Moving forward from early stone age (Paleolithic), to more recent stone age (Neolithic), we find that our Homo sapiens ancestors left more artifacts for us to study, as well as small and monumental structures.
Paleolithic era spanned from 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 years ago - a vast expanse of time, characterized mainly by limited durable remains and speculation about societies based on those remains, and based on social behaviors of other animals (chimpanzees, dogs) as well as social behaviors and beliefs of recent contacts with stone-age-like societies, with animism thought to be the original type of religious thought. "Animism is defined as a belief that a soul or spirit exists in living things (humans, animals, plants) and inanimate objects (rocks, mountains, sticks, bodies of water). These things may have a spirit that has a human-like personality or motivation (anthropomorphism), or they may possess an impersonal force that emanates or transfers good (mana) or ill (taboo)."
(Image from wikipedia, paleolithic cave paintings of Altamira Spain)
In the Paleolithic, homo sapiens lived in small bands, too small for a large formalized political or civic structure, and too small for large formalized religion. This was to change in the following era, referred to as the Neolithic Revolution.
The Neolithic Revolution is also called the "Neolithic Demographic Transition" which doesn't sound nearly as interesting. During the Neolithic period, there was a revolutionary change in the life experiences of Homo sapiens, due to humans harnessing of plants and animals to create agriculture, settling down into communities, building cities, developing new technologies such as agriculture, food storage, pottery. The last ice age was ended, and the megafauna, such as woolly mammoth, were extinct. Humans became more organized. Food crops developed, including barley, chickpeas, lentils, Goats and sheep were domesticated. Honeybees were domesticated, and narcotic producing plants were grown. The dates vary, but there were neolithic societies in the Americas, Australia, South Pacific, China, India, Africa, and Europe. In this setting religions became more formalized and there are structures and objects that tell us about Neolithic religious developments.
The neolithic is the time of megalith structures, such as Stonehenge
and thePoulnabrone dolmen tomb in Ireland.
I'm not intending to spend too much site on megalithic (big stone) structures, but will add another, Ħaġar Qim in Malta.
One more, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey.
Göbekli Tepe is possibly the oldest known temple. This link - from Smithsonian - has somegreat pictures. The author states "
What was so important to these early people that they gathered to build (and bury) the stone rings? The gulf that separates us from Gobekli Tepe's builders is almost unimaginable. " Which leads to the actual topic here, Neolithic religion.
Here is a summary of what is believed about Neolithic religious belief:
They buried the dead in graves, along with their weapons, pottery, food and drink in the belief that these things were required after death. Here is Brn Celli Ddu burial mound in Wales, a neolithic burial chamber.
They worshipped totems, or images of plants and animals as their ancestors and protectors.
They worshipped forces of nature like sun, moon and stars and believed that they had special powers.
They worshipped clay figurines of "Mother Goddess" in the belief that fertility of the land would increase.
Marija Gimbutas, studied patterns and symbols of cult objects and also developed the field she refers to as "archeomythology," which embodies the fields of archaeology, comparative mythology, and folklore. She believes that the key to discovering the meaning of prehistory is through interdisciplinary research.
Seated Mother Goddess flanked by two lionesses from Çatalhöyük (Turkey), Neolithic age (about 6000-5500 BCE), today in Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. This figurine is quite similar to those of the far older paleolithic fertility figures.
Some Megaliths were used as temples to worship the Sun God, at the time of summer solstices, e.g., the Stonehenge Megalith in England. Some megalithic structures are shown above. Here is another at Westkennet, UK
Since people usually could not travel far, these beliefs must have developed in widely distant places, at different times. They would have evolved in different communities at different ways.
Having made an effort to describe some context for neolithic religion's evolution, I'll work on some of the known history and selected details with the next entry. That will follow in comments section. Feel free to add thoughts and information in comments. This is a process of ongoing exploration and learning.
Video, Stories from the Stone Age
Since there are no written records of neolithic religion, the examples depend on interpretation of archaeological findings and extrapolation of near modern "stone-age" societies. It's doubtful there would be uniformity across thousands of miles, and centuries, yet these societies are the forebears of modern religion.
Some examples give a feel for the places where society and religious belief probably evolved together.
One ancient site is described here. Ness of Brodgar, Orkney Islands north of Scotland. Occupied about 3,500BC to about 2,000 BC. Excavations have barely begun. This site was found in a rural area where people lived near it and passed by it, never thinking there was a historic structure waiting to be unearthed. A local couple discovered the site while gardening.
Watch Scottish Island Find Digs Up New Info on Neolithic Religion on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
I always wonder why ancient discoveries so often are taken to be religious - big structures are temples, objects are idols - when we don't know what the beliefs were, and have no written records. Could these have been, say "community centers" and the objects artistic expression without being idols? Somehow I doubt it. It would take a lot of effort to erect these massive stone structures, and to me that suggests they relate to the gods, or the forces of nature, or ritual ceremonies related to planting and harvest.