Apes to Angels: An Excerpt from Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion

Apes to Angels: An Excerpt from Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


From Chapter 1—Apes to Angels

We humans crave emotional connection with others. This deep desire to connect can be explained by the long evolutionary history we shared with other primates, the monkeys and apes. At the same time, it explains why humans evolved to become the spiritual ape—the ape that grew a large brain, the ape that stood up, the ape that first created art, but, above all, the ape that evolved God.

A focus on emotional connection is an exciting way to view human prehistory, but it is not the traditional way. Millions of years of human evolution are most often recounted as a series of changes in the skeletons, artifacts, and big, flashy, attention-grabbing behaviors of our ancestors. Medium-size skulls with forward-jutting jaws morph into skulls with high foreheads, large enough to house a neuron-packed human brain. Bones of the leg lengthen and shape-shift over time, so that a foot with apelike curved toes becomes a foot that imprints the sand just the way yours and mine do as we stroll along the surf. Crudely modified tools made of rough stone develop gradually into objects of antler and bone, delicately fashioned and as much symbolic as utilitarian. Caves, at first refuges for Neandertal hunters seeking shelter from hungry bears and other carnivores, become colorful art galleries when Homo sapiens begins to paint the walls with magnificent images of the animals they hunt.

Stones, bones, and “big” behaviors like tool-making and cave-painting do change over time as our ancestors evolve, and much of what we can learn about these transformations is enlightening. But the most profound, indeed the most stirring transformations in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens involve what does not fossilize and what is only sometimes made tangible: belongingness.

Belongingness is mattering to someone who matters to you. It’s about getting positive feelings from our relationships. It’s what you and I work to maintain (or what we wish for) with family and friends, and perhaps also with colleagues or people in our community; for some of us, it extends to animals as well (other animals, for we humans are first and foremost animals). Relating emotionally to others shapes the very quality of our lives.

Belongingness, then, is a useful shorthand term for the undeniable reality that humans of all ages, in all societies, thrive in relation to others. That humans crave emotional connection is obvious in some respects. Most of us marry and live in families, configured either as parents (or a single parent) living with children or, more commonly worldwide, as multiple generations living together in extended family groups. We do things, both spiritual and secular, and by choice as well as necessity, in groups of relatives, friends, and associates. We write great literature and make great art based on the deepest emotions for those we love, or pine for, or grieve for.

Who can linger over a superbly crafted love poem and doubt the depth of human yearning for belongingness? We feel, rather than merely read or hear, Emily Dickinson’s poem “Compensation”:

For each extatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.
For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears. 

For one reader, these words might conjure up two lovers separated, by death or by mere circumstance, after a too-fleeting time together, an image accompanied by a feeling of searing loss. For another reader, they might bring to mind what happens when a cherished child not only grows up but grows apart, a thought coupled with a bittersweet mingling of pride and regret at being the center of her universe no more.

Emerging from the emotional depths of this poem, a reader might wonder what new can be said about human belongingness that might shed light on the evolution of the human religious imagination. Compelling questions can guide us here.

Weaving a Story

How did humans go from craving belongingness to relating in profound and deep ways to God, gods, or spirits? How did an engagement with the sacred that is wholly unique to humans emerge from a desire for belongingness that is common to monkeys, apes, extinct human ancestors, and humans of today? These seem to me the most vital questions, and they will act as my touchstone as I weave two thick strands of information together into an evolutionary account of the prehistory of belongingness.

ImageFor two and a half decades, at work in zoos and research centers and in the African bush, I have observed, filmed, and interpreted the behavior of monkeys and apes. The social and emotional behavior of these close relatives of ours never fails to fascinate in its own right. In long-term study of particular social groups, any keen observer comes to recognize bitter rivalries, deep friendships, and enduring family ties— and becomes convinced that the animals, too, recognize them and act accordingly.

