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.



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Replies to This Discussion

Joan, thanks for the fact check.  We need to keep ourselves honest!

Joan, I saw the con man / fool remark...where else but on the Internet. HOWEVER:

A few weeks ago I downloaded from Gutenberg to my Kindle what are alleged to be MT's complete works. Separately I downloaded his Letters from the Earth. I searched these for the word religion:

1) In the complete works in a story about Christian Science I found many scornful remarks about religion that someone could have paraphrased into a con man / fool remark.

2. In the Letters I found remarks far more scornful that could be "lightly paraphrased" into a con man / fool remark.

GOP evangelicals say the words separation of church and state are not in the Constitution. They are right; the phrase is a metaphor by Jefferson for the religion clause in the First Amendment.

The con man / fool line similarly is not in Mark Twain. In Letters, it all but leaps up off the page as a paraphrase.

Here is some more about life in the Paleolithic times.  This information gives context to thoughts about origins of religion.  

People had tools made of stone, wood and bone.  They had fibers and leather.

The climate fluctuated between warm and cool.  Glacial and intergalacial.

Humans clustered together in bands, similar to chimpanzees.

There were megafauna, such as the woolly mammoth.  Humans may have hunted some megafauna to extinction.

File:Wooly Mammoths.jpg

It is not known whether paleo humans were monogamous or polygamous or polyandrous.

It is suggested that paleo humans were polygamous.

There is discussion about egalitarianism in the hunter gatherer bands.  This seems like conjecture.

Based on evidence from art and burials, there may have been equal status of the sexes.

The first evidence for shamanism is female.

Paleolithic societies are thought to have been matrilineal and ambilineal.

quoting, "The Venus figurines have sometimes been interpreted as representing a mother goddess, the abundance of such female imagery has led some to believe that Upper Paleolithic (and later Neolithic) societies had a female-centered religion and a female-dominated society"  while others suggest the figurines are self portraits, or pornographic imagery.

"Venus of Hohlefles", made of mammoth ivory.


More later....  I'm about to collapse.

Wonderful article and a photo I have not seen before, "Venus of Hohlefles". Turns out she was found in 2008, a good twenty years after I was near there. This piece was found near Schelklingen, Germany, about twenty miles from Ulm. I specifically went to that part of Germany, to Ulm, because I wanted to drink the water and eat food grown in that soil. Ulm is the birthplace of Einstein. I interview many women in Ulm about their lives and history. 

Here are some photos of "Venus of Hohle Fels" and I am referring you to this page because it also shows other female art pieces of that era. Most have the huge breasts and hips, prominent vulva and pubic triangle that Gimbutas defined as symbolic. Most of the arms were very small as were the heads. Here is a video by Marija:

The World of the Goddess - Marija Gimbutas

Joan, thank you for the video.  I will add it as an embedded video here, so it will show more prominently.  This information will also be important in the discussion of the subsequent, neolithic period:


Also, another paleolithic image, Venus of Brassempouy carved from mammoth ivory.

Venus de Brassempouy.jpg

Daniel, I do hope you are getting enough rest. 

Tom, I am so glad to learn about Mark Twain's quote; I knew he had some very harsh things to say about religion and was fully capable of writing those words. Good! Paraphrase is good enough for me. Twain said it like it is. Thanks.

In the end, I think we will never answer exactly what was the religious belief of our paleolithic ancestors.  Many writers speculate there was animistic religion or belief, based on the few objects and artworks known.  In addition, they extrapolate from stone age societies that have been encountered in more recent times, such as native Australians.  In a sense, those writes are writing a "prequel" from what is known.

Quoting from Bob Seery on

"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. Researchers in the field may be forgiven for attributing more complexity than may in fact exist but this has implications for how animistic thought, and by extension religion, is today conceived in certain quarters - being equated with the earliest and therefore more primitive stirrings of the human mind. Animistic thought, by comparison with mere symbolist activity bespeaks a much more nuanced and perceptive evocation of the world, one that entails the adoption of a code of ethics and the institution of a set of mores and values from which the living of a correct life may be adopted. It is reasonable to suppose that this process, so fundamental in the evolution of wo/man's ethical life, was a long drawn out affair lasting many millenia but we are as yet unable to concretely pinpoint it's emergence in any of the archaeological finds of the Paleolithic."

That seems to be a reasonable conclusion to me.  Again stating, I am not a trained paleoanthropologist, religious scholar, or historian.

This is a great subject and your comments lead me to many sites for interesting reading. It seems I start on one of the trails you suggest, and I just follow the trail to site after site and have had a splendid afternoon. Classically trained archaeologists perceive the Venus figures as sexual objects, thus the word "Venus". Gimbutas interpreted them differently. She saw them as symbols of regeneration. She was quite adamant about that. We went to several digs where the houses were connected, much like the pueblo style of our SW, and there were no temples or churches. Classically trained archaeologists interpreted that as being pre-religious. Gimbutas said the hearth, fire, and bread baking were of a spiritual nature, and she found many artifacts of these rotund female figures on the hearthstones. She claimed each home was a temple where worship occurred. Ninety percent of the figures were female, 10 percent were male. She interpreted that to mean women had a special place in the culture of the Neolithic, not in a hierarchical sense, but in the ability to bleed and not die, to bear children and suckle, none of which males could do. So, women were special. Their burials often reflected being of great standing in the communities. Churches or temples didn't come until much later. 

We visited many goddess temples that had been taken over by gods after the overthrow from female leadership to male domination. Just one example is that glorious temple at Sounion, Greece where a temple of Athena was razed as punishment for Athenian defiance and the site was rededicated to Poseidon. This famous photo: 

Sounion, Greece, Temple to Poseidon 

This is the engraving of Lord Byron on one of the stones. I sat under this engraving with an African woman who had been a victim of female genital mutilation. We talked of her history and life and the future for women in Africa. 

Well, here is enough evidence that paleolithic and Neolithic female figures had big breast, hips, and thighs. No diminutive females for these people from all over Old Europe! 

I wonder if these figures represented some sort of reality.  It's easier for me to imagine there were women who had the pictured body habitus, than that they were made-up.  Maybe the neanderthal women were heavier, and able better live off body fat in times of scarcity?  The images are so common across vast separation of time and distance, there must be a commonality.



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