No other animal uses the ritual as intensively and compulsively as Homo sapiens. In fact, archaeologists often consider ritual to be one of the main defining characteristics of modern human behavior, as it relates to the capacity for symbolic thought. We humans seem to be unique in our ability to communicate complex abstract ideas and concepts, not only about the here and now, but also about other, even imaginary, times and places. We do this not only through art, storytelling and myth, but also through ritual. In fact, various theories about the origins of human cognition have proposed that ritual and intelligence evolved side by side.
Biological anthropologists suggest that group ceremonies may have played a key role in transmitting cultural knowledge in prelinguistic societies. Through the symbolic re-enactment of collective narratives, ritual functioned as an embodied proto-language that provided an “external support system” for individual cognition – a crucial step on the road to language itself. Neuroscientist Merlin Donald has argued that ritual was a cornerstone in the evolution of social cognition, allowing early hominids to align their minds with social conventions. By establishing a shared system of collective experiences and symbolic meanings, ritual helped coordinate thought and memory, allowing a group of humans to function as a single organism. And because of its close connection to symbolism, rhythm and movement, as well as its role in demarcating the extraordinary from the ordinary, ritual has also been linked to the evolution of art.
If these theories hold water, ritual is integral to who we are as a species and has played a central role in our evolution. Theories about the distant past are, of course, difficult to test. Pre-literate societies obviously left no text behind them, so we know nothing of their language, beliefs, myths and stories. But while spirits do not fossilize, art and ritual can and should leave traces in the archaeological record.
The earliest evidence of ritual in our own evolutionary line, which split from chimpanzees 6-7 million years ago, comes from burials. In the Atapuerca region of northern Spain, archaeologists have found the skeletal remains of at least twenty-eight individuals in a cave they named Sima de los Huesos (the “Bone Pit”). Although the location is part of an extensive cave system, all of the skeletons were crammed into a small chamber away from the entrance, and an intricately carved quartzite hand ax was also deposited with them. There is no evidence of habitation in the cave, suggesting that the bodies were transported and deposited on purpose. DNA extracted from more than 7,000 bones revealed that the skeletons belonged to members of Homo heidelbergensisthe earliest known relatives of Neanderthals, who lived 430,000 years ago.
A similar burial has been discovered inside a cave in South Africa’s Gauteng province: this time the remains belonged to an archaic human species named Homo naledi. The cave contained the complete skeletons of fifteen individuals. Carbon dating revealed that they lived about a quarter of a million years ago. The site was undisturbed: there was no indication that predators had ever entered the cave, such as teeth marks on the bones, and no rubble or signs of flooding. The skeletons were intact, lying in the same position as the corpses would have been. It seems that other Homo naledi carried the bodies through the dark, winding passages of the cave, climbing to the top of a 12-meter (40-foot) sharp rock and then descending through a narrow crevice to enter an isolated chamber, where they deposited them for rest before securing entry on their exit. And it was not an isolated episode. Corpses have been laid there again and again for generations. It appears to have been a prehistoric cemetery.
Not all scientists are convinced that this is evidence of deliberate burial. Even though various other explanations have been ruled out, there is still no positive proof. Although unlikely, it is still possible that fifteen different individuals fell into the chamber and died there without breaking a bone. Perhaps the topography of the cave was then different and the bodies were washed away by the flood waters. Or there may be another explanation that will be revealed by future research. It’s hard to say based on one site.
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Less controversial evidence comes from our extinct close relatives, the Neanderthals. Burial sites have been found in various places in Iraq, Israel, Croatia, France and elsewhere, and it is clear that these groups did not just dump their dead. They carefully deposited the remains of their dead in cemeteries, especially the bodies of young children, often placing them in the fetal position, and went to great lengths to protect these graves from scavengers. The occasional presence of bear skulls and bones, sometimes arranged in circles, has led some archaeologists to speculate that Neanderthals also practiced totemism or animal worship. In Bruniquel cave in southwestern France, for example, they broke stalagmites and used them to build large circular structures deep underground, which could have been meeting places for some type of ritual. collective.
Some remain skeptical about the complexity of the ritual practices of the Neanderthals. After all, physical evidence is limited and we will never know what was going through their minds as they buried their loved ones. But one thing is certain: by the time our own species appears, the evidence for ritual activity is indisputable. Anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) did not just bury their dead. They adorned them with red ocher and placed jewelry, artwork, and favorite objects and animals inside their tombs. In many cases, they also practiced secondary burials by charring or removing the flesh from the corpse or allowing it to decompose before carefully placing the remains in a grave. They also performed a variety of other collective rituals, as suggested by numerous rock carvings and paintings, symbolic artifacts, and the intentional destruction of pottery and other valuable possessions.
French sociologist Émile Durkheim noted that life in Aboriginal societies alternates between two different phases.
“In one phase, the population is dispersed into small groups that go about their business independently. Each family lives for itself, hunting, fishing, in short striving by all means to obtain the food it needs. In the other phase, on the contrary, the population gathers, concentrates in determined places. […] This concentration takes place when a clan or part of the tribe is summoned to meet and on this occasion […] hold a religious ceremony.
These two different phases, according to Durkheim, constitute two very different realms: the sacred and the profane. The layman understands all those ordinary, mundane, and monotonous activities of daily existence: working, procuring food, and going about daily business. In contrast, the realm of the sacred, which is created by ritual, is dedicated to those things which are considered special. Performing collective ceremonies allowed people to put aside their daily cares and be transported, albeit temporarily, to a different state. And since ritual must always adhere to a rigid structure, participation in collective ceremonies established early social conventions for early humans. By coming together to hold their ceremonies, practitioners ceased to be an assortment of individuals and became one. community with shared norms, rules and values. This is why anthropologist Roy Rappaport has declared ritual to be “humanity’s fundamental social act”. This is how society itself is born. And in fact, it may be, quite literally, historically true.