Like most anthropologists, however, I have been motivated ultimately by the wish to understand better the behavior of my own species. Coupling my own research with analysis of the behavior of our humanlike extinct ancestors in Africa, Asia, and Europe—as studied by other scholars—has allowed me to grasp something about just how we humans evolved. I am especially fascinated with the evolutionary history of empathy; of meaning-making; of rule-following; of imagination; and of consciousness. In what ways do monkeys and apes today express behaviors related to these aspects of emotional and cognitive life? How can we best seek evidence of these in our extinct ancestors? Can we uncover traces of our emotional prehistory in the remains, both physical and cultural, of the Neandertals and related groups? If so, how do these traces speak to us across the millennia about the development of religion?

These questions emerge from my own experience as an observer of primates, a writer, and a student of others’ anthropological research— and indeed from my long-standing tendency to be attracted to the “big questions” of biological anthropology. Yet no book that purports to explain something meaningful about religion can spring entirely from a single discipline. Though biological anthropology is the most appropriate field in which to ground our inquiry, it’s necessary to adopt a broad perspective.

A second set of issues beckons us further into the labyrinth that must be negotiated in any study of religion. What is religion? What is the relationship—both in the present and in the past—between religious belief and religious practice? That is, must religion be defined as a set of beliefs, or can it be something different? How do theologians and other religious thinkers portray the relationship between faith and practice? Can understanding this relationship lead us to a different take on the findings from the first set of questions, those about the prehistory of religion?

The challenge is to weave together two discrete strands: the development of the religious imagination throughout prehistory, and the phenomenon of religion itself. These two threads, each with a panoply of attendant questions, seem to lead in a dizzying variety of directions. In the following chapters, I shall draw the threads together into a coherent story. Along the way, I will compare and contrast my views with those of other writers who speculate about the origins of religion. In what ways are these theorists on the right track, and in what ways do they miss critical pieces of the puzzle?

For now, the essence of my argument can be summarized in three key points:

A fundamental characteristic of all primates, the need for belongingness is most elaborated in the African apes, our closest living relatives. Though we did not descend from chimpanzees or gorillas, we share with them a common ancestor. The everyday social behavior of this apelike ancestor laid a foundation for the evolution of religion that was to come much later, a foundation that can be reconstructed from knowledge of what today’s apes do.

Drawing on my own years of up-close-and-personal encounters with chimpanzees and gorillas, I discuss in Chapter 2 the early precursors to religion—empathy, meaning-making, rule-following, and imagination— and how these relate to the issue of ape consciousness. I am convinced that apes are highly sensitive and tuned in to one another starting in infancy, when a baby begins to negotiate with its mother about its needs. More than most other mammals, ape infants are born into a highly social world, a web of emotional interactions among relatives and other social partners. Research on animals like dolphins and elephants may someday challenge this conclusion, but it seems clear at least that the way two apes respond to each other sensitively and contingently is of different quality than what happens when two wolves, say, or two domestic cats, circle each other and adjust to each other’s snarls, or lunges, in a well-honed, highly instinctual dance. It even seems different from the learned behaviors of other primates, like monkeys. The apes’ finely tuned responses to each other are rooted in belongingness, in the emotionality toward others that stems from their being so keenly dependent on their mothers and other relatives from birth onward.

Second, profound changes in emotional relating occurred as our human ancestors’ lives diverged from those of the apelike ancestors. In Chapters 3 through 6, I focus on the origins of the human religious imagination in the span of time bounded, on the one end, by the divergence of hominids (human ancestors) from the ape lineage about 6 million or 7 million years ago, and on the other by the beginning of farming and settled communities around 10,000 years ago. Admittedly, we can glean almost nothing concrete about emotional connectedness as far back as 7 million years (though we can continue to use modern day apes as models, and speculate in useful ways).After 3 million years ago, the record of material culture—fossilized artifacts and other concrete products of hominid behavior—begins. At that point, tangible clues help us assess the changes that take place in empathy, meaning making, rule-following, imagination, and consciousness, and, indeed, in the pattern of nurturing and caring that lays the foundation for all of these.

