Reconstructing Prehistoric Religion

A Book Review on D. Bruce Dickson’s The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe 

“There is good reason to suppose that what has come down to us is the merest shadow of their actual achievement, for we find dozens of palettes for grinding ocher colors in places where there are no wall paintings…we may in our mind’s eye summon up admirably painted skins of horses or bison, marvelous wood sculptures, and dancing and singing people, their bodies painted with intricate designs in black, red, and white – all the panoply and vivacity of the great Magdalenian rituals, the major part of which must remain forever unknown…The science of prehistory is extremely well equipped when it comes to providing certain details, such as in what direction the ocher was rubbed over the palette, but it can tell us nothing about what happened when the hand was raised to apply it…If we are to be perfectly truthful, we must confine ourselves to the surviving evidence and let it tell us what it can in fragments which are often incoherent. Prehistoric art is thus no more than a remembered impression barely supported by a few hundred finds, the tiny remnant of a vanished whole, which happens to have come down to us because these objects were less perishable than the rest.”

-Andre Leroi-Gourhan 

“We must look for explanations based on authentic material discoveries, but we must do so not simply on the basis of facts in the positivist sense but rather must take into account the world of the spirit, the supernatural, the supersensory, the realm of faith.”

-Marie Konig

As part of my exploration into prehistoric religion, I reviewed D. Bruce Dickson’s The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe, a study which reconstructs the ancient lifeways of the era’s peoples and religious practices. In doing so, it is my hope to better understand the ecological context of such spirituality, and the spiritualization of the ecosystems themselves, in order to understand early human narratives that may have bound people, biodiversity, and place together. Whether such early religious cosmologies, expressed through its art, rituals, and myths have potential for orienting, grounding, nurturing, and generally revitalizing our own society’s religious practices and historically complex views of nature is, while not an explicit focus of the author, certainly implicit in the work, or at least the subject of an ecological culture searching for a social and spiritual order that could sustain them in their ecological context. As such, what holds “value” for such early people, what they find themselves dependent on, namely the natural forces that contextualize them, the community of life they are embedded within, their own technological apparatus and social relations, the phenomenon of transcendence and aesthetic experience—all of these make up the dynamic prima materia from which a formalized “religion,” with its symbolic narrative and ethical implications must draw from. Dickson, for all of his work, does terrific work in his archaeological inquiry to reconstruct all of these layers necessary to focus on the core elements at the heart of Paleolithic spirituality.

Finding a Method

In the first chapter, “Humanity, the God’s and Archaeology,” Dickson gives an overview of culture, what he terms a proper unit of analysis that gets historically more complex as interrelated social institutions make up systemic wholes. Culture he says, is praxis, transmitted symbolically as evolutionary adaptive techniques. As such, one can take two lines of thinking on the subject, a cultural materialist approach in the vein of Marvin Harris that looks at the ideational superstructure as permeated by corporeal reality, or an ideational approach that sees symbols as cultural patterns that act as blueprints for institutions that shape behavior, trigger events, and revitalize the social order. In this regard, patterns are organized around notions of the sacred, with religion functioning as a struggle with the reality of the human condition by performing specific tasks, of which Dickson points out four mental (m), and five behavioral (b):

  1. Coherent worldview (m)
  2. Moral Ethos (m)
  3. Congruent glue holding the social order to the worldview and ethos (m)
  4. Explaining the meaning of historical experience in intelligible ways (m)
  5. Establishing mechanisms of social control (b)
  6. Reducing tension through therapeutic psychological support (b)
  7. Integrating various institutions (individual, family, government, etc) into whole (b)
  8. Justifying systemic operations (b)
  9. Revitalizing and transforming the sociocultural order to adapt to new circumstances (b)

With these functional tasks in mind as the operating principles and functional tasks of religion, Dickson sees religion as falling into four different types, individualistic, shamanistic, communal, and ecclesiastic, based on the size and complexity of the society that encompasses it. These tasks and categories of religion then become for Dickson, while still incredibly difficult to reconstruct in the Paleolithic, at least a plausible with regards to formulating a method for his inquiry. As the author states,

“This work illustrates through an analysis of Upper Paleolithic archaeological data some of the ways we can use this sympathy […] to interpret the material remains recovered by the archaeologist and to reconstruct what appears to be farthest afield from the material [that is to say, religion].” 15

Here Dickson’s relates his basic premises of his inquiry, that humans share similar psychological regularities and patterns throughout cultures in space and time; and that human culture is likewise patterned and reflected in the material aspects of life, i.e. art, architecture, settlements, debris, mortuary practices, etc. With this in mind, Dickson will use as methods 1) the archaeological analysis of material remains to infer nonmaterial behavior; 2) formal analysis of the external arrangement of imagery and symbols to discover clues to the cosmology in question; and 3) anthropological data from living societies to analogize the remains of such disappeared societies. Before applying these methods to Southwestern France during the Upper Paleolithic era though, Dickson briefly sketches how such a process might give insight into religion, using Christianity as a quick example.

