Did religions originate as death rituals long before we were human?

The roots of religion lie very deep and probably go back to before our ancestors had become hominids.

The sequence probably began with rituals, possibly death and birth rituals in that order. The gods came later. They were likely invented and invested with magical powers to call for desired weather or to avoid natural disasters. Organised religions and their troublesome priests came even later. The use of death rituals most likely goes back to before our ancestors came down from the trees which would be before bipedalism and before the control of fire.

Animals may have religion:

First, animal responses to death show striking similarities to how humans religiously respond to death. For instance, magpies, gorillas, elephants, llamas, foxes, and wolves all use ritual to cope with the death of a companion. Magpies will peck the dead body and then lay blades of grass next to it. Gorillas hold something so similar to a “wake” that many zoos have formalized the ritual. Elephants hold large “funeral” gatherings and treat the bones of their deceased with great respect. Llamas utilize stillness to mourn for their dead. Foxes bury their dead completely, as do wolves, who, if they lose a mate, will often go without sex and seek solitude. In all of these cases, the animals rely on ritual to ease the pain of death. Even if one will not grant their rituals the title “religious,” at the very least the overlap between animal and human death rituals stands out as striking.

Hominids first appeared around 7 -8 million years ago. It is quite likely that they already had death rituals not unlike what we see in gorillas today. These rituals probably became quite complex over the next few million years as communication within and between social groups increased. It is also during this period that the “awe” engendered by natural catastrophes and nature in general was probably formalised into rituals.

…. primates respond to what appears to be the “awe” of nature in ways that could be described as “religious.” The chimpanzees of Gombe “dance” at the base of an enormous waterfall in the Kakombe Valley. This “dance” moves slowly and rhythmically alongside the riverbed. The chimps transition into throwing giant rocks and branches, and then hanging on vines over the stream until the vines verge on snapping. Their “dance” lasts for ten minutes or longer. For humans, this waterfall certainly instills awe and majesty. Obviously, no one can know the internal processes of a chimpanzee. That said, given the champanzees’ reaction to the waterfall and their evolutionary nearness to humans, it is not far-fetched to think that they too may experience feelings of awe when they encounter that waterfall.

Another set of primates, the savanna chimps of Senegal, perform a fire dance. Most animals flee from wildfires, fearing for their lives. To the contrary, these chimps only slowly move away from it, and at times even move closer to it. One dominant male went so far as to make a slow and exaggerated “display” at the fire.

For one last example of primates possibly exhibiting a reaction to the awe of nature, Gombe baboons perform a “baboon sangha.” Without signal or warning, these baboons sat in silence before a stream with many small pools and simply gazed at the water. They did this for over 30 minutes, without even the juveniles making a peep. Again without signal or warning, they resumed their normal activities.

The first god?

The control of fire only comes with homo erectus around 1.6 million years ago. By this time the idea of a sun-god and a moon-god and wind-gods had probably been established. The advent of fire gave rise to fire-gods as offshoots of the sun-god. Initially, I have no doubt, the priority was that the gods were to be placated. With survival the primary objective, natural disasters were to be avoided at all costs. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and storms unleashed unimaginable and inexplicable power and were ascribed to angry gods. Angry gods needed to be placated. It seems to me that explicitly seeking the favour of the gods – prayer – must have come much later.

The idea of priests as having a special position as the mediators between the rabble and the gods, probably coincides with the organisation of rituals and gods into religions. That, of course, is much more recent and probably no more than around 20,000 years ago.

Related: Do Animals Have Religion? Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Religion and Embodiment


 

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