Really “Old Time Religion”
I saw a story in the news yesterday that played on one of my longstanding obsessions. I am fascinated by the intersections between science, history, religion, and politics. These things join in a way that offers a sense of perspective and a host of questions about what truly matters. I’ve written about this before. I’m likely to again.
This particular news story is the kind of thing that passes as niche trivia, the sort of story of interest only to people in a narrow field, or to hobbyists who dabble in that field. That’s a shame, because it truly is something of cosmic importance to how we think about ourselves and the things we value. Our sense of values, in turn, determines what we spend our money on, what we spend effort worrying about, how we vote, what we worship, and where we are going as a culture, a nation, and as a world.
Here is the article. If you don’t want to click the link, the short version is that new testing techniques have shown some cave art to be much older than had previously been thought. Some is more than forty thousand years old.
Okay, that’s very obscure. Let me tell you why it matters.
The dominant religions of the world are all between fifteen hundred and three thousand years old. Listed in order of decreasing age, they are: Hindusim, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. These faiths each claim to have private lines on Eternal Truth, and have, at various times, exercised enormous influence over vast areas of the globe and enormous numbers of people.
All these are newcomers as far as recorded history is concerned. Writing was first invented in the Middle East, in a land its inhabitants called Sumer, somewhere between five and six thousand years ago. That land occupied the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was later called Mesopotamia, from the Greek meso– (between) and -potamia (rivers), and is now called Iraq. The most ancient writings in the world are from there. Some are legal documents, and some are recordings of kings and their doings. Some are religious in nature, revealing the sacred tales that many centuries later evolved into the stories we can still read in the Bible.
Sumerians recorded their writings on clay tablets, which they baked in ovens to make them hard as rocks. These artifacts are the oldest written documents in the world, and the museums in Iraq were once full of them. Thousands of them have recently gone missing, after the looting and lawless chaos that followed America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. The world has lost priceless documentation of its history.
The classical civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, of the Indus valley, of China and Japan and central America, all are newer. All the cultures of Europe and the Middle East and Northern Africa and Western Asia were profoundly influenced by Sumer, and it is in Sumer that the written documentation begins — and that documentation is continuous since. In a very real sense, history begins at Sumer.
In another article for another day, I plan to discuss some of the Sumerian tales that found their way into the Jewish and Christian Bibles. The differences, and the similarities, fascinate me, and speak much about the nature of cultural changes over the last few millennia. For now, I note merely that religious tales were important enough to the people who invented writing, that these stories make up a significant percentage of the writing they did. Religion has mattered to us certainly as long as we’ve been able to record the things that matter to us.
How old is the idea of religion? How long have humans cared about their gods? Has this concern always influenced our politics, our culture, our personal interactions?
Anthropologists tell us that anatomically modern humans — the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens — has existed for somewhere between forty thousand and one hundred thousand years. Archaic forms of Homo sapiens (including the most well known, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Neaderthals) date to perhaps three hundred thousand years ago. All forms other than Homo sapiens sapiens became extinct more than thirty thousand years ago. At what point did humans gain the ability and need to think about supernatural and spiritual matters?
Without written documentation, we can’t be certain. We do know that sophisticated theology appears in the very first writings that exist, so it must be far older than that. We also have documentation of other sorts — artworks that date from long before our ancestors learned to write.
Think of a work of religious art — the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or a Mayan freize. These works express images and ideas and episodes from stories with spiritual significance. They also represent substantial cultural meaning and investment. Think now of places of worship — a cathedral or a pyramid, Stonehenge or the Parthenon. These are places that inspire awe and a sense of something beyond everyday life. By design and intent, there is something mystical and overwhelming about these places, something that informed and structured the cultures that built them.
The first evidence we have of painting comes from Europe’s last ice age, more than twenty thousand years ago. People traveled deep into the darkness of hundreds of caves throughout much of Europe, bringing torches and stone-age oil lamps, and they painted murals and freizes, mostly of animals, but sometimes of people. Anthropologists recognize these as magical or religious (magic and religion being two ways of saying nearly the same thing…“magic” is from old Persian for “sorcery”; “religion” from Latin for “superstition”), and underlining parallels with modern native cultures of the Americas or of Africa, Asia, or Australia.
Until recently, some of the oldest of these had been dated (based on a variety of techniques which need not concern us now) to somewhere around thirty thousand years ago. (There are a few carvings and statuettes which may be older.) This means a religious impulse is at least that old. But most of these methods of dating supplied minimum ages. It was recognized the artworks could be significantly older. Scientists, being a generally cautious lot, tended not to speculate on how much older.
The news story I read yesterday, the story I mentioned at the top of this article, describes a recently-developed dating technique which pushes back the date of at least some of this art — and pushes it back by as much as ten or fifteen thousand years. Some of the cave-cathedrals of Europe were first painted over forty thousand years ago.
That is the new minimum age of the oldest of these paintings. Some of the paintings in these caves are much newer. Some of the caves have paintings that span twenty thousand years. Imagine that — a religious tradition, its adherents using substantially the same symbolism and iconography, coming into the same chapel and continuing to add decorations and artworks, for a length of twenty thousand years.
And all long before the invention of writing.
Why does this matter? Why should we care?
We are locked today in cultural issues involving religion and politics, the relationship of “traditional” ideas of marriage, of sex, of morality, and how (even whether) these things should influence our policies and priorities. Words such as “traditional” seem to lose their meaning when juxtaposed to religious ideas that date back to the Stone Age. “Eternal truths” that date back two thousand years or so seem less daunting when compared to the crushing history of forty millennia that preceded them.
Believe it or not, I’ve only scratched the surface here; there is evidence of religious thought much older than I’ve alluded to. Not only is there vague implication of misty magical notions; there is good reason to think we can piece together some elements of the values and myths of these truly ancient peoples.
That, too, is a story for another day. My point on this particular Sunday is to suggest a meditation on the immediacy of our current body politic, and on whether the earth-shaking issues that now divide us truly are vital when seen from the perspective of actual human history. They may well be — if we hold the capacity to end that history, then we need to understand the enormity of doing so. But if it’s a matter of deciding who is allowed to wed, do we really need to interfere?
More: If we don’t properly fund pure scientific research — if we do nothing that doesn’t have a guaranteed economic payoff — if we skimp on educating our children about such matters — then this knowledge, this understanding, this sense of perspective, will be lost. We can only ask such questions if we know enough to ask them.
Is that good or bad? Are these ideas valuable, or are they a distraction from putting food on the table, or from teaching proper morality to the next generation? Are they, perhaps, subversive denials of the truths of the Bible, which tell us that Adam and Eve lived some six thousand years ago — thus, these thoughts are simple fantasy? Was all I said above inspired by a Satanic conspiracy to plant doubts about the Bible?
One thing a long view of history teaches us is that religion informs all cultures. Egyptians worshiped Isis and Osiris — that controlled their art, their calendar, and their architecture. Greece and Rome had their gods. China and Japan had theirs. Modern Europe developed under Christianity. As much as we want to build a secular culture (read the First Amendment), it is hard in today’s America to imagine a world without biblical values.
Give it a try anyway. Let’s tale a long view of really old time religion.
- Ancient Cave Art Could Be From Neanderthals(voanews.com)
- New Dating Puts Cave Art in the Age of Neanderthals(nytimes.com)
- Earliest European Cave Art(philipcarrgomm.wordpress.com)
- New dating puts cave art in the age of Neanderthals(mercurynews.com)
About dcpetterson (186 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson