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The archaeology of prehistoric burial sites suggest a number of interesting aspects to the belief in ...
2022-05-16 09:00:00

The Origins of Immortality
Prehistoric Beliefs in the Afterlife

“An Allegory of Immortality”, Giulio Romano, circa 1540. Detroit Institute of Arts (public domain)
The Origins of Immortality
The Origins of Immortality

It would seem the belief in life after death is as old as spirituality itself. However, the great beyond hasn’t always been considered a heavenly place: at first it was perceived as an ominous realm, the house of darkness. To discover the origins of religious rites it is necessary to investigate prehistoric burial sites from an archaeological perspective. Here are some findings.

Read in 13 minutes

The oldest written records describe various forms of life after death. The atheist consensus is that the belief in immortality – or religion in general – was established as a form of wishful thinking, a kind of compensatory self-deceit pursued to counter the horror and inevitability of death. However, this argument can easily be put aside if one looks to the history of religion.

The first descriptions of the great beyond written down by the Sumerians and Akkadians do not mention any place of eternal happiness. The ‘other world’ of ancient Mesopotamia is a subterranean land of no return where the dead stay in a depressing darkness, unconscious of their own position. Covered in dirt, they eat clay dumplings and quench their thirst with murky water. This afterlife is not called ‘heaven’ or ‘paradise’, but ‘the house of dust and darkness’. Everyone except gods and heroes ends up in it – even kings. The fate of the dead improves slightly if the living remember about them and, for instance, bring better food to their graves; the worst off are those who are completely forgotten (this should explain the importance of the burial rite).

As is well-known, however, both the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and all other civilizations are a novelty in the history of mankind. There are reasons to think that the belief in life after death is much, much older.

The vast period of prehistory is usually delimited by the invention of writing. It is an unfortunate criterion, because it is often underpinned with the value judgement that those who write are better than those who don’t. Trouble is, in some regions writing wasn’t used until modern times. For this reason, the periodization of history is Western-centric, or, to be precise, Middle Eastern.

On the other hand, the appearance of writing does set a boundary beyond which nothing is clear. Attempts at reconstructing the religious beliefs of prehistoric people confirm this: researchers can only speculate and rely on ingenious reasoning. It seems that the prehistory of religion is a field of asking fascinating questions rather than giving answers.

What will aliens think of us?

To describe the challenging aspects of recreating prehistoric religious beliefs, I will give two thought-provoking examples.

The first one is an observation made by Gerard Reichel-Dolmatoff, an American scholar in shamanic studies, who observed the burial of a native woman from the Kogi tribe in Colombia in the 1960s. At the beginning of the two-hour-long ceremony, the shaman spent some time choosing the site of the grave. When he finally did, he described it with such symbolic terms as ‘village of death’, ‘house of death’ and ‘womb’. He made an attempt to ‘open the house’ ritually. Then he had the members of the tribe dig a pit. The corpse was shrouded in white canvas, which was then sewed up by the father of the deceased. In the meantime, women chanted a monotonous song. Seashells and green stones were laid in the pit. The shaman staged eight failed attempts to lift the body. On the ninth try, he finally lifted it and arranged it on its right side, legs bent, head to the east; the tomb was then filled.

“Vanitas Still Life”, Pieter Symonsz Potter, 1646. Rijksmuseum (public domain)
“Vanitas Still Life”, Pieter Symonsz Potter, 1646. Rijksmuseum (public domain)

Reichel-Dolmatoff noted that future archaeologists would find nothing in the grave but a skeleton facing east, a few stones and some shells. All of the ideological aspects of the burial would be impossible to recreate on the basis of the finding itself. The mystical identification of the grave with the womb; the nine symbolical attempts at lifting the body, meant to ‘reverse’ the nine months of pregnancy; purposefully arranging the body eastwards; treating the deceased as ‘food’ for death – the richness of all these symbols would simply be lost forever.

