User:Muntuwandi/The evolutionary origins of religion

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Religion is a cultural universal that is found in all human populations throughout human history. Even the most isolated populations that have existed have been found to practice some form of religion. For example, when European sailors first arrived on the island of Tasmania, they found the Tasmanians, already possessed highly elaborate forms of religion and myth. The Tasmanians may have been isolated from the rest of the world since settling from Australia 40,000 years ago.[1]There have been several theories proposed in the past that have attempted to explain why religion is so prevalent. Recently, the study of the origins of religion has gained considerable momentum due to advances in a number of scientific disciplines. Scholars have adopted a multidisciplinary approach to study the origins of religion drawing from disciplines such as archeology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and genetics.


Some scientists have suggested the principal of a cultural homology to explain the ubiquity of cultural universals such as religious behaviour. That is, the religions of the world may have a common origin in the ancestral human population. As humans began migrating around the world, these rituals would have undergone several modifications resulting in the diversity of religious practices found around the world today[2]Those who subscribe to this view argue that the alternative would entail that religion would have had to evolve independently in thousands societies around the world.[3]

Evolutionary psychology of religion[edit]

There is general agreement among cognitive scientists that religion is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved early in human history. However, there is disagreement on the exact mechanisms that drove the evolution of the religious mind. There are two schools of thought. One is that religion evolved due to natural selection, in which case religion conferred some sort of evolutionary advantage. Proponents of this hypothesis argue for a strong genetic component to religion and that these genes were subject to natural selection. The other hypothesis posits that religion is an evolutionary byproduct, a neurological accident. Stephen Jay Gould was a proponent of this hypothesis. He believed that religion was an exaptation or a Spandral. That is religion evolved as byproduct of psychological mechanisms that were designed for other purposes.[4][5][6][7]

Primate studies[edit]

Humans do share a common ancestor with the great apes such as chimpanzees and bonobos. This common ancestor lived over six million years ago. Hence some scholars view chimpanzees and bonobos as the best available surrogate for this common ancestor. Barbara King argues that while primates are not religious, they do exhibit some proto-religious traits. She argues that the complex social relations that the chimpanzees have would have served as basis for the later evolution of religion. For example , she notes an incident chimpanzees were observed exhibiting mournful behavior after a troupe member was killed by a leopard. King ascribes to the concept of continuity, that the difference between humans and apes is one of degree and not kind.[8][9][10]

Abstract thinking[edit]

According the out of Africa hypothesis, scientists currently believe that anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. Between 55,000 and 60,000 years ago humans began migrating out of Africa. It is at this stage that the fossil record begins to abundantly yield clues of human behavior that most consistently resembles the behavior of modern humans. Collectively, these behaviors are sometimes referred to as modern human behavior. From 50,000 years ago the fossil record provides significant evidence of abstract thought among early humans. The presence of abstract thinking can be inferred from the use of symbolism, art and advanced tools. A high capacity for abstract thinking is necessary for the evolution of religion. This is because concepts such as God or the afterlife are abstract[11]. Abstract thinking is evident from art work and in particular anthropomorphic images, which play an important role in religions worldwide. Steven Mithen use the term cognitive fluidity to describes how a modular primate mind has evolved into modern human mind by combining different ways of process knowledge and using tools to create a modern civilization. He believes that cognitive fluidy arose when various mental barriers int he brain broke down allowing humans brain to operate like a swiss army knife. This enabled humans to process complex thoughts such as those relating to religion.[12]

Language and religion[edit]

A number of scholars have suggested that the evolution of language was a necessary prerequisite for the evolution of religion. Philip Lieberman states "human religious thought and moral sense clearly rest on a cognitive-linguistic base," and that the presence of burial and grave artifacts indicate that early humans had distinctive cognitive abilities different from chimpanzees.[13] From this premise science writer Nicholas Wade states:

"Like most behaviors that are found in societies throughout the world, religion must have been present in the ancestral human population before the dispersal from Africa 50,000 years ago. Although religious rituals usually involve dance and music, they are also very verbal, since the sacred truths have to be stated. If so, religion, at least in its modern form, cannot pre-date the emergence of language. It has been argued earlier that language attained its modern state shortly before the exodus from Africa. If religion had to await the evolution of modern, articulate language, then it too would have emerged shortly before 50,000 years ago. "[3]


Philip Lieberman states "burials with grave goods clearly signify religious practices and concern for the dead that transcends daily life"[13].

