To do a series of articles about cultural evolution and the development of religious belief is quite a daunting prospect. A massive subject open to all kinds of different interpretations depending on where one is coming from and one’s own beliefs or indeed non-beliefs. There are so many different perceptions, stories, experiences, thought processes and cultures, that it is impossible to know or recount the whole story, or even to know where to start the story. So, I start with an apology, I can only present a brief overview from a personal perspective, but I will take the bull by the horns and begin at 6 million years ago (give or take a few hundred thousand years). When Australopithecus, (Southern Ape) first appeared in East Africa.

But before I do that, I just want to comment briefly on the difference between biological or Darwinian evolution on the one hand and cultural evolution on the other. These articles are principally about the cultural evolution of Mankind. That is to say the story of the development of human culture from the time that we became modern humans (Homo Sapiens), about one hundred thousand years or so ago, I am going to stop at about 1000 AD (later history is not my strong point). Biological evolution is the story of the development of life on Earth from one-celled bacteria billions of years ago to the many millions of different life forms, including ourselves, that exist today.

So let’s start at the point in biological evolution when a species evolved from chimpanzees and eventually became ourselves. That initial species was Australopithecus. They evolved in Africa from around 6 million to 3 million years ago. They were probably only slightly larger than modern chimpanzees, and would have spent their days foraging around on the ground. But over this lengthy period, they developed an increasing ability to walk upright. Night-time, however, would probably find them in the trees with their chimpanzee cousins. Their cranial capacity was between 350 going up to 500 cc towards the end of the era. Modern human cranial capacity averages about 1350-1450 cc. Present-day chimpanzees have a cranial capacity of 300-400 cc, so our Australopithecus forebears would only have been a modicum brighter than modern chimps.

‘Hominid’ is the generic term for all the various species, including Australopithecus, leading up to and including ourselves, Homo Sapiens.  Australopithecus was followed by the next significant hominid species to evolve. Homo Habilis, circa 3 million to 1.7 million years ago. His cranial capacity was in the region of 500-650 cc, getting brighter. He walked on two legs, although probably still more apelike than human. But he was more robust digestive system than his Australopithecus predecessors. This meant less time and energy expended on chewing and digestion, thus presenting a greater opportunity for socialising. Modern chimpanzees and probably most of the Australopithecines, spend and spent up to 8 hours a day chewing and digesting, a dreadful waste of time!

The Upper Palaeolithic Period started about 2.5 million years ago and went on to 40,000 or so years ago (it varies depending on which authority one goes to). At the start of this period, for the first time, there is evidence of hominid tool use by our Homo Habilis forebears. He, like his Australopithecus predecessors, originated in East Africa, but he was clearly rather smarter. In all probability, he would have been responsible for the demise of Australopithecus, either by actually killing him off or outsmarting him or both. From about two million years or so ago, we see the first evidence of the use of crude stone tools by Homo Habilis. These were probably used for cutting up dead animals, it is unlikely that Habilis would have done much hunting for another few hundred thousand years as in all probability they would not as yet have developed the cognitive ability to move from a gathering lifestyle to hunting he still wasn’t that bright. But it does seem that in his scavenging he developed a particular taste for marrow which he would extract from the bones of dead animals. This is an exceptionally rich source of protein and was surely integral to the continued development of the hominid brain.

The next stage in the story of hominid evolution is represented by Homo Ergaster, circa 1.8 million to 600,000 years ago, (cranial capacity 600-900 cc). Ergaster developed the more sophisticated Acheulean stone tool culture, evidenced by larger more defined and sharper stone hand axes. He was the first hominid to start living in larger groups. Although initially still predominantly a scavenger, there is clear evidence that he was beginning to embark on a career of hunting. As he became more proficient the carcass was no longer consumed immediately at the site of the kill but was brought back to camp to share with others. This represents a very crucial stage in hominid evolution, the sharing of food with individuals who do not participate in the hunt. It is coupled with the other major innovation which possibly originated with Ergaster, fire.

Fire was revolutionary, but it is probable that although Ergaster may have been bright enough to utilize and preserve natural fire, it is thought that the creation of fire might have been beyond him and would have been the preserve of his successor, Homo Erectus. Fire would certainly have made bringing back the kill from the hunt worthwhile. For the first time, hominids could warm themselves and see what they were doing at night. Fire would have provided protection against wild animals, this would have gone a long way to alleviating fear in our remote ancestors. These factors would have had an enormous impact on social gathering, but perhaps the greatest impact of fire was on the preparation of food.

