Religious Behavioral Development in the Stone Age

Religious behaviors developed to what they are today beginning in the pre-historic times of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and the Neolithic. There is evidence of these behaviors in the archaeological artifacts as well as mythological evidence. Religious behaviors evolved as humans evolved. Religious beliefs changed too. In the Paleolithic we learn that people were very spiritual; everything was treated as a spiritual act. They approached everything ritualistically and their behaviors were in response to the numinous. The numinous is described as a feeling you get when you can’t explain something.

There is archaeological evidence pointing to animal worship during this time too. Spiritual beliefs in the Paleolithic gave way to forms of organized religion based on archaeological findings from the Neolithic. Beginning in the Paleolithic we see evidence of ritual burials as a form of religious behavior. Early modern humans buried their dead and some of those graves contained grave goods. These grave goods consisted of beads and various pieces of jewelry: bracelets, necklaces, and pendants. The grave goods may have implied that the people believed the dead would go on somewhere and they may need, or want, those items with them.

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This is a belief based on animism, that anything and everything has a soul or spirit. The grave goods could also mean that the living treated the dead the same way they treated the living. The burials suggested they had respect for the dead. These ritual burials continued on in the Mesolithic and the Neolithic. Starting in the Mesolithic and continuing in to the Neolithic, we see more religious behaviors develop. During the Paleolithic, people were living together and cooperating with one another, building temples, and gathering food and everyone spoke one language.

The myths suggest that at one point the cooperation and harmony dissipated, and three new cultures evolved. With the three new cultures came three different languages. The cultures that emerged from the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic were replaced with farmers, herders, and hunters in the Mesolithic. The myths suggest that the three cultures (farmers, herders, and hunters), came from the three sons of Noah. Prior to that, in the myth of the First Family, there were two types of people, or two different cultures. There was Cain, who was a farmer, a iller of the ground, and his brother Abel, who was a herder, or keeper of the flock. In a later myth we are introduced to Nimrod, who was a hunter, thus rounding out the three groups. Those three groups had their own set of religious behaviors. Those behaviors included animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, ritual sex, and ritual abstinence. Other behaviors emerged that may not be considered religious behaviors but instead, ‘ways of life’, but are worth mentioning since they developed over time along with the religious behaviors and played a major role in the lives of the early humans and shaping evolution.

Those ‘ways of life’ include: shamanism, priesthood, matriarchy, patriarchy, Apollonian and Dionysian. We can better understand the religious behaviors of the different cultures only after we identify the pattern of culture, or traits, each one exhibited. The patterns of culture are associated with the characteristics in the distinction between the gods Apollo and Dionysius. Apollo was the god of light and Dionysius was the god of wine. Therefore, the characteristics are referred to as Apollonian and Dionysian.

During the Mesolithic, Dionysian tendencies gave way to Apollonian tendencies. Dionysian characteristics include: earth, Eros, epicurean, heart, emotion, feeling, chaos, excess, female, equality, art, spontaneity, country, and nature. A culture that exhibited characteristics of Dionysian would most likely practice human sacrifice, ritual sex, shamanism, and matriarchy as their religious behaviors. Apollonian characteristics include: sun, psyche, stoic, mind, reason, thinking, order, restraint, male, hierarchy, science, city, and civilization.

Differing from Dionysian, a culture that showed signs of Apollonian characteristics would practice animal sacrifice, ritual abstinence, priesthood, and patriarchy as their religious behaviors. Based on the myths and the artifacts of the Mesolithic, and the Neolithic, we are able to determine that the farmers were most likely Dionysian. Some of the characteristics evident in the myths, which are told from the farmer’s point of view, include the earth, Eros, and female. The characteristics in the artifacts include the female as well, but also equality.

The burials, being of the same type, and the houses they lived in, which were also the same, suggest equality, and the female is emphasized in the statues. Eros, which gave us the word “erotic”, is prevalent in the artifacts and the myths. Based on our understanding of how the characteristics define the religious behaviors, we learn that the farmers practiced human sacrifice, ritual sex, shamanism, and matriarchy. Stonehenge was believed to have been built during the Neolithic. Archaeologists found human remains there and a number of the skulls showed signs of blunt-force trauma which suggested human sacrifice.

The herders in the Neolithic displayed more Apollonian characteristics. As mentioned earlier, Dionysian tendencies were giving way to Apollonian tendencies. The evidence of this is found in both the myths and archaeologically. The male is prevalent in both, hierarchy is established, and order is suggested. Again, based on our understanding of how the characteristics define the religious behaviors, we surmise that the herders practiced animal sacrifice, ritual abstinence, priesthood, and patriarchy. The restraint and stoic characteristics point toward the abstinence while the male dominated myths point to the patriarchy way of life.

There were numerous animal bones discovered which indicated animal sacrifice. Evidence of the Neolithic hunters’ way of life is vague but if we use the myths from the Mesolithic, and the artifacts from the Neolithic, we can deduce that the hunters were also Apollonian. The myths are told from a hunting point of view and they imply hierarchy and are male prevailing. The artifacts hint at the sun and we learned that the hunters lived close to the farmers which means they were civilized, used reason, and thinking. Being of Apollonian in nature, the hunters shared the same religious behaviors of the herders.

In summary, religious behaviors have undergone dramatic, and not so dramatic, changes through the different time periods discussed. Some of those behaviors are still around today. Human sacrifice is probably the only one that has almost completely disappeared in the modern day, but on the other hand, animal sacrifice, which we’ve seen since the Mesolithic, is still relevant in this day and age. The behaviors exhibited had benefits such as providing a sense of community, it proved to be a form of communication, it offered assistance during crises, and also provided psychological well-being.

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