For instance, with regards to the archeological evidence, one might classify church buildings as a type of ceremonial architecture, arrange subtypes in a presumed chronological order, and plot the distribution and regional subdivisions within space and time, before developing a set of inferences about the functions of the various types of architecture based on similarities and differences as they change over time. In terms of the formal analysis of Christian religious theory, insight into the worldview and ethos could be developed through better understanding of the material remains of its social history, as through its art and iconography. And finally, an ethnographic analogy might posit Christianity as a series of rites of passage, mechanisms of social control, psychological support, and social integration. With these in mind, and going into more depth for each, the author speculates that an archaeologist might suspect Christianity’s growth into a political and economic institution to become institutionally central in social life, employing mechanisms of social control and psychological tension-reduction. Two great regional stylistic traditions (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), each with unique art and architectural traditions, over time, developed an increasing structural remoteness that paralleled archeological evidence of growing social complexity and class stratification in late medieval European society. Moreover, as mortuary remains concerned with death figured heavily into art, as did images of resurrection of the dead, the archaeologist would find powerful clues to economic stratification, political hierarchy, and the religious organization of European society reflected in the Christian burials, giving insight into differences in social identities, ranks, and classes. Added to this would be the formal understanding, through images of important men and subservient women, angels, devils, halos, thrones, and a resurrected god-man, that Christianity was a male-centered polytheistic cult, highly structured and hierarchical in nature, with a complex set of symbolic and ideological associations, that saw the world as violent and dangerous with a well-developed belief in a spiritual afterlife and fear of divine judgement and punishment maintaining adherence to the Christian ethos.

In this regard, Christianity might well be conceived of by the archaeologist as a conservative state-sponsored cult whose political and economic interconnections preserved the status quo, which in turn would likely neglect the interpretation of the religion as a potentially revolutionary and radical revitalization movement with a millenarian message. For this reason, if we are to apply such methods to the prehistoric period, we are bound to miss much. Still, as Dickson ends this first introductory chapter,

“patterns are evident in the material remains of these late Pleistocene epoch cultures, their art and symbols likewise are susceptible to formal analysis, and the ethnographies of modern hunter-gatherers provide a likely source of analogic interpretation. Perhaps this fanciful example will embolden the reader to accompany us in our attempt at reconstructing religious life in the Upper Paleolithic period.” 27

Building a Timeline

The second chapter gives an overview of the Pleistocene and Paleolithic eras, its geological formations characterized by seven major processes or phenomena:

1) increased volcanic activity,

2) great cycles of glacial expansion and inter-glaciation,

3) changes in worldwide sea levels,

4) rapid climatic and environmental changes,

5) extensive changes in the distribution of plants and animals,

6) accelerated pace of worldwide mammalian evolution and extinction, and

7) the evolution of the hominid line.

With this in mind, Dickson traces the evolution of the hominids through the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs, tracing major developments from skeletal remains, traces of fire, animal bones, stone tool kits, and biological and cultural adaptations leading to new hunting strategies along with mental and behavioral differences. As the author states, “The appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens is correlated with a series of fundamental technical changes in the hominid cultural repertoire and with evidence of increasingly complex aesthetic and religious impulses.” 37

As Dickson goes into the archaeological systematics, he suggests that early humans began to become concerned with realities transcending mere biological needs, citing the intentional collection of ochre as having “no apparent practical or technological use,” suggesting the development of a “nascent aesthetic sense.” 43 The purposes we can only speculate at (ritual body decoration, ornamentation, ability to mark rank, status, age, sex, delimiting symbolic spaces like ritual areas, healing grounds, graves, or alters, etc.), but the ability to symbolically categorize suggests concerns beyond simple survival, and an appreciation of form and color for their own sake. Moreover, the increased specialization of tools (as seen with the technological transformation through the Levallois technique to the Mousterian tradition) offer adaptive advantages correlated with cognitive or intellectual complexity, for instance examples of art or engravings, the increased use of ochre, and intentional burials with mortuary offerings. Finally, the Upper Paleolithic displays dramatic evidence of increasing complexity as technical and intellectual achievement accelerates, and modern Homo sapiens sapiens replace Neanderthals.