After all, it is not the stones and bones, the technology and art, that deserve top billing in our prehistory; it is material culture’s emotional backstory that does. Throughout the millennia, hominid mothers nurtured their children; siblings played with each other and with their friends; adults shifted alliances, supporting first this friend, then another, against a rival. The emotional dependency of ape infants on their mothers and other relatives only deepened and lengthened as the human lineage began to evolve, a fact with cascading consequences for the hominids’ whole lives.

The archaeologist Steven Mithen rescues Neandertals, for instance, from the caveman-dragging-cavewoman-by-the-hair stereotype by acknowledging this rich inner life; he writes of “intensely emotional beings: happy Neanderthals, sad Neanderthals, angry Neanderthals, disgusted Neanderthals, envious Neanderthals, guilty Neanderthals, grief-stricken Neanderthals, and Neanderthals in love.”1 While I embrace Mithen’s sensibility, I would have put the statement a bit differently: “Neandertals making each other happy, Neandertals making each other sad . . .” Emotions, before, after, and during the Neandertal period, are created when individuals act together and make meaning together, starting in infancy. The excitement in understanding human evolution is centered in tracing this mutual creativity and meaning making, indeed in tracing the evolution of belongingness.

Third, the hominid need for belongingness rippled out, eventually expanding into a wholly new realm. In tandem with, and in part driven by, changes in the natural environment, in the hominid brain, and most important, in caregiving practices, something new emerged that went beyond empathy, rule-following, and imagination within the family and immediate group, and that went beyond consciousness expressed through action and meaning-making in the here and now. As I explain in Chapters 6 and 7, language and culture became more complex as symbols and ritual practices began to play a more central role in how hominids made sense of their world. An earthly need for belongingness led to the human religious imagination and thus to the otherworldly realm of relating with God, gods, and spirits.

From the building blocks we find in apelike ancestors emerged the soulful need to pray to gods, to praise God with hymns, to shake in terror before the power of invisible spirits, to fear for one’s life at the hands of the unknown or to feel bathed in all-enveloping love from the heavens. To express in straightforward language the profound depth of this human emotional connection to the sacred is a challenge. The inaccessibility to language of the sacred experience mirrors what Martin Buber writes about when he describes human relating with God: it “is wrapped in a cloud but reveals itself, it lacks but creates language. We hear no You and yet we feel addressed; we answer—creating, thinking, acting: with our being we speak the basic word, unable to say You with our mouth.”2

Buber’s I and Thou is a wonderful (in the word’s literal sense) lead-in to understanding my thesis. Buber says that “all actual life is encounter,” that “in the beginning is the relation,” that “man becomes an I through a You.”3 This is so and has been so for a very long time in our prehistory. What’s so beautiful and compelling about the human religious imagination in all its ineffable relating is how it emerges from its evolutionary precursors and yet completely transfigures them.

In highlighting this critical balance between evolutionary continuity and evolutionary transformation, I want to be crystal clear about the role of belongingness in the origins of religion. I see belongingness as one aspect of religiousness—an aspect so essential that the human religious imagination could not have evolved without it. In scientific lingo, belongingness is a necessary condition for the evolution of religion. Over the course of prehistory, belongingness was transformed from a basic emotional relating between individuals to a deeper relating, one that had the potential to become transcendent, between people and supernatural beings or forces.


My focus on belongingness distinguishes my perspective from the dominant one today. In our age of high-tech science, when gene sequencing and brain-mapping reign supreme, it is little surprise to find that the most popular theories of the origin of religion center around properties of genes and brains. Specific genetic-biochemical profiles and inherited brain “modules” devoted to the expression of religion animate these theories. While something can be learned from such scenarios, they are sterile to the degree that they fail to grasp the significance of what matters most: people deeply and emotionally engaged with others of their kind, and eventually with the sacred.

That social interactions played a central role in the origins of religion is not, of course, an original insight. Such an emphasis may no longer be favored, but at least since the time of the pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim in the early twentieth century, and indeed since Buber, theorists have expressed the importance of connections between religion and social-emotional phenomena. A few theorists continue that trend today. But as I have indicated, to fully probe the origins of religion, we must look beyond even the first glimmers of human evolution to examine the emotional lives of the apes.And so I start the evolutionary clock earlier than do others who chart the origins of the religious imagination.

The challenge at the heart of this book is to tell the story of the earliest origins of religion. As is already clear, commitment to an evolutionary perspective on religion amounts to a claim that humans evolved God gradually and not via some spiritual big bang. Before moving, in subsequent chapters, to specifics of the evolutionary perspective itself, it remains to say something more concrete about religion itself. One linguistic clarification can be made immediately. By adopting the term “the human religious imagination,” I do not mean to imply that humans simply make up God, gods, and spirits in their imaginations. Nor do I claim—nor, indeed, could I claim—that these sacred beings are real in our world. Matters of faith are not amenable to scientific analysis, experimentation, or testing; writing as a biological anthropologist, I remain agnostic on this question. My focus is on our prehistory, and on how—and why—we evolved God as that prehistory unfolded.

A Brief World Tour

Our exploration of the evolution of the religious imagination begins with visits to three locations across the globe. In West Africa’s Ivory Coast, we walk through a lush rainforest and let our senses take us on a journey usually reserved for calling monkeys and swift-flying, colorful birds. Slowly we make our way under the thick, humid canopy, and find ourselves looking over the shoulder of a scientist who observes a female, not yet of adult age, laying motionless on the ground. She is dead, the victim of an attack by a leopard.4

In death, Tina becomes a magnet for other members of her community. Sitting around her body are twelve individuals, six males and six females. But these quiet observers are not people of the Senufo or Guro tribes, or indeed of any of the other human tribes in the region where Tina was born. They are chimpanzees, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom.

Buy Read the rest of Barbara King’s Evolving God by purchasing the book at Amazon.com.

From Chapter Four—Cave Stories: Neandertals

Regourdou Cave, southern France, about 65,000 years ago: a small group of hominids gathers to bury one of their own. Of special importance to the group, the individual who died deserves an elaborate send-off. Chosen members have been at work preparing for the burial ritual.

Now, the time has come. The body, folded into a crouched position, is placed on a series of flat stones at the bottom of a depression. Two leg bones from a bear are placed at the foot of the body, while atop the chest is positioned a slab of rock. Next, a variety of tools is brought to the slab, together with a foreleg bone from a bear, intentionally split in half. The slab, and indeed the body itself, is then covered by a mixture of an ashlike substance with boulders and cobbles. And finally, the entire burial mound is marked with the antler of an elk, and a fire is lit there. After the burial ritual, participants feast on bear meat. As they finish and file away from the grave, some of them already plan their next visit to honor the grave.

For information on Neandertal activity at Regourdou, I am in-debted to Brian Hayden’s Shamans, Sorcerers, and Saints. My French is too spare for the reliable reading of the original archaeological reports that he was able to carry out, and his interview with the site’s original excavator, Eugene Bonifay, produced valuable insights. Admittedly, some of my reconstruction here is speculative. Strictly speaking, I cannot know whether group members were chosen to prepare the ritual, or whether bear meat was eaten after (rather than before or during) the burial, or what the hominids involved may have thought or planned at any given moment. Yet in all key respects, this scenario is true to the archaeological analysis and the speculations are highly consistent with it.

Far less famous than its near neighbor Lascaux, where the renowned “Hall of the Bulls” cave paintings are located, Regourdou is a treasure trove of information about this period of our prehistory. Whereas Lascaux was home to early modern humans (see Chapter 5), at Regourdou lived Neandertals, the “cave people” who have piqued our imagination for 150 years. Living in Europe and Asia, so astonishingly like us in some ways and utterly different in others, Neandertals are arguably the most fascinating hominids of all.