The second example is a thought experiment put forward by the archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan, who suggested that we imagine beings from another galaxy visiting Christian temples on Earth. They would see a chalice, phials for water and wine, incense – but how would they be able to recreate the rite of Holy Mass and its significance to the congregation? On the church walls the aliens would see mules, sheep and human figures tortured and whipped. How could they reconstruct Christian theology based on such findings? Or even the existence of the New Testament and its contents? And what about the Old Testament? What about the image of the world created from nothing? What about the cult of saints, angels, the idea of mercy towards others, depictions of hell, purgatory and heaven, confession and apocalypse?

Research on the prehistory of religion generates various theories that are often mutually exclusive. Leroi-Gourhan brilliantly rid this field of many false presumptions. For instance, the Frenchman rightly noticed that archaeologists would often treat atypical discoveries as evidence of religious phenomena. He emphasized that even the psychological situation of the scientists was uncanny, since unearthing an archaic skeleton tens of thousands of years old had a numinous flavour to it. Researchers have a knack for fanciful speculation – especially when a skeleton is found in a strange position or with animal bones nearby. For this reason, decades had to pass before scientists disproved the existence of prehistoric bear skull cults or ritual cannibalistic feasts during which Neanderthals were eaten.

Despite all this, some facts and discoveries are very difficult to explain without resorting to religion. As mentioned above, today we can be sure that the human species was religious since the invention of writing. Why should we assume we weren’t religious before that as well? But how should we reconstruct these old beliefs? Are we like those aliens, observing absurd remnants of the past that could mean everything and nothing at once?

Many theologists claim that when it comes to understanding prehistory, our situation is not as dire as Leroi-Gourhan would have it. We are not aliens – we are people who can imagine other people’s specifically human behaviours, even if they lived in a distant place and time. We have the right to assume that in specific situations, the human brain behaves similarly and produces similar symbols and interpretations.

Leroi-Gourhan emphatically opposed the method of interpreting archaeological discoveries by drawing analogies to contemporary cultural practices, i.e. those described by ethnographers of illiterate hunter-gatherer communities whose day-to-day functioning was allegedly similar to that of Palaeolithic humans. This method was certainly abused by researchers. A good example may be the common interpretation of Palaeolithic Venuses, the female figurines with ample breasts. These statuettes were most often believed to be goddesses of fertility, motherhood or abundance, Great Mother Goddesses, and so on. However, the archaeologist Peter Ucko discovered that inscriptions dating back to pre-dynastic Egypt contradict this interpretation. As it turned out, according to the Pyramid Texts, the female figurines holding up their large bosoms symbolized nothing more than the ‘sad woman’ – at least in Egypt!

On the other hand, comparing archaeological finds with their known counterparts in contemporary societies is – despite its shortcomings – the only method that allows us to partly understand prehistoric humans. We assume that all human activities are performed because particular meanings are ascribed to them. The interpretation of ancient Egyptian Venuses turned out to be false, but the act of interpretation was correct: every figurine expressed something. Maybe it’s better to risk a false hypothesis and be aware of its limitations than to give up reflection on the topic altogether.

A handful of examples

Studying prehistoric burials is essential to determine how long humans have believed in life after death. The very act of burying a body suggests the existence of a certain religious intentionality. There is no obvious ‘pragmatic’ sense in burying someone. Some suggested that the first primitive tombs were only meant to hide corpses from scavengers. But why would people have gone to all that trouble if no specific meaning had been ascribed to the bodies of the deceased? Besides, leaving the dead without burial does not necessarily disprove the religiosity of a certain culture; there are contemporary communities that practice so-called sky burials, during which the dead are offered to birds of prey. The spiritual life of these communities is exceptionally rich, while the form of the burial itself depends on their religious beliefs. Moreover, burying the dead with precious items suggests that the dead were believed to cross over into a new world after death, something that even such sceptical scholars as Leroi-Gourhan concede (it is important to note that since these select items were buried alongside the body, the community must have believed both in the existence of life after death and the deceased’s performance of specific activities after passing).