Here then begins the period Dickson will spend his next chapters explaining, the biogeographic and cultural sequences of the area in question, Franco-Cantabria in Southwestern Europe, tracing the transition from middle to upper Paleolithic eras through the various industrial tool phases from Mousterian to the Azilian (chapter three); an analysis of the burials and art of these epochs as hierophanies reflecting social structure and metaphysics in the mobiliary art, decorated weapons, tools, and ornaments, and religiously significant objects, for instance the Venus figurines, decorated slabs, parietal art, and cave painting subjects and techniques, (chapter four); a survey of “classical” interpretations of the art and religion of the period as incorporating rites of passage, hunting magic, cave art, and shamanism, followed by contemporary interpretations by Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Alexander Marshack, Anne Sieveking, and Clive Gamble (among others) as to the patterns, meanings, and external causation factors of these developments (chapter five); and then to a reconstruction of society, culture, and religion through the ethnographic analogy of hunter-gatherers, an analysis of its limitations, and a set of useful hypotheses about Upper Paleolithic sociocultural systems (chapter six).

In this regard, Dickson is able to make a number of findings which I will list below.

Key Findings

With regards to the cultural transition in Upper Paleolithic sites, we notice:

  • An increased size of sites
  • Changes in settlement pattern and subsistence
  • A general predominance of blades over flakes in stone tool inventories
  • The rapid appearance of new, highly standardized tool forms
  • Appearance of composite or multi-component tools
  • An increase in the number of artifacts made of shaped bone, ivory, and antler
  • The first appearance of amber, flint, shells, ochre, and other materials from non-local sources
  • Changes in the numbers of burials and in the nature and composition of burial populations
  • The first appearance of cave and portable art and the possible development of complex notational and calendric systems
  • A dramatic heightening in the pace of cultural and technical change

Dickson’s ethnographic analogy breaks down to the following characteristics of cultures living in similar environments:

  1. Simple technologies
  2. Subsistence system capable of producing only relatively low levels of food energy
  3. Plant-based diets
  4. Little emphasis on accumulation
  5. A low density of population per area
  6. Dependence upon wild food resources, spatially dispersed and seasonally fluctuating in the availability
  7. Population size determined by the amount of wild foodstuffs collectable during the season of minimum availability
  8. Band organization
  9. A reliance upon kinship as the most important principle of social organization
  10. Economic distribution and exchange based on reciprocity
  11. Individual and collective ownership
  12. An absence of full time specializations
  13. An absence of ascribed statuses and roles
  14. Feuding, but no true warfare

These ethnographic findings however are limited by several major points:

  • Upper Paleolithic (UP) period hunting and gathering peoples inhabited many environments that have no equivalent in the historic or modern world
  • UP peoples in Europe hunted numerous animal species now altogether extinct, regionally extinct, or far less abundantly available to historic and modern hunting peoples
  • UP hunting and gathering peoples inhabited richer and more varied environments than do modern hunter-gatherers
  • UP peoples must have subsisted entirely upon the hunting and gathering of wild foodstuffs; very few ethnographically known hunter-gatherers do so
  • The assumption that modern hunting and gathering peoples retain the institutions and behavior patterns of the Paleolithic period is unwarranted

This leads Dickson to several hypotheses:

  • The dietary contribution of hunting was probably more significant during the UP period than among most ethnographically known hunters and gatherers
  • Human population densities were relateively high during the UP period
  • At least by the end of the UP period, subsistence systems were based on seasonally timed combinations of specialized big-game hunting, salmon fishing, and broad-spectrum hunting and gathering that allowed people to live in comparatively large, nucleated communities during some period of the year
  • UP society developed more complex forms of political and social organization than the band

Reconstructing religious practices then, the ethnographic model can predict certain behaviors:

  1. Ethnographically known food collecting societies lack religious specialists just as they lack specialists in other aspects of their social life and political economy.
  2. An ability to enter altered states of consciousness is highly prized and is common in food-collecting populations
  3. Among hunter-gatherers, the rules governing hunting procedures, the treatment of game animals, and the distribution of meat tend to be buttressed by religious sanction
  4. Communal rituals among hunter-gatherers tend to mirror or express the social relations that organize and energize their subsistence systems
  5. Communal rites of passage of hunter-gatherers tend to emphasize the initiation of adolescents into adulthood
  6. The scale and elaboration of the mortuary practices among food collectors is determined by the degree of their sedentism, the nature of their seasonal schedule, and whether or not they practice a delayed-return formed of subsistence

With all these sets in place, Dickson is thereby ready to give his interpretation of religious life in the Upper Paleolithic era in his final chapter. He suggests six attributes:

  • The material patterning which appears to reflect religious activity most directly is found in the UP mortuary remains, parietal art, and certain mobiliary art objects
  • Compared to the preceding Middle Paleolithic period, these mortuary remains exhibit an overall increase in the number, far greater likelihood women and children will be buried, a dramatic increase in the variability, frequency, and quality of grave goods interred with burials, and inter/intra-regional variability in the manner of the interments
  • Uniformity in the styles of parietal and mobiliary art
  • A spatial dichotomy between locations of human habitation and the location of parietal art
  • Parietal art cave sites vary with regards to the quantity of art they contain and the scale and elaborateness of their decoration
  • The natural interiors of parietal art caves exhibit evidence of being decorated and utilized in systematically different ways, with different kinds of “architectural orders”

