Paleolithic Age Religion & Artifacts

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

The Paleolithic Age is the oldest period of history, but did you know religious traditions, like burying the dead, date all the way back to this time? Let's explore more about Paleolithic religion and its components in this lesson.

Religion in the Paleolithic Age

When you think of religion, what comes to mind? Living in the 21st-century, you might think of religious spaces (like churches, mosques, and temples), symbols and figures (like the cross, the Buddha, and the Dalai Lama), and texts (like the Bible, the Qur'an, and the Vedas). But none of these things existed a long time ago in the Paleolithic Age. This first period of human history spanned perhaps a few millennia, ending around 10,000 BCE. When we think about religion, it can be hard to come to a set definition (even religion scholars do not have a standard definition of religion), but a good way to think of it is a set of beliefs and rituals that have some orientation towards the ''sacred'' or ''other.'' Basically, something outside of and greater than oneself.

The ancient Egyptians are famous for being concerned with the afterlife and burying their dead to prepare them for it. We know this not only because of their monuments and paintings but also because we have written records of their beliefs. The problem with the Paleolithic Age is that we do not have any writings of their beliefs. There were no civilizations with art and architecture that we can learn from since they were nomadic, and did not set up permanent dwellings. Most of what we know about the Paleolithic people is from cave paintings and artifacts, as well as from written records from later, similar groups. There is a lot of conjecture and disagreement about their beliefs.

Paleolithic Death and Afterlife

While there might be disagreement about Paleolithic religious beliefs as a whole, most scholars agree that these earliest people had some concept of the importance of humanity. This is evidenced by burial of the dead. In the earliest parts of the Paleolithic Age, the dead were buried alongside tools and animals and were often covered with rocks for protection. In the later part of the Paleolithic Age, another stage to burial appeared; after the body was buried and decomposed, it would be dug up and the bones would be buried again.

There are two main ideas on what this meant for Paleolithic religion. One idea is, of course, is that the Paleolithic people believed in an afterlife. Much like how the ancient Egyptians prepared their dead for an afterlife by burying them with various goods, the Paleolithic people's provision of tools and protection for the body seems to support this idea.

On the other hand, some think that burial of the dead was simply part of an ancestor cult, meaning that the Paleolithic people worshiped their ancestors, and thought they could provide help and protection even after they were dead. There is also some indication that the people engaged in shamanism, or interaction and manipulation of the spirits, often for protection.

Paleolithic Sacrifice and Ritual

A religious cult, a tradition with a specific focus on certain rituals, ideas, or people, is something that Paleolithic people may have practiced as well. In fact, there is evidence that they had a fertility cult and may have worshiped goddesses of some sort, who blessed them with either fertility or motherly protection during hunting; perhaps both. The famous Venus statuettes are indicative of this. These are small sculptures of women with exaggerated breasts and backsides to represent fertility; the breasts nourish infants and the buttocks are associated with reproduction.

Drawing of a Venus statuette
Drawing of a Venus statuette

Some scholars think that as part of this fertility cult, the people offered human sacrifices, specifically women, and children, who were representative of fertility. It is not certain that they sacrificed humans as part of their religion, but they more than likely sacrificed animals, as bones of animals were found in pits near burial sites. Again, there are multiple theories of what this means for Paleolithic religion. Since these sacrifices were near burial sites, many think they were offerings to the dead ancestors.

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