To our prehistoric forebearers the workings of nature were an unassailable mystery. The elements of the world were soon given names and personalised; attributed human-like properties perhaps originally more out of deference to the unknown than anything else, and then, because their lives depended so completely on the beneficence of these elements an elaborate system of rituals designed to placate these forces came to be established. We must suppose it was easier to make ritual and appease such an important “force” if they are beings like ourselves, capable of thinking, acting and listening.
However, are we safe to suggest that animistic thought emerged as early as the proposed cultural explosion of the Upper Paleolithic c. 40-50,000 BCE? The traditional thinking is that the more extensive use of symbolic behaviour points to an evolutionary watershed which may also have seen the beginnings of animistic practices. We know that today’s ethnographic record demonstrates the ubiquity of animism but we should be careful in assuming that what we have before us in these hunter-gatherer groups is a perfect snapshot of past practices – even among those groups that developed in seeming isolation with no contact with civilization. Whilst we can infer a great deal from, for example, the recent discovery of musical instruments fashioned from the wing bones of vultures – the making of flutes etc. is indicative of just one among a multitude of different types of symbolist activity.
When we look at the evidence for abstract thinking and symbolic thought – the laying of ivory beads in grave ceremonies, the use of red ochre for hunting and decorative body art, the carving of figurines, the cave paintings – none of these practices in and of themselves are unambiguous evidence for the presence of animistic thought – even though they may be “strongly suggestive”. Researchers looking at one of the Venus figurines (c.25,000 BCE) recently managed to identify the fingerprints of a child on the cast – indicating that it may not have been perceived to be a “sacred object”, it might just as well have been a doll or a plaything. In fact, most of the figurines are well worn from handling indicating their possible role in less exalted social practices such as in mating rituals. Also, given the ubiquity of the sun as the primary deity in so many animistic thought systems you would imagine that at least some of the cave paintings in Lascaux etc would carry depictions indicative of it’s worship or reverence, yet this is not the case.
The findings in the Lion, Castle and Stag caverns in Ngewnya, Swaziland demonstrate symbolic behaviour but they are not unambiguous evidence for animistic thought. Obviously these people of the Paleolithic went to great lengths to procure the sparkly version of haematite but it’s use could have been for celebratory gatherings unconnected to animistic ceremony and ritual. They constructed their mining tools of stone choppers and hammers elsewhere (the dolerite being non-local I gather) and then carried them to the site but it’s also plausible to suggest that they left them in situ not in an attempt to appease the spirit world but simply to spare themselves the task of carrying them back. I also don’t think it’s right to assume that just because there was an attested practice amongst contemporary indigenous Swazi’s to bury their digging tools in the caverns for spiritualist purposes, that we may, on these grounds, safely extrapolate that this was the case c. 43,000 BCE.
The beads and sophisticated bone tools found in the Blombos cave dating to 75,000 BCE definitely appear to push back the assumed time for early symbolic thinking and the development of a modern concept of self but we are again in the same quandary of being unable to assert with confidence that this use of symbolism implies the presence of animistic thought. All in all, the evidence of animistic thought from the Paleolithic is suggestive rather than concrete. Note that Henshilwood, the director of the Blombos Cave Project, says that More than 8,000 pieces of ochre were brought to the site and were used almost certainly for symbolic purposes,. Saying that the ochre was used for symbolic purposes is really just another way of saying that we are at a loss as to what it was actually meant to symbolise, other than that it served no practical purpose. Evidence of symbolic thinking and behaviour certainly, but not necessarily of animism.
