A propos of yesterday’s “Ritual: Nature or Nurture?” discussion (which has since oozed over into Pharyngula; if you’re PZ Myers, every time an angel says “religion sure is dumb,” a little bell rings), a reader sent me a link to an article, published this month in what I believe (my Norwegian is a little rusty) to be a publication of the University of Oslo.
Given the nature of the comments on the ritual post (mostly “Twisty is wrong; humans gotta have rituals”), what I expected was a scientific paper arguing that ceremonial tomfoolery is hardwired in H. sapiens, much like women’s innate proclivity to talk too much. