Our Paleolithic ancestors were likely very spiritual people; at least those belonging to the Homo sapiens species. Earlier ancestors, such as the Australopithecines, may have lacked enough intelligence to be spiritual. Interestingly, often atheism is associated with high intelligence and a deep understanding of science. Many well-known, and brilliant, evolution researchers are atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins).
Well, when we look at our ancestors, spirituality seems to have emerged as a result of increased intelligence.
Spirituality can be seen in cave paintings, such as the one below, from the Chauvet Cave in southern France. The Chauvet Cave is believed to have the earliest known cave paintings, dating back to about 30 to 40 thousand years ago. The painting below is on the cover of the book Dawn of art: The Chauvet Cave. (See the full reference for this publication and others at the end of this post.)
The most widely accepted theory of the origin of cave paintings is that they were used in shamanic or religious rituals. By and large, they were not used to convey information (e.g., as maps); and they are often found deep in caves, in areas that are almost inaccessible, ruling out a “decorative” artistic purpose. As De La Croix and colleagues (1991) note:
Researchers have evidence that the hunters in the caves, perhaps in a frenzy stimulated by magical rites and dances, treated the painted animals as if they were alive. Not only was the quarry often painted as pierced by arrows, but hunters actually may have thrown spears at the images, as sharp gouges in the side of the bison at Niaux suggest.Niaux is another cave in southern France. Like the Chauvet Cave, it is full of prehistoric paintings. Even though those paintings are believed to be more recent, dating back to the end of the Paleolithic, they follow the same patterns seen almost everywhere in prehistoric art. The patterns point at a life that gravitates around spiritual rituals.
Isolated hunter-gatherers also provide a glimpse at our spiritual Paleolithic past. No isolated hunter-gatherer group has ever been found in which atheism was the predominant belief among its members. In fact, the life of most isolated hunter-gatherer groups that have been studied appears to have revolved around religious rituals. In many of these groups, shamans held a very high social status, and strongly influenced group decisions.
Finally, there is solid empirical evidence from human genetics and the study of modern human groups that: (a) “religiosity” may be coded into our genes, to a larger extent in some individuals than in others; and (b) those who are spiritual, particularly those who belong to a spiritual or religious group, have generally better health and experience lower levels of depression and stress (which likely influence health) than those who do not.
There was once an ape that became smart. It invented weapons, which greatly multiplied the potential for death and destruction of the ape’s natural propensity toward violence; violence often motivated by different religious and cultural beliefs held by different groups. It also invented delicious foods rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars, which slowly poisoned the ape’s body.
Could the recent invention of atheism have been just as unhealthy?
Surely religion has been at the source of conflicts that have caused much death and destruction. But is religion, or spirituality, really to be blamed? Many other factors can lead to a great deal of death and destruction, sometimes directly, other times indirectly – e.g., poverty and illiteracy.
Brown, D.E. (1991). Human universals. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Chauvet, J.M., Deschamps, E.B., & Hillaire, C. (1996). Dawn of art: The Chauvet Cave. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.
De La Croix, H., Tansey, R.G., & Kirkpatrick, D. (1991). Gardner’s art through the ages: Ancient, medieval, and non-European art. Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt Brace.
Gombrich, E.H. (2006). The story of art. London, England: Pheidon Press.
Murdock, G.P. (1958). Outline of world cultures. New Haven, CN: Human Relations Area Files Press.