The Upper Paleolithic era runs from about 60,000 years ago to about 12,000 years ago when the latest phase of the Ice Age started to fizzle out and it became appreciably warmer and the world entered the present geological period, the Holocene. In comparison to the last 12,000 years of human existence, the 50,000 years or so of the Upper Palaeolithic has sometimes been seen as a period of stagnation, a period during which human development did not really take off at all. This, despite the fact that the human genotype was fully developed probably before 100,000 years ago. So, was there a reason for this comparatively slow growth, if that is indeed what it was?  The human brain, it is believed, was fully developed physiologically by 120,000 or so years ago, but it may not as yet have become ‘fully wired’ as our brains today. In my last article I talked about Autobiographical Memory, which would have taken many thousands or even tens of thousands of years to mature. It is quite conceivable that, although physiologically developed, the human brain did not reach something approaching its present maturity until sometime after 45,000 or so years ago.

In biological evolutionary terms, Homo Sapiens may still at a very early stage of development. Changes in our brain, such as they may be, would be quite imperceptible, it is a process that takes place over many thousands of years and hundreds of generations. It is quite likely that the maturing of the human brain is an ongoing process, but of course, imperceptible to ourselves, we may only be able to detect differences in another 25,000 years! The increasingly rapid changes in the way that we live which have occurred over the last 12,000 years or so have been entirely down to human cultural evolution and the growth in human numbers, not down to any biological evolutionary process. So possibly the apparently slow advancement of humanity during the Upper Palaeolithic was because of the final stages of the maturing of Autobiographical Memory, and also simply because of the very tiny numbers of humanity. And don’t forget the climate, this was the period of the latter stages of the Ice Age. It was cold, it is no coincidence that the process of cultural evolution greatly accelerated as the climate became more benign after 10,000 BCE. For cultural evolution to proceed you need critical mass of people! (And in all probability the more of humanity there is the quicker any biological evolutionary process may occur).

However, in spite of these tiny numbers, and the probability that our brains had not yet fully matured, from about 65,000 years or so ago our ancestors left Africa and started roaming the planet. But to put this into some kind of perspective if a family moved just 10 miles in a year in 100 years they would move 1000 miles, in 1000 years 10,000 miles. If the first groups left Africa circa 65,000 years ago and got to Australia 15,000 or so years later, they were not moving with the greatest of speed. At this stage it was most unlikely that as far as our ancestors were concerned there was any conception of migration in the modern sense.

From circa 40,000 years ago a major innovation occurred in our ancestors, perhaps an indication that at last Autobiographical Memory was reaching maturity. This innovation was the comparatively sudden proliferation of pictorial and sculptured art. There is certainly evidence of a human artistic trait 100,000 years ago, beads and shells as pendants or necklaces, modified pieces of flint which could resemble a mask, even possibly very primitive forms of representational art. But from 40,000 years or so ago onwards art in the sense that we would understand it bursts on the scene (well bursts is probably an exaggeration). However, Homo Sapiens has now clearly separated from his erstwhile hominid cousins.

From this time, in addition to pictorial and sculptured art, we also see the development of far more sophisticated tooling, needles and sewn clothing, lamps, throwing spears, the use of bone and ivory in the manufacture of tooling and ornamentation. And far more sophisticated ornamentation and stone sculptures in particular in relation to burials. Probably later around 20,000 BCE we see fish-hooks and netting, bows and arrows, recording counting on bones and evidence of extensive trade networks.

Neanderthal and other hominid populations were clearly being outmanoeuvred by Homo Sapiens – Humankind. Whether Humankind’s superiority was actually recognised by individuals at the time is unknown, but it certainly did not preclude a fair amount of interbreeding between Humankind and our various hominid cousins. Now whether that interbreeding was between consenting adults or, possibly, dare I say it, enforced relations by our human ancestors upon a simpler people, is again something that may never be known. Possibly even at this early stage, our ancestors may have developed a rather contemptuous view of their hominid brethren, in the same way that our more recent ancestors have been contemptuous of less ‘developed’ human societies. This characteristic appears to have been one of Humankind’s less attractive traits throughout history. But whatever the reasons the last vestiges of our Neanderthal cousins disappeared in Western Europe about 35,000 to 40.000 years ago.

