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Oldest evidence for religious ritual?

December 1, 2006

Archeologists have discovered a carving, which they believe to have been used in religious ritual, in Botswana and they believe the carving to be nearly 70,000 years old. The carving appears to be a large python head. Arguing against a strictly natural explanation for the appearance of the creature, archeologists point to notable patterns of indentations that could have only been carved by humans.

Reporting on the significance of the find, Fox News reports:

Scientists had thought human intelligence had not evolved the capacity to perform group rituals until perhaps 40,000 years ago.

But inside a cave in remote hills in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, archeologists found the stone snake that was carved long ago. It is as tall as a man and 20 feet long.

You could see the mouth and eyes of the snake. It looked like a real python,” said Sheila Coulson of the University of Oslo. “The play of sunlight over the indentations gave them the appearance of snake skin. At night, the firelight gave one the feeling that the snake was actually moving.”

The discovery was made in a remote region of Botswana called Tsodilo Hills, the only uplifted area for miles around. It is known to modern San (or Bushmen) people as the Mountains of the Gods and the “Rock That Whispers.”

Their legends have it that mankind descended from the python, and the ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been created by the python as it circled the hills in its ceaseless search for water.

That legend made the discovery of the stone python all the more amazing.

“Our find means that humans were more organized and had the capacity for abstract thinking at a much earlier point in history than we have previously assumed,” Coulson said. “All of the indications suggest that Tsodilo has been known to mankind for almost 100,000 years as a very special place in the prehistoric landscape.”

The signficance of this discovery is not lost on theology. First, we have archeological evidence that some of the earliest intentional communitarian practices were religious in nature, complementing those theological and philosophical assertions that religiosity is a constituitive aspect of human nature. In a time when some prominant evolutionary biologists are suggesting that religion arrived on the scene as a by-product relatively late along the human evolution timeline, this discovery not only adumbrates that humans were practicing religion tens of thousands of years earlier than originally thought, but also that we have yet to find evidence that there were humans or primitive societies that did not practice a type of religion. Note that this is not proof, but evidence for a soundly grounded principle of theological reasoning.

Second, theologians and sociologists of religion cannot let escape the symbolism involved in this discovery. The religious tradition of human descendents of the python relates to, but may not necessarily be tied to, the Semitic peoples’ traditions of offspring of “the serpent”. Though the Semitic tradition points more toward a spiritual and moral reality in evil doers, the notion of any lineage stemming out of a “serpent” may have been common property among ancient religions. The possibilities for thought are manifold.

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