These six generalizations lead to tentative conclusions about the nature of religious practice. For instance the burial and cult types imply “an ingenious, even elaborate cultural tradition. The continuity and apparent sophistication of this tradition argue persuasively for the presence in the Upper Paleolithic period of social and religious institutions of greater complexity than…[a] shamanistic cult.” 199 Moreover, the seasonal schedules and ceremonial centers suggest a locus of seasonally timed aggregation and religious and ceremonial activity embody and encode a “sacred canon” or religious model of social order that weds the economic realities of the people to a metaphorical expression of social and ideological realities. Finally, the uniformity of the parietal and mobiliary art styles suggest the works were deeply embedded in the ritual life of the period, acting as “an attempt to control nature and society by supernatural means.” Apart from the aesthetics of such art, the shared religious meaning likely “fostered cooperative interactions or information sharing among widely separated UP peoples,” providing peoples with a “common ideology and a universal symbolic grammar for expressing it. This in turn would have likely “fostered general intercommunication and selective advantage [which] accrued to hunting groups with information about game movements over a wide area.

Formal Analysis

Dickson further uses formal analysis to penetrate the systems of meaning to understand the religious life of the period. Binary thought was evident in the spatial separation of “living space” and “ceremonial space,” as with the four other binary oppositions found in the artwork: red and black, left and right, positive and negative, whole or mutilated. This in turn might lead to notions of morality or an afterlife, such as good and evil, life and death, male and female, sacred and profane, beginning to be set in ritual participation and binary code. As with binary thinking, the sexual dualism may have similarly been associated with a regenerative and cyclical worldview, as evidenced in a notational system for recording the lunar cycle and its association with the human female’s menstrual cycle, and by implication the cycle of human birth, growth, and death.

The empirical knowing of the natural phenomena, the passage of time, and the nature of human—especially female—sexuality are characterized and predictable, and so may have become a kind of “grand analogy,” useful in explaining, rationalizing, and investing the universe with intelligible meaning. An ethos emphasizing careful observation of natural cycles would further allow the prediction of the behavior and movements of animals, further confirming the material benefits of such an understanding. This in turn could suggest the meaning of the Venus figurines, whose conjoining of sexual and regenerative principles through the symbolism of women who, far from being just images of “divinity,” represented such distorted proportions (massive breasts and obesity), they may in fact represent a woman with symptoms that suggest a disease (hyperadrenocorticism) associated with states of high excitability and euphoria, which would have perhaps been associated with shamanic powers, and imply the figurines represent a personality cult based on real individuals. This is bolstered by the fact that a majority of the figurines themselves come from a period of two thousand years, becoming more scarce as time passes, as well as the Upper Paleolithic period being the first time when females were commonly buried, perhaps achieving social status on par with men, reflecting a parallel increase in significance. This is all to say the “sacred canon” of the Upper Paleolithic spiritual realm “symbolically reproduces the social processes of production and asserts that the duality and complementarity of the sexes were essential to the social and economic persistence of society.” 214

This has been a long book review for a simple reason, in order to understand the main thesis of the author’s work, decades of archaeological work looking at millions, if not billions of years of context are necessary to understand the major trends of a worldview itself spanning millennia. The rich regional environment that enabled complex subsistence systems to support human populations in densities that would have forced scheduled moves in response to annual cycles may have led to initiation rites as part of ceremonies held at times of maximum social aggregation. The ceremonial centers may have served as the focus of the rites that occurred during these times, suggesting the complexity of their socio-political-economies surpassed that of simple nomadic bands. The religious life in turn may have depended upon part-time shamanic practitioners seeking to engage the spirit in ecstatic encounters whose altered states of consciousness would have contributed to a religious ideology that sanctioned the rules surrounding interpersonal relations, gender roles, hunting procedures, the ethical treatment of game animals, and distribution of food, all of which would have been reflected in the religious and symbolic rituals which modeled the social order. This complex order was experiential, deriving perhaps from the perceived cyclicality in time and its association with sexuality, which would have been generalized into the universal principles and correspondences that formed the basis of Paleolithic consciousness as it reflected upon nature, humankind, the cosmos, and reality, embodied and reflected in the art caves of the region.

Here then the author ends his project, demonstrating through a culmination of material and formal analysis, along with ethnographic analogy, a detailed middle-theory capable of inferring behavior from the scant records left behind in the earthy layers of our planet, with the intention of answering the question as to the nature of humanity’s original religious experience.


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