“The Immortality of Nelson”, Benjamin West, 1807. Royal Museums Greenwich (public domain)
“The Immortality of Nelson”, Benjamin West, 1807. Royal Museums Greenwich (public domain)

Reflecting on prehistoric beliefs in life after death also seems fascinating because it opens up the field for discussing the first strictly religious behaviours. A discovered figurine might well be a magical talisman, a depiction of a deity, or an object devoid of any religious connotations (some argue that the ancient Venuses were simply primitive pornography). Bits of bone discovered near the remnants of a fireplace may be evidence of an offering made to the gods or something as banal as a meal. Discovering a few reindeer skulls does not necessarily prove the animal was venerated, since their presence might be a coincidence or the consequence of a predator’s hunt. Only burial sites can be seen as proof of religious acts.

The Upper Palaeolithic revolution that radically quickened the development of cultural activity among Homo sapiens brought about various burials and the especially noteworthy practice of cave painting. The meaning of these works has been discussed in the context of shamanic trances since at least the 1960s. Indeed, depictions of human-animal hybrids, as well as bird-headed or male figures with erections suggest ecstatic states. An advocate of this interpretation, archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, points out that both rock art and the caves themselves – hidden, hardly accessible places – may have played the role of initiation labyrinths that enhanced the spiritual experiences of the religious elites.

It is important to remember that one of the basic features of shamanism is the ‘psychological journey’ into the great beyond that is embraced in trance, when the shaman communicates with spirits. If these theories are correct, the famous cave paintings in Spain or France would confirm the existence of a certain belief in an extrasensory reality.

But let’s turn to burials. A 90,000-year-old grave of an early Homo sapiens was discovered in Africa – in Border Cave, right between South Africa and Eswatini. It contained the remains of a one-and-a-half-year-old toddler sprinkled with ochre. Interestingly, the body was buried with a shell that came from a sea 80 kilometres away. In 2021, scientists discovered the skeleton of a three-year-old (which they named Mtoto, after the word for ‘child’ in Swahili), buried approximately 78,000 years ago. Tests showed that the toddler’s head had been laid on something that resembled a pillow made of leaves, while the body itself was found in a fetal position. According to those who discovered it, Mtoto could also have been covered in leaves or animal skin, as if someone had put him to bed.

Theologist and ethnologist of religion Andrzej Szyjewski claims that the sheer number of burial sites from the Lower Paleolithic confirms that people in those times believed in life after death. These examples allow a few important generalizations.

Graves were usually dug in the ground and contained either entire bodies or human skulls alongside shells, bones or animal teeth. What’s more, common practices included covering the remains in ochre. According to both Leroi-Gourhan and Mircea Eliade, ochre was the ritualistic equivalent of blood, a symbol of life (nowadays, Indigenous Australians still use it for magical purposes). Sprinkling ochre on the deceased could have held a similar meaning, as in a grave found in the Cavillon cave in Grimaldi. This burial site contains a skull decorated with an 18-centimetre-long groove traced from its nose and mouth and filled with the yellowish pigment. According to Leroi-Gourhan, it seems obvious that ochre was considered a symbol of ‘the breath of life’ – or alternatively, of speech itself. His hypothesis is further supported by Magdalenian art in which animal depictions bear similar marks and are interpreted by scientists in the same way.

A Polish finding is also worth mentioning at this point: two graves discovered on the shores of the Masurian lake Kisajno in 1965. The first one contained the remains of a young woman and a three-year-old child, with 54 animal teeth nearby, including those of moose and aurochs, among others. In the second one, there was a one-and-a-half-year-old child with 24 young stag teeth strung together lying beside it. Although this discovery ‘barely’ dates back a few thousand years, there was ochre on the bodies as well.