Other than art, burial is perhaps the other initial clear manifestation of true human culture. There is evidence of Homo Sapiens’ burials going back to 100,000 years ago. Hominids had been dying for millions of years, but up until 100,000 or so ago there is little trace of burial (but intriguingly there is evidence of earlier skull burial). After that date, down to about 35,000 years ago, there is clear evidence of burial although not a great deal. During this period red ochre appears to have been used quite extensively on the body, possibly considered a substitute for blood. Simple grave goods were also deposited, usually bodily bead ornamentation. From 35,000 years ago onwards burials became far more prolific, varied and with far more elaborate grave goods. Although it was initially considered that Neanderthals did not bury their dead there are now clear indications of Neanderthal burial. It has been suggested that burial was not a usual Neanderthal practice because Neanderthals could not have any belief system. However, as yet we have not devised any means of ascertaining Neanderthal thought processes any more than we have of early Humankind’s thought processes. We do not know what made Neanderthals tick and I feel that it is a little disingenuous to our Neanderthal cousins to suggest that Neanderthal burials were simply an effort to emulate their Homo Sapiens cousins.

As far as our ancestors were concerned did this proliferation of burials and grave goods indicate a growing fear of death, and an acknowledgement of an afterlife? Was this an initial impetus for the development of religious ideas or perhaps more accurately superstition, or did these ideas develop earlier leading to an increase in burial? Impossible to say either way. When the reality of death had dawned in our remote ancestors, did a fear of death come to dominate our ancestors’ minds? Probably, but no more or less than it dominates our own thinking. Modern psychologists contend that an individual’s self-esteem and worldview are shaped by many factors, death only being one of them. On the other hand, Terror Management Theory, recently put forward by a group of psychologists maintains that the fear of death dominates all our thinking and activities. Personally, I am with the former camp.

Back to art, and in particular pictorial art. If the view is that Autobiographical Memory only finally fully developed in Homo Sapiens’ brain around 40,000 years ago, then in all probability pictorial art and a more structured superstition and hence elaborate burial may have coalesced in human thought processes at about the same time. The result may have been not so much of a fear of death but a fear of the unknown that death brings about.

Cave painting is probably the best known and most extensive example of Humankind’s artistic revolution and early mental dexterity. But there is also an abundance of clay models, sculptured figurines, and all kinds of decorated objects emanating from this period. Most of the cave painting, so far, has been found in Europe and in particular south-west France and Northern Spain, probably because until recently it has been mostly Europeans who have been interested in making these discoveries. It does seem now that more is being found further afield. This art, of which the first examples don’t appear before 40,000 years ago, clearly shows that our ancestors had mastered the ability to recreate mental images. The prevailing view is that this was not achieved by Neanderthals, nor any of our other hominid cousins, although this view is now being challenged. There does appear now to be some evidence of Neanderthal art, but, as with burial, the jury is still out as to whether this art is a Neanderthal creation or again is it simply Neanderthals trying to emulate their Homo Sapiens brethren?

Pictorial art is a clear indication of our ancestors’ ability to project their mental processes visually. At this stage our ancestors were presumably quite capable of conveying complex thought to their brethren through speech, but conveying these thoughts through pictorial art was an entirely new and innovative concept and, it was originally thought, one peculiar to humanity

What did all this art mean? A very difficult question. It presumably illustrated some form of compulsion in the human mind to create images, but the strange thing is that these images were clearly not for general public consumption. In the main they were created in the most inaccessible, darkest and deepest enclaves of caves, not only were these places inaccessible they would have been pitch black. The lamp was invented around this time, presumably, a portable lamp would have enabled a determined individual to explore the inner reaches of these caves. But what would have persuaded somebody to create art in these inner reaches, lying on his back or even up-side-down, is anyone’s guess.

The human population of the whole of Europe and probably much of western Asia in the period between say 40,000 years ago to15,000 years ago, the period of the height of the last phase of the Ice Age, was probably no more than 100,000 in total at any given time. Humankind would have been very thinly spread indeed. It is likely that the population in the region with the most cave paintings, South West France and Northern Spain, would not have exceeded 10,000 at any time during the period. This region probably had a more conducive and less icy climate and accordingly the highest density of population, but these numbers are still exceedingly small. Communication between groups at best would have been intermittent, the spread of culture would have been painfully slow.

Our ancestors would have shared their mental images with each other and other groups in their intermittent gatherings around the campfire by talking. But perhaps they were also keen to share these images with unseen forces or the spirits. Life for these people was dominated by the unknown and the unknowable, everything may have been deemed to have had some form of spirit life. Why did the trees grow, why did the wind blow, why did it snow sometimes far too much? Too many unanswerable questions. Was it the spirits, and if so how did the spirits manifest themselves? Although most of the images in the caves are of animals, it is unlikely that they were created simply as pictures of animals, more likely they represent some form of the animal’s spirit. Our ancestors would have gained a familiarity and possible an affinity with animals through the hunt and most of these images were clearly connected to the hunt. But it seems that in the main these images do not show the actual kill nor glorify in it.