To interpret convincingly what happened at Regourdou 65,000 years ago, we must enter the realm of ritual. To begin with: the burial. The placement of the body, its association with tools and stones, and the marking of the grave rule out the work of a natural process. Neither water, nor animals, nor anything related to long-term geological change, could account for these precise arrangements. The dead Neandertal’s social companions treated his or her body in a remarkable way, indeed in an unprecedented way.

What role did the deceased Neandertal play in life at Regourdou? Did he or she possess some special knowledge or skills valued by the group? Did participants in the burial mourn their loss, expressing sorrow through tears or gestures or words, or all three? If only we could peer through the millennia and find answers to questions like these, as well as to others that touch directly on the origins of religion. Were the animal bones and tools included in the grave as a way to ease a path into the afterlife? Did Neandertals conceive of some otherworldly, sacred dimension into which they passed upon death?

Resourcefulness helps here, primarily a willingness to navigate by an indirect compass. A focus on the type of animal bones found with the body is a good place to start; understanding what happened at Regourdou is enhanced by knowing about the relationship between Neandertals and bears.

Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear may lack scientific rigor when it projects modern human emotions back into our past, but its title is apt. Some Neandertal groups apparently moved beyond a predator/prey relationship with cave bears (a relationship in which Neandertals would have, unfortunately for them, played both roles) into the realm of the symbolic. Consider what is found at Regourdou on the other side of a wall from the burial site: an area called the bear cist.

Essentially a stone coffer, the cist consists of walls and a ceiling. That some of these walls are Neandertal-made is evident because they are vertical and because the stone used to make them came from outside the cave. The ceiling consists of a heavy (more than 1600-pound) limestone slab positioned across the top of two walls. This slab amounts to a final blow to any lingering notion that natural forces were responsible for Regourdou’s most intriguing features. “To pretend . . . that this slab could have come to rest naturally in this position,” writes Hayden, “over an empty void, without breaking and without crumbling the walls that precariously and precisely support it at its edges, strains credulity.”5 Further, small gaps between the slab and the walls were filled in with smaller rocks, and a second slab partly supported the first. Pierced by a single natural hole, slab number two is distinct from the naturally occurring stone within the cave. Though Neandertals did not create the hole itself, they removed flakes from the slab to make its overall shape more symmetrical.

Inside the cist area are bear bones, carefully arranged: the skull was placed between some stones; long bones were laid out, and shoulder blades were crossed. What may be cut marks from tools appear on the bones, though scientists are not certain about this. The bones are heavily biased toward young bears, as are the bones that show up in caches of animals taken by hunters.

Neandertals took great care, then, in positioning a body and grave goods, in one room, and bones of a bear, in another. What can be learned about Neandertal ritual from these acts? Concluding that the events surrounding the Neandertal burial happened at the same time as those surrounding the arrangement of bear bones in the cist, Hayden describes “a funeral ritual probably involving feasting on bear meat.”6

The buried body and the bear bones come from bed 4 of the excavation; in other layers are equally intriguing findings that support Hayden’s invoking of ritual. Pit V(a), for instance, contains an upside-down bear skull with two cobbles around it, with a third cobble on top; two bear arm bones that were made to cross each other and to lie partly on a rock; and a limestone slab with a hole in it. Once again, the actions of Neandertals are implicated here. And Regourdou is not unique; other Neandertal sites reinforce the picture of intentional burial and symbolic rituals, though in almost all cases the evidence is keenly debated.

Could Hayden be going too far in suggesting a funeral ritual? I was skeptical, after all, of his linking the 3-million-year-old Makapansgat cobble with any hint of supernatural tendencies in early hominids (see Chapter 3). His ideas about Regourdou, however, stand on firmer ground.

First, both the burial area and the bear cist are signposts pointing to symbolic behavior: the slab atop the body is more than just material rock, and the crossed bones in the bear cist are more than just skeletal remains. They represent something—or, rather, the act of positioning them in a special way represents something. It is impossible to understand the archaeology of Regourdou without thinking symbolically, and realizing that the Neandertals were thinking symbolically.

