Most of us have some ideas about who or what God is, but do we really know where those ideas come from. For most of us religious ideas on God come from various scriptures, traditions, history, church leadership, and our own personal spiritual journey. All these sources tend to merge and morph over time to produce a mosaic of God properties. But…… Where do these ideas on God actually come from? How old is the concept of God? What do other world religions think about God? Is any concept of God reasonable in light of knowledge from 21st century science? All important questions when pondering “Who or what is God…for me?”.
This post will address the question, “How old is the concept of God?”
The Neanderthals Of Shanidar Cave
So lets start at the beginning, at least the beginning of the first known human concept of God. For this we turn to archaeology, because God became a reality not with modern humans, but with a totally different species of the human family, Homo neanderthalensis. Both fossil and genetic evidence indicate that Neanderthals and modern humans (Homo sapiens) evolved from a common ancestor between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago. Neanderthals and modern humans belong to the same genus (Homo) and inhabited the same geographic areas in Asia from 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. Genetic evidence strongly indicates that Neanderthals are a separate branche of the human family tree, a separate species. However, the modern human genome does contain small sections of Neanderthal DNA, but it is unclear if it is the result of interbreeding or simply inherited from a common ancestor.
Neanderthals (the ‘th’ pronounced as ‘t’) are our closest extinct human relatives. Their bodies were shorter and stockier than ours, an adaptation to living in cold environments. But their brains were just as large as ours and often larger, proportional to their brawnier bodies.
So we turn to the wonders discovered in Shanidar cave, located on Bradost Mountain in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. How far back are we talking about here, possibly sometime between 35,000 to 65,000 years ago. Shanidar cave is a treasure trove of information on the complex family life of Neanderthals. From this one archaeological site we have learned a great deal about how the Neanderthal family group functioned. Neanderthals controlled fire, lived in shelters, and occasionally made symbolic or ornamental objects. Neanderthals were the first early humans to wear clothing, but it is only with later Homo sapiens that scientists find evidence for the manufacture and use of bone sewing needles to sew together tighter fitting clothing.
More importantly, the Shanidar burials show the first sign of human concern and caring for injured (incapacitated) individuals. Perhaps the first indication of human love. There is evidence that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead and occasionally even marked their graves with offerings, such as flowers and possessions of the deceased for use in a life after death. No other primates, indeed no earlier human species, had ever practiced this sophisticated and symbolic behavior. This may be one of the reasons that the Neanderthal fossil record is so rich compared to some earlier human species; being buried greatly increases the chance of becoming a fossil!
Most important of all, at the very back of Shanidar cave, in a secluded space, is an area specifically set aside for ritualistic gatherings. This area focuses one’s attention on what is obviously a ceremonial alter carved from the local stone. In the ground surrounding the alter stone can be found thousands of various species of animal bones, predominantly bones of the cave bear. Many of the bones had signs of charring from a fire. However, these bones are unique in that they have no butchering marks on them, so the animals were not used as food. Did the Neanderthals practice animal sacrifice as offerings to some higher power?
It would be foolish to try and claim detailed knowledge of the religious practices and ideas of the Neanderthals. We simply have no data or even any idea of their language and rituals, but we can make some very general statements from the abundance of data at Shanidar cave. Neanderthals cared for each other as individuals and are the very first human species to demonstrate compassion. The grave contents indicate they believed in an afterlife and a power higher than themselves. They engaged in communal acts of ritualistic worship. At the very least they had some concept of God, perhaps nothing close to the modern sophisticated ideas of God that we’re familiar with, but they had a feeling of “Something Other” that they worshiped in ritual.
It does cause one to ponder the religious vanity of sophisticated, modern humans visualizing Adam and Eve as beautiful Homo sapien children of God sporting well chiseled physiques, beautiful faces, and great hair as they walked around the Garden of Eden wearing strategically place fig leaves. And by the way, how do you get fig leaves to stick to just the right places?
What irony if the reality turns out to be God first interacted with short, squat, hairy Neanderthals wearing smelly animal skins.
The concept of “God” may go back deep in time and across at least two different species. But is it possible that other species practice spirituality today? Jane Goodall thinks chimpanzees show signs of a spiritual culture. One of the most notable ways chimpanzees have demonstrated what could be considered spirituality is through waterfall displays and rain dances. Dr. Goodall observed and wrote about the dances since her earliest days in Gombe. Other researchers, like JGI’s scientific advisor and filmmaker Bill Wallauer, have observed these rituals as well. Many chimpanzees have been observed performing dances by the waterfall, which makes it seem like a collective cultural display. It would, if likened to human behavior, seem like a chimpanzee way of expressing amazement toward a force of nature.
Reflecting on her observations of the dance, Dr. Goodall has said: “I think chimpanzees are as spiritual as we are, but they can’t analyze it. They don’t talk about it. They can’t describe what they feel. It’s all locked up inside them and the only way they can express it is through this fantastic, rhythmic dance.”
A chimpanzee experience of spirituality may then be a potential example of how our ancient common ancestors developed a sense of religion.