It has been suggested that the images express some form of connection, perhaps even kinship, with the animals, to encourage the spirits of the animals to support the hunt, and thereby maintain the human population. If the hunt meant killing an animal then perhaps thanks should be offered to whatever spirit may have been guiding that animal or that animal’s herd. Our ancestors would, no doubt, have acknowledged that the animal was killed so that they could live.  Although certain of these cave images appear to show lines that, on first glance, could be construed as spears piercing the animal, on closer examination these ‘spears’ might represent lines emanating from the animal, i.e. representing some form of animal spirit or soul reaching out. I much prefer this latter explanation, it illustrates that at this early stage there was an acknowledgement of a spirit, and that the animal being hunted was as much a part of creation as the hunter and should be honoured as such by the hunter.

Our modern Western conception of religion revolves around God, the soul and the redemption of the soul. Upper Paleolithic beliefs, such as they may have been, might have revolved around an acknowledgement that animals had as much right as the hunter to exist. Thought processes may have gone along these lines: if I acknowledge that, perhaps, there is some form of spirit guiding our people, then possibly there is some form of spirit guiding the animals. Therefore it is incumbent upon me to honour the spirit of the animal that I kill for the family’s sustenance, in the same way that I honour my own family’s spirits. It is unlikely at this stage that there would have been anything resembling all-encompassing gods nor any notion of redemption, but possibly there was an acknowledgement of ‘other’, the first vestiges of religion.

But, as I mentioned above, these artistic images were in the darkest most inaccessible parts of these caves, they were clearly not for public consumption. So possibly we have here the first stirrings of a form of shamanism and an acknowledgement of some form of magico-religious belief. Shamanism, which was originally a Siberian practice, basically is a belief that the practitioner is able to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world. For our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors, this spirit world could well have been represented by animals. To reach it the shaman had to communicate with the animal spirits, he would disappear into the furthest reaches of the cave to do so, somewhere where his brethren would not or would dare not go. Perhaps he would come out of the cave once he had completed his journeying and convey to his waiting brethren any messages he would have received.

In the present day, shamanic culture is very secretive, a shaman will not share his knowledge. The shaman has to suffer first (by undergoing dreadful initiation ceremonies) before he can embark upon his healing or divinational practices. It is possible that a similar situation may have developed in Upper Palaeolithic times. Our Upper Palaeolithic shaman in the dark recesses of these caves may have been the first to establish a form of religious or supernatural mysticism!

So does belief in a supernatural help make sense of a mystifying and volatile existence? There is no clear adaptive Darwinian advantage to religion. The Darwinian view is that religion is solely a product of human cultural evolution. But wait, is that in fact the case? Biological evolution may well have developed some form of defence or other mechanism in the early human or even hominid mind to help deal with the inexplicable, and to our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors much must have been inexplicable. If, when and how this mechanism may have developed remains anyone’s guess. But is it not conceivable that a propensity to such a belief system may have become hardwired into the human mind so that by the time of the Autobiographical transition the human mind became sufficiently mature to allow magico-religious sentiments to arise?

Dreams would no doubt have had a significant role to play here. We do know that most mammals dream, though their cause and purpose is as yet unknown, but as with most things, there are plenty of theories. If mammals dream then clearly our hominid ancestors had dreams, but possibly prior to the advent of Autobiographical Memory they were unable to interpret their dreams. Dreams probably had a significant role to play in shaping religion. This is borne out by the study of so-called ‘tribal societies’ today. In modern studies of traditional cultures dreams and dreaming are prominent, in terms of forecasting the future, visiting deceased relatives, or the land of the dead, or indeed other worlds! The general view is that they show a, sometimes, phantasmagorical world, but one which is considered quite real albeit in a parallel existence. These clearly human experiences may well have given our ancestor shamans much ammunition!

Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that around 40,000 years ago our ancestors were developing an acknowledgement of a spirit world which they considered had some form of control over all the aspects of nature which could not be understood. Our ancestors may have come to the view that an individual had a form of conscious spirit and because they were aware of their mortality they became aware that possibly the spirit, such as it may have been, might survive the death of an individual and join the other spirits both of the animals and their own ancestors. If the clan leader, who was considered a great man and a man who would look after the clan, died, perhaps his spirit would survive in some form somewhere in the spirit world and continue to watch over the clan and perhaps be watched over by animal spirits. Is this how an acknowledgement and reverence of the ancestors developed and is this why reverence for the ancestors gradually became more relevant than, although not replacing, reverence for the animal and other spirits?

Perhaps these were the thoughts behind the enigmatic cave painting ‘the Sorcerer’, does it represent an animal sprit with human characteristics?

By the time we come to the end of the Ice age, around 14,000 years ago, it would appear that ancestor veneration or perhaps even worship was an important part of society. In my next article, I will look at this development as illustrated by the construction of the world’s first massive stone structure in south-east Turkey, Gobekli Tepe, which with other sites marks the end of the Palaeolithic period and the beginnings of a whole new chapter in the human story with the advent of the Neolithic Period.

Author: Neil Meldrum

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