We are now coming to a hominid more like ourselves, Homo Erectus 1.5million to 500,000 years ago, cranial capacity 800-1200. Again, he evolved in East Africa and probably lived side by side with Homo Habilis. Again, he probably killed off the earlier species, or simply Habilis would have been unable to compete and disappeared. But not before some element of interbreeding. It is becoming increasingly evident that Erectus and Ergaster and possibly Ergaster and Habilis may actually have had meaningful and fruitful relationships between individuals. A similar story to the later one between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals and other Archaic Humans.

At some stage, probably around 7-800,000 years or so ago, our Homo Erectus ancestors mastered the making of fire and acquired a taste for cooked meat. Nobody is quite sure why or how this came about but the outcome was life-changing and in all probability was the major factor in the comparatively rapid increase in brain size of Erectus. Early hominids, like their chimpanzee cousins, would have spent most of their waking hours gathering vegetation, masticating and digesting, Cooked food changed all this, cooked meat is easier to masticate and digest, not to mention that it tastes a lot better. the cooking process kills bacteria and parasites. Time previously spent in mastication and digestion was now freed up for following other pursuits. Our ancestors became bigger, healthier and stronger. With fire came greater social integration, more communal hunting and feasting, encouraging greater communication between individuals. Perhaps we see here the start of simple language.

Erectus’s tooling was more sophisticated as were their hunting techniques, they probably manufactured wooden spears up to six feet in length and sharpened for hunting. With their larger brain and increased strength and resilience, Erectus migrated halfway around the world. This coincided with a time of considerable Earth cooling, the use of fire and clothing would have become an absolute necessity in the colder northern climates. But the big biological evolutionary step as far as Homo Erectus was concerned may well have been the evolution in the brain of a form of self- awareness, a crucial stage in hominid development.

It is thought that from say 1 million or so years ago Homo Erectus might have started to become aware of himself and of his own existence. It is unlikely that he would have been able to express this awareness to his mates in cogent terms but he may well have been able to make them aware of his own awareness! This was a crucial step in human evolution because being self-aware must be a prerequisite for any higher thought processes. One could equate this to child development; a child of less than 18 months would normally not be able to recognise himself in the mirror but from 2 years he would certainly show signs of self-recognition and of course as we all know some of the child’s first words are ‘me’ and ‘mine’, a clear sign that by the age of 2 a child is well aware of himself. Nothing like a bit of self-awareness!

Continuing with our evolutionary account, the next stage, from a million or so years ago, is the evolution from Homo Erectus into a variety of Archaic Human species, although Homo Erectus did stay for another few hundred thousand years. These Archaic Humans included Neanderthals, and Denisovans, and eventually Homo Sapiens, ourselves, who evolved from Archaic Homo Sapiens in Southern Africa. Both Neanderthals and Denisovans were around from approximately 500,000 to 40,000 years ago (cranial capacity of both1150-1550 cc against modern humans averaging 1350-1450 cc). Contrary to popular belief neither species was a direct ancestor of Homo Sapiens. They were, however, in the later phases contemporaries when it is believed both species became outplayed and outsmarted by Homo Sapiens. But, as mentioned above, not before some meaningful relationships between Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern Homo Sapiens. There is now clear evidence that modern European populations are anything from 3/4% up to possibly10% Neanderthal. There is also firm evidence that modern populations in parts of south-east Asia have Denisovan DNA. Therefore, and contrary to what was understood to be the case until very recently, it now appears that we are very much a mongrel species comprising DNA from all our various hominin predecessors.

If it is acknowledged that self-awareness was a fundamental step in the evolution of modern humans, then the Theory of Mind might have constituted the next giant psychological leap. Although the jury is still out on this Theory of Mind may well have developed in early Archaic Humans, which may have constituted the fundamental departure of Archaic Humans from Homo Erectus. Our Neanderthal cousins would clearly have had this capability. So what is Theory of Mind? It is the ability to view and understand others in the same way that one views and understands oneself. If I am thinking in a particular way then probably my compatriots are thinking in the same way, it’s not what I am thinking but how I am thinking. If I am conscious of my own thoughts then I am conscious that others are conscious of my thoughts! Maybe our Neanderthal cousins were not so different…

Theory of Mind has been described in many ways, perhaps the best way of looking at it is to put yourself in another person’s mind i.e. guessing by way of a person’s reaction what that person may be thinking, an understanding of another’s thoughts. If you have self-awareness then you can begin to understand the thoughts and emotions of your colleagues, you can imagine what it is like to be them because you know what it is like to be yourself!

And that brings us to Autobiographical Thinking or Memory which is probably peculiar to us, Homo Sapiens. Whilst is likely that our Archaic Human compatriots would have had an element of Theory of Mind, they may not have undergone this subsequent transformation. Is this what has made us what we are! Is it the final nail in the coffin for our archaic human brethren?

Very basically Autobiographical Memory is the ability to relive past events in the mind and project those events into future planning. It is thought that this process might have started around 120,000 or so years ago and, as with Self-Awareness and Theory of Mind, taken many tens of thousands of years to develop. It is unlikely that it is the final process in human consciousness, in biological evolutionary terms of the human brain, is still at an early stage!