Evidence suggests to some that the Neanderthals were the first homonids to intentionally bury the dead. They may have placed corpses into shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones. The presence of these grave goods may indicate an emotional connection with the deceased and possibly a belief in the afterlife. Neanderthal burial sites include Shanidar in Iraq and Krapina in Croatia and Kebara Cave in Israel.[14][15][16] Yet, these burials have been disputed by other scholars who argue that the bodies may have been disposed of for other reasons other than intentional burial[15].

The earliest evidence of human burial comes from the Skhul cave at the Qafzeh paleoanthropological site and has been dated to between 90,000 and 100,000 years ago. Human skeletons were found stained with red ochre. A variety of grave goods were found at the burial site. The mandible of a wild boar was found placed in the arms of one of the skeletons[17]. Philip Lieberman states:

Burial rituals incorporating grave goods may have been invented by the anatomically modern hominids who emigrated from Africa to the Middle East 100,000 years ago.[17]

According to Lieberman, the religious mind has thus been in existence for at least 100,000 years. Other evidence of this is found at middle stone age sites in Africa, increased use of the pigment, red ochre, by homo sapiens is noted around 100,000 years ago. Red ochre is of little practical value to hunter gatherers and is thus thought to have symbolic meaning. Some argue that red has symbolic meaning in all cultures, symbolizing blood, sex, life and death.[18][19][20] However other scholars believe that religion in its modern form only appeared after 50,000 years during the transition from the middle paleolithic to the upper paleolithic.

"Many of the new behaviors I have been describing such as the anthropomorphic images, cave paintings and the burial of people with grave goods, suggest that these Upper Paleolithic people were the first to have beliefs in supernatural beings and possibly an afterlife. We are indeed seeing the first appearance of religious ideology"
"We cannot reconstruct the religious ideologies of the earliest Upper Paleolithic societies. But we can be confident that religious ideologies as complex as those of modern hunter gatherers came into being at the time of the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition and have remained with us ever since."[21][22]

The cave paintings of Chauvet have been dated to 32,000 and those at lascaux have been dated to 17,000 years ago. At Lascaux the anthropomorphic paintings show depictions of strange beasts such as ones that are half human and half bird. Consequently some have suggested that these are indications of shaministic beliefs.

Neolithic religions[edit]

Main article: Neolithic religion

The shift in culture following the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic revolution 11,000 years ago brought dramatic social changes to humans around the world. As people abandoned the hunter gatherer lifestyles and adopted agriculture, population densities increased significantly. The first settled societies came into existence that would later develop into the first states. Very early in the neolothic period religious expression was already highly developed and complex and there is evadance that religion was the main function of some villages and small cities.[23] ancestor worship and shamanism to the religious institution characteristic of state societies. Writing was used 4000 BCE. Some of the oldest known texts include the Sumerian Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the first religious texts were written shortly after. Some scientists regard the Pyramid Texts from ancient Egypt as the oldest know religious texts in the world dating to between 3300 to 3150 BCE.[24] [25]


  • 300,000- first evidence of intentional burial of the dead. Sites such as at Atapuerca in Spain, bones of over 32 individuals are found in pit within a cave[26].
  • 130,000 ya, - Neanderthals are burying their dead at sites such as Krapina in Croatia[26].
  • 100,000 ya- The oldest ritual burial of modern humans is thought to be from a Qafzeh in Israel. There is a double burial of what is thought to be a mother and child. The bones have been stained with red ochre. By 100,000 years ago anatomically modern humans migrated to the middle east from Africa. However the fossil record of these humans ends after 100kya, leading scholars to believe that population either died out or returned to Africa.[27][28]
  • 100,000 to 50,000 ya- 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- Humans have evolved the traits associated with modern human behavior. Much of the evidence is from Late Stone Age sites in Africa. Modern human behavior includes abilities such as modern language, abstract thought, symbolism and religion[28].
  • 42,000 ya- Ritual burial of Man at Lake Mungo in Australia. The body is sprinkled with copious amounts of red ochre. this is seen as evidence that the Australians had brought along with them religious rituals from Africa.
  • 40,000 ya-Upper Paleolithic begins in Europe. There is an abundance of fossil evidence including 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.
  • 11,000 ya- The Neolithic Revolution begins.

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Some scholars have suggested that religion is hardwired into the human condition. Dean Hamer, has put forward the God gene hypothesis. Hamer proposes that some human beings bear a gene which gives them a predisposition to episodes interpreted by some as religious revelation. One gene identified is VMAT2.[29] A number of scientists and researcher though are highly critical of this theory; Carl Zimmer, writing in Scientific American, points out that Hamer rushed into print with this book before publishing his results in a credible scientific journal. In his book, Hamer backs away from the title and main hypotheses of his book by saying "Just because spirituality is partly genetic doesn't mean it is hardwired,"[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Donald. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. pp. page 206. ISBN 0674644840. 
  2. ^ Buller, Edgar. Adapting Minds. pp. page467–468. ISBN 0262025795. 
  3. ^ a b *"Wade, Nicholas - Before The Dawn, Discovering the lost history of our ancestors. Penguin Books, London, 2006. p. 8 p. 165" ISBN 1594200793
  4. ^ A scientific exploration of how we have come to believe in God
  5. ^ Toward an evolutionary psychology of religion and personality
  6. ^ The evolutionary psychology of religion Steven Pinker
  7. ^ Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function Pascal Boyer
  8. ^ Gods and Gorillas
  9. ^ King, Barbara (2007). Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. Doubleday Publishing." ISBN 0385521553.
  10. ^ Excerpted from Evolving God by Barbara J. King
  11. ^ "Human Uniqueness and Symbolization". This ‘coding of the non-visible’ through abstract, symbolic thought, enabled also our early human ancestors to argue and hold beliefs in abstract terms. In fact, the concept of God itself follows from the ability to abstract and conceive of ‘person’ 
  12. ^ [The Prehistory of the Mind The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science By Steven Mithen Reviewed by Andy Gorman]
  13. ^ a b Lieberman (1991). Uniquely Human. ISBN 0674921836. 
  14. ^ "The Neanderthal dead:exploring mortuary variability in Middle Palaeolithic Eurasia". 
  15. ^ a b Evolving in their graves: early burials hold clues to human origins - research of burial rituals of Neanderthals
  16. ^ "BBC article on the Neanderthals". Neanderthals buried their dead, and one burial at Shanidar in Iraq was accompanied by grave goods in the form of plants. All of the plants are used in recent times for medicinal purposes, and it seems likely that the Neanderthals also used them in this way and buried them with their dead for the same reason. Grave goods are an archaeological marker of belief in an afterlife, so Neanderthals may well have had some form of religious belief. 
  17. ^ a b Uniquely Human page 163
  18. ^ The Religious Mind and the Evolution of Religion
  19. ^ An early case of color symbolism
  20. ^ Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: The Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex
  21. ^ The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. Thames & Hudson. 1996. ISBN 0-500-05081-3. 
  22. ^ An overview of the patterns of behavioural change in Africa and Eurasia during the Middle and Late Pleistocene
  23. ^ Uttal, William R. 2004. Dualism the original sin of cognitivism. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates. Page 77.
  24. ^ Budge, Wallis. An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature. pp. page 9. ISBN 0486295028. 
  25. ^ The beginning of religion at the begining of the Neolithic
  26. ^ a b When Burial Begins
  27. ^ Museum of Natural History article on human human evolution
  28. ^ a b The beginning of religion at the beginning of the neolithic
  29. ^ Hamer, Dean (2005). The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes. Anchor Books. ISBN 0385720319. 
  30. ^ Hamer, Dean H. 2004. The God gene how faith is hardwired into our genes. New York: Doubleday. Pages 211-12.


Further reading[edit]