The Neanderthal and religion

Let’s move on to the Neanderthal man, who is still unfairly believed to have been a gurgling primitive with very limited cognitive skills. However, the truth is he had a brain that was most often bigger than ours. Remains from the Mousterian (100,000–30,000 years ago) are a testament to the technological and spiritual culture of Neanderthals. In fact, the lack of advanced artistic interests that is ascribed to them and often cited as proof of their primitiveness has nothing to do with aesthetics – as skilled hunters, they lived close to nature, which may have satisfied their hunger for beauty.

But was Homo neanderthalensis a religious being? Most probably so: what seem to be Neanderthal burial sites contain skeletons facing eastwards, primitive tools, as well as… red ochre and lumps of other pigments.

An example of a tomb often discussed in scholarly studies is the 65,000- to 100,000-years-old Teshik Tash site in Uzbekistan. It is the tomb of a boy aged eight or nine, whose skeleton, lying on its right side, was surrounded by a wreath made of the horns of five young Siberian ibexes. The horns seemed to protect the head of the child. Close by, there were traces of a fireplace. In his description of the site, Andrzej Szyjewski wondered whether the animal symbolized the steed that carried the spirit of the deceased into the world beyond. He also suggested that the horns are shed on a yearly basis, symbolizing the rebirth of nature, and could therefore also signify the rebirth of the boy’s soul.

In La Chapelle-aux-Saints, a body was found with flint tools and red ochre, dating back 60,000 years (interestingly, the teeth bore marks that suggested Neanderthals had mastered some forms of medical treatment). Then there is the fascinating case of the Mas-d’Azil cave, where archaeologists discovered a female skull with ‘artificial eyes’ made of caribou antlers.

A dozen skeletons more than 100,000 years old were also found in a cave on Mount Carmel. Among the deceased was a 13-year-old boy holding a fallow deer skull and antlers. In one of the niches lay a male body arranged on its right side with the legs bent at the knees. Next to the right hand, a boar jawbone was discovered. Another tomb contained the remains of a young woman and a six-year-old child. Both bodies were buried on their right side with bent knees, and the child lay at the woman’s feet. Another burial site in a rocky crevasse on the territory of modern-day Israel contained a nine-month-old infant, as well as stag jawbones and little shells.

These examples are helpful in outlining a set of common features. Szyjewski brilliantly noticed that since our Neanderthal ancestors buried their deceased facing eastwards: (1) they had to know the four cardinal directions and differentiate between various movements of the sun, as well as ascribe specific meaning to each of them; (2) family burials confirm that there was an awareness of kinship that transcended the threshold of death, so to speak; (3) evidence of fireplaces may also point to sacrifices that ensured the deceased had the necessary amount of food to complete the journey to the world beyond; (4) animals such as ibexes and boars may have been considered guides during these trips; (5) a majority of bodies buried with their knees bent is most probably evidence of foetus and rebirth symbolism. Another, scarier hypothesis suggests that bodies were tied up to prevent the deceased from leaving their tombs…

Fifth order intentionality

According to anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar, religion as we know it today requires fifth-order intentionality. It cannot be ruled out that some individuals had their own religious experiences, as well as their own vision of the afterlife, but for knowledge about the afterlife to be developed and transmitted in a traditional way, humans have to live in groups. Only then should they be able to follow a five-step reasoning process: (1) I suspect that… (2) you believe that… (3) I think that gods exist…(4) …gods whose will it is to influence our existence, because… (5) …they understand our human needs.

The British scholar claims that fifth-order intentionality is only possible if the brain attains the right size. Contemporary research on apes and humans shows that the order of intentionality depends on the size of the frontal lobe. Fossils of hominids allow us to determine the size of their brains, and, by consequence, their cognitive skills. On this basis it is possible to conclude that religion as a social phenomenon only appeared among anatomically modern humans around 200,000 years ago.

To answer the initial question: if Dunbar’s estimates are correct, immortality was most probably created approximately 200,000 years ago, or even a little earlier – among individual visionaries.

Drawing by Marek Raczkowski
Drawing by Marek Raczkowski

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Piechura

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