Perhaps the best way of providing an example of this Autobiographical Memory is again to look at the development of children. Prior to the age of 4 children generally don’t have much conception of the past or future, they live life in the present. Although they will recall past events, like hurting themselves, they don’t necessarily have the cognitive ability to use the experience of those past events to prevent the same thing happening in the future. That’s why we always hold on to a child when crossing a road. As children get older the past and present begin to merge into a continual stream of consciousness which is utilised to consider and formulate present and future activity.

All these views about the development of the mind are at best theories, nobody has, as yet, been able to examine the thought processes of early hominids. The big questions in these evolutionary processes are how early humans benefitted from the accumulation of knowledge and experience of their ancestors and peers, the essence of cultural evolution. Were these processes influenced by linguistic capacity and if so what was the extent of linguistic capacity? How was this evolutionary process influenced by the development of human self-control and the exercise of free will? Indeed when and how did self-control, and free will develop? Too many questions to which there are still no conclusive answers.

So, to go back to religious belief, at what stage and how during this early phase of human development did Homo Sapiens develop a belief in his own soul and how did this belief, if it existed at all, transmute into ‘religion’? Religion has been the subject of too many definitions down the ages, I am just going to say that religion is ‘belief in some form of supernatural’. It certainly appears that religious belief has been universal in all human societies (although presently possibly something strange is happening in certain human societies: is this part of the evolutionary process?) but when did it start? For some time, perhaps the last 50-60,000 years, cultural evolution has occurred through what Richard Dawkins has termed ‘memes’ rather than changes in the human genotype. Dawkins introduced the concept of memes, which essentially are non-biological traits whereby ideas and customs are transmitted from one generation to the next. In his seminal work ‘The Selfish Gene’. Dawkins view is that there is absolutely no Darwinian rationale for religion, religion offers no physical benefit to be passed on in the genes. Religion can and must only arise through Cultural Evolution, essentially by ‘memes’ from one generation to the next. And despite Dawkins displeasure, religion has come to dominate, certainly up to very recently. But why and how?

In all probability, there was no conception of gods or perhaps even spirits until the initial stages of Autobiographical Memory.  This Autobiographical Memory probably brought on humankind’s awareness of its own mortality thus leading to the as yet unanswered questions, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What does it all mean?’ ‘What happens when I die?’. The fundamental questions of all religions.

What do we need for culture to develop in addition to the transitions which I talk about above? Certainly, the development of complex language would be a pre-requisite, both for communication of ‘memes’ and for abstract and complex thought. Possibly also the fulfilment of two human emotions which may well have been the latest to evolve, the emotions of guilt and shame, coupled with an increased sense of fear. Take these emotions together, add an acute knowledge of death, an awareness of animal life and a sense of wonder at natural and inexplicable phenomena and is perhaps not difficult to see how our ancestors may have developed some form of magico-supernatural awareness despite Dawkins view that it is not rational. Perhaps the whole point of the evolution of the human mind, and what sets us apart, is an abandonment of rationality!

We are now somewhere around 75,000 years ago. Modern Homo Sapiens i.e. us, still only occupied a tiny part of southern Africa. Our total population may have been no more than 100,000, perhaps rather less. At this point, it would have seemed impossible that Homo Sapiens would dominate the world 75,000 years later with a population of over 7 billion.

Something happened around 60,000 years ago or perhaps earlier, we started to travel the world. It wasn’t the first time that hominids travelled the world, Homo Erectus had turned up in many places, but it was the first time a hominid species travelled so extensively over such a short period of time. We got to Australia about 45-50,000 years ago, by which time we had occupied a large part of the Old World. We got to the Americas possibly as early as 30,000 years ago. Sea levels had reduced by over 100 metres at the height of the last Ice Age and we could simply walk across the Bering Straits. Why this sudden burst of activity? Was it because our brain had at last fully assimilated Autobiographical Memory and had mastered complex speech? Whatever the reason by about 25,000 years ago none of our hominin cousins survived, we dominated.

Certainly by circa 40,000 years ago we would have had a clear understanding of our own mortality, and no doubt a conception of the supernatural. Possibly also a growing perception of deity may have emerged. But what certainly did emerge was our ability to portray images in our mind graphically i.e. cave art. The proliferation of this art clearly shows the human ability to manipulate and recreate mental images. Is there any correlation between these images and a supernatural world? What do these images represent, are they purely visual or do they also have a spiritual connection?

In my next article, I want to examine this art from about 40,000 years onwards, consider what was driving this, and then go on to think about our first tentative steps towards what is now euphemistically called civilisation.

Author: Neil Meldrum

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