But what of a skeptic’s response that the Regourdou Neandertals buried their companion only for some practical reason, maybe to prevent predators or disease from harming their group? Certainly, the Neandertals’ large brains could have led them to appreciate, for the first time in human evolution, that there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between decaying bodies and approach of predators or the onset of disease. But if the whole explanation is a utilitarian one, why would the Neandertals have placed a slab over the body and an elk antler atop the grave? Why were no other members of the social group similarly interred? Further, if the bear cist contained only the remains of a good meal, the bones, gnawed by hominid teeth, would have ended up mixed up together in a haphazard heap. Instead, they are carefully arranged.

The question then becomes whether it is justified to build on an interpretation steeped in symbolism to one based on religious ritual. Hayden does link Regourdou to the stirrings of the religious imagination, an unsurprising move given his perspective on prehistory, which we have already encountered. To be fair, he does admit that respect for the dead might by itself explain the Neandertal burial. The burial might amount to a form of ancestor worship; the grave markers would then function to ensure that the group could easily locate the grave and visit it months or years hence. In the end, though,Hayden comes down on the side of Neandertal spirituality, deciding that Neandertals had some notion of a soul, an afterlife, and supernatural power.7

Hayden is by no means alone. Year after year, anthropology students in American colleges watch a documentary on human evolution in which Don Johanson terms Neandertal burial “a powerfully spiritual act.” In their beautiful book Prayer: A History, Philip and Carol Zaleski say that Neandertals enjoyed “a rich prayer life” aimed at securing “the well-being of the dead.”8 The symbolism inherent in Neandertal burials has captured the imagination of anthropologists, religious scholars, and laypersons alike.

Untangling the alternative interpretations of Neandertal symbolic behavior is a challenge to anthropology. How can the various options be cleanly distinguished? Let’s review them. First is the respect hypothesis. It may be that Neandertals simply had heightened respect, or a feeling akin to what we call respect, for some individual group members. Perhaps the person was a skilled stone-knapper or plant gatherer as well as being empathetic and thus engendering the loyalty or good feeling of others. The death of such an individual in a group steeped in belongingness would surely have been felt keenly, and commemorated in special, and symbolic, ways.

How odd it seems to discuss Neandertals in these emotional terms! Popular culture portrays Neandertals as shambling, bumbleheaded creatures. During U.S. election years, there’s no shortage of letters to the editor in national and local newspapers whose writers liken some candidate or other to the dimwitted Neandertal. Neandertal “cavemen” are depicted by the media as club-carrying brutes, sporting animal skins and entirely vacant facial expressions. Even when scholars and museum curators deal with Neandertals, focus is put on skeletal remains or tool making and hunting.

But recall some chimpanzee alpha males are benevolent, and others vengeful; African ape mothers are, typically, highly nurturing of their infants, so much so that infants may pine and grieve when the mothers die. Bipedal australopithecine mothers became acutely sensitized to their infants’ distress signals, especially when mother and baby were separated, and tended to them. By the time of the big-brained Neandertals, how much more developed must the emotions have become?9 Neandertals’ emotional connections to each other can never be traced as precisely as can their tools or hunts, but everything we know about primates and prehistory lends credence to the claim that these connections did exist. One of the few archaeologists to award an emotional life to these hominids, Steven Mithen, consigns them to an existence devoid of symbolism!10 What an irony—it seems that Neandertals are either emotional or cognitively sophisticated in the anthropological literature.

Next on the short list is the ancestor-worship hypothesis. Here, the buried Neandertal is not merely honored at the time of death, but may be venerated for years to come, on into subsequent generations. It’s not beyond possibility that the dead one was a shaman or something like it, with a role connected to the supernatural realm. But the evidence for shamanism at this time is thin at best, and for this hypothesis, no such link to the spiritual is required.

What if Regourdou Neandertals did commemorate death in the context of a growing belief in an afterlife? The grave goods, in that case, might be more than markers of status; they might be intended for use by the deceased in a new life, just as in ancient Egypt, kings were entombed with a wide range of items, from furniture to jewels to preserved meats and wine, to ease their new existence in the afterworld. If that was the case, the grave goods might tend to be utilitarian in nature.