The famous sorceror and the birdman cave paintings are apparently the best evidence from Paleolithic art of shamanism but all they reveal to me is a tendency on our part to deduce complexity where none exists. The story of the artist Breuil’s embellishments in his sorceror sketch says it all along with the willingness of so many to infer cult worship of a master of animal ceremonies when there is in fact the merest of evidence. Even if we allow that the antlers were originally present and have since faded all we are left with is a depiction of a deer-like animal standing on it’s hindquarters. In archaeologist Timothy Taylor’s, The Prehistory of Sex there is likewise reproduced a Breuil sketch without a caution of the disparity that exists between his depiction and the detail actually found on the cave wall. If it were a ceremony then maybe we should expect to find other paraphernalia depicted or maybe a drawing showing the forces that were being moved to action. What impresses me most in the end is what is not to be found in the painting.
And what can you possibly infer from the so-called birdman? In the drawing there is a sort of spear (a straight line) piercing the rear of the boar/bison/bull/ so we may well think it’s an elaborate trap laid to catch the animal – the bird on the stick used as decoy whilst the man lays on the ground playing possum. Then, once the bull approaches he pierces it with a hidden weapon. The erect phallus looks like the work of stone age adolescent graffiti, added later as a desultory afterthought. If we allow the phallus was included in the original painting then maybe they thought the bull would be attracted by this prominent member and therefore this was the best way to lure the creature to it’s death? Perhaps the prostrate figure wished to have his way with the bull? There are in fact many cave paintings depicting early bestial congress; eg a man on skies mounting an elk (at Angara River site) and a man rear-ending a donkey (Val Camonica 3,000 BCE) – though these don’t work their way into Gimbutas’ Cosmic Mother Goddess hypothesis for obvious reasons.
Joseph Cambell describes the birdman scene as follows;
Down there a large bison bull, eviscerated by a spear that has transfixed its anus and emerged through its sexual organ, stands before a prostrate man. The latter … is rapt in a shamanistic trance. He wears a bird mask; his phallus erect, is pointing at the pierced bull, a throwing stick lies on the ground at his feet and beside him stands a wand or staff bearing on its tip the image of a bird. And then, behind this prostrate shaman, is a large rhinocerous, apparently defecating as it walks away.
Clearly, this is not the exalted religious iconography of Michelangelo.
Campbell goes on to link this to an Australian aboriginal rite of pointing the bone. Here, a shaman holds a pointed bone out of sight between his legs while strewing his own semen and excrement in an attempt to put the victim to sleep, then points the hidden bone from behind his penis directly at the victim. In many cultures, bones of the deceased or of animals are thought to be conduits of the spirit world holding in effect what is considered to be the lifeforce. Campbell continues;
the rhino may well be the shaman’s animal familiar. The position of the lance .. spills the bowels from the area betweem [the bison’s anus and penis] – which is precisely the region affected by the pointing bone of the Australians.
Taylor himself doesn’t know what to make of this interpretation other than it may hint at something complex and strange. My own guess would be that if the aboriginal practice involved a man lying prostrate before a large animal like this in conjunction with the use of semen and faeces to trap the creature then this would certainly be strong evidence of a complex rite worthy of animism. But, most of the evidence we have of the pointing the bone ceremony in aboriginal rites does not involve these further elaborations. If all of the elements of the painting are the work of a single artist then we can say at the very least that there is a strong sexual component linked to the hunting and trapping of the beast – but where otherwise is the evidence that this is a shaman?
Writers on the Palaeolithic have often made the assumption that evidence of symbolic activity must perforce be indicative of animistic thought and practice but we as yet have no firm grounds to make this leap in judgement. Researchers in the field may be forgiven for attributing more complexity than may in fact exist but this has implications for how animistic thought, and by extension religion, is today conceived in certain quarters – being equated with the earliest and therefore more primitive stirrings of the human mind. Animistic thought, by comparison with mere symbolist activity bespeaks a much more nuanced and perceptive evocation of the world, one that entails the adoption of a code of ethics and the institution of a set of mores and values from which the living of a correct life may be adopted. It is reasonable to suppose that this process, so fundamental in the evolution of wo/man’s ethical life, was a long drawn out affair lasting many millenia but we are as yet unable to concretely pinpoint it’s emergence in any of the archaeological finds of the Paleolithic.