Thank you!

Mark Twain's explanation: Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.

Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.

Not a good explanation.  Religion probably evolved because it was useful to humanity in some ways.

Luara, there being no written accounts, I will do as Einstein did: ask people to imagine something.

Imagine yourself a paleo child. Imagine a lightning bolt crashing nearby and terrifying you. Imagine a paleo elder, perhaps a parent, telling you a story to calm your fear.

That was NOT the invention of religion.

The invention would have happened when someone first accepted payment for a story, perhaps in the form of food.

Imagine a paleo elder, her/his own fear calmed or a child's fear calmed, sharing food with the story teller.

Imagine the story teller realizing, "For a story people will me food? Hunting is hard, and dangerous; I'll tell more stories!"

*    *    *    *

Luara, nothing starts when it benefits humanity; it benefits only the very few people most affected, then slowly spreads.

My story doesn't persuade you? Ok, make up your own story of a paleo someone's paying for a comforting story.

As much as I can, I'm going to concentrate on the consensus of what is known or widely accepted.  Since the paleolithic did not include writing, the main information we have is via objects and paintings.  And of those, very few.  It's hard for me to  put my  self into the shoes of these ancient ancestors.  What were they like cognitively, and what was their experience of life?  Not much abstract.  Did they have many words?  Arithmetic?  What were their relationships?  Hard to say.

Sentient, I agree that religion shaped all human cultures...moral codes and laws,....

You opened the discussion and rightly chose the period to describe and what to omit. What I've seen of the work of paleo-anthropologists tells little of the dark side.

It's reasonable to assert that violence and fraud preceded Hammurabi's Code and the earlier Gilgamesh story.

In our own time they still shape cultures, codes and laws.

Sentient, second thoughts.

When I was a kid I had a brother and about six boys who lived nearby, all close to my age. We had a large forested area, creeks and all, in which to play soldier games or cowboy-and-indian games.

I easily imagine myself living as our ancient ancestors did -- for short periods of time and with a modern civilization I could return to. In fourth grade I occasionally skipped school and spent the day in the forested area.

I'd like to give this a try. I imagine a small group of early humans, always vigilant, danger lurked in dark caves, snakes on the ground or in the trees, spiders and bugs capable of stinging, even unto death, wild predatory beasts chasing humans to eat, on and on. Fear was a constant. Hunger probably caused misery, as well as cold or heat. So much to be afraid of, so little opportunity to understand events.

Lighting and thunder came from the sky and sometimes fire, all generating fear. Some brave person snatches a burning piece of wood caused by a lightning strike, and discovered beasts and vermin and snakes were chased away by the torch. The magic of lightning, then fire, then a tool and all these events had verbal stories grow up around them. Magic was interpreted as god, something to fear, to appease, and to venerate. 

Humans, like pigeons, octopus, monkeys, dogs, and many other creatures seek patterns. The grass moves, it is a carnivore, and all moving grass then is perceived as caused by dangerous critters. Sometimes grass moves by air movement, and the wise one assumes all moving grass implies danger, thus escaping being eaten. 

Humans want safety, and perhaps ask for something to help them, and the danger passes. A pattern of asking for magic-help sometimes results in not being in danger. So a different pattern emerges. Make an offering to the magic, appease the magic, and another behavior becomes codified. Generation after generation, Parents teach children about how to ask for something, or give offerings in anticipation of safety, or to repay for answered desires. These patterns become codified into symbols, whatever they imagine as the cause of their magic. Maybe a bird or a snake becomes a symbol drawn on sand or on wet clay. Figurines evolve representing some thing to them. 

Well, this is getting too long, I'll speed up the process a bit, symbols represent words, words spoken become written and the beginning of scriptures evolved. Before you know it, a religion emerged from telling and retelling; it becomes the only religion, the necessary religion, and dogma becomes a way of life. Fear continues to creep into life as the prayers, gifts, and veneration do not get the right answers. So more prayers, more gifts, more veneration, still unfulfilled feelings.

Science comes on the scene, explains lighting and thunder and fire, then other methods of solving problems develop, and at some point the prayers, gifts, and veneration  become meaningless. God becomes irrelevant. 

Joan, your try succeeded too well.

I easily imagined myself living there...and even wanting someone larger than I to protect me.

Have you considered writing as a career?

Be well soon.

Joan, your writing is as good as we'll get, looking into the mindset of paleolithic humans and the gestation of religious thought in humans. 

Tom, curious about where Twain wrote these words, I found: 

"But we’re confident Twain was not responsible for the quotation Corbett used and subsequently many others attributed to Twain."

Ne’er the Twain did speak it

Zebra Fact Check
Fact checking of a different stripe, where the truth is black or white

Well, even if Twain didn't write these words, they stand up to observation. 

Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.



Update Your Membership :




Nexus on Social Media:


Latest Activity

© 2017   Atheist Nexus. All rights reserved. Admin: Richard Haynes.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service