Going further, perhaps Neandertals elevated the bear not just to a symbolic status but also to a sacred symbolic status. Indeed, it’s possible to be endlessly inventive here, reaching deep into the anthropological archives to construct analogies with modern peoples and their animal totems. Until about the 1920s, the Ainu, Japan’s aboriginal people, practiced an elaborate bear cult. For the Ainu, the universe was a vital place, teeming with living creatures, all of which possessed souls. Bears were the most important animals of all. An Ainu man would capture a young bear, then feed and raise it in his home; a lactating woman might agree to serve as cross-species wet nurse. After about two years, the bear was ceremonially killed, releasing its soul for rebirth and kicking off a long elaborate feast (on the meat) that would bring together several tribes. Could events at Regourdou have been a very early precursor to such a ceremony?

These alternatives represent, in the order listed, claims for increasingly sophisticated, and increasingly spiritual, Neandertal symbolic behavior. Of course, more than one of these ideas may be correct; expression of a religious impulse in no way forecloses ancestor worship or respect for the dead. While in theory ways to distinguish between these hypotheses could be devised, at present no reliable way exists to do so in practice.


Yet now is a good time to revisit a central argument of Chapter 1: Religion is practice, based on emotion in action. Even if the precise meaning of the symbolic practices at Regourdou cannot be elucidated, we can affirm that they were almost certainly performed with emotion. Respect for the dead, ancestor worship, and involvement with the afterlife share an intersection of the symbolic with the emotional. Whether any of those practices qualifies as religious ritual depends, of course, on one’s definition.

For the anthropologist Roy Rappaport, ritual is the social act that is basic to humanity. Ritual, he writes, does not just contact the sacred; it creates the sacred. In this way, ritual transforms human action. A piece of cloth that is sacred in one group is not in the least holy in another: the sacredness emerges from the ritual. Operationalizing, Rappaport says that ritual is “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers.”11

In some ways this definition seems a bit lifeless; it omits mention of symbols or emotion, a decision seemingly at odds with Rappaport’s very thesis about the emotionally intense nature of ritual. But let’s look more closely. In his last clause, “not entirely encoded by the performers,” Rappaport points to the fact that ritual is repeated over and over, across time. Its essence, its nature, inheres in the fact that a group of people repeats what other people have done in the past. The act honors the past, in a sense. Even when elements change over time, a basic core is carried forward.

As every basic text in anthropology demonstrates, emotion has been central historically to scholars who theorize about ritual; emotion is the element that separates the sacred from the merely routine. Of course, Neandertal behavior may not live up to an elaborate definition for ritual, because there is no way to discover what a “formal act” done in an “invariant way” might be, prehistorically. I am comfortable, though, talking about ritual at Regourdou in the same way that I am comfortable talking about the culture of chimpanzees or the technology of Homo habilis. There need be no requirement that the definition of Neandertal ritual be precisely identical to the definition of modern human ritual.

But is Regourdou some sort of uniquely complicated site, an outpost of Neandertal symbolism? Before probing this question, let’s return to a chronological account of human evolution and fill in some gaps. We pick up where the previous chapter ended: as Homo habilis evolved into a new type of hominid.

Buy Read the rest of Barbara King’s Evolving God by purchasing the book at Amazon.com.


1 S. Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and

Body (London:Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005), 221.

2 Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Touchstone, 1970), 57.

3 Ibid., 62, 78, 80.

4 Christophe Boesch and H. Boesch-Achermann, The Chimpanzee of the Tai Forest

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

5 Brian Hayden, Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian

Books, 2003), 112.

6 Ibid., 114.

7 Ibid., 117.

8 Philip and Carol Zaleski, Prayer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005). See p. 17.

9 Stanley I.Greenspan and Stuart G. Shanker, The First Idea (New York:Da Capo

Press, 2004).

10 Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthal (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson,


11 R. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge, Eng.:

Cambridge University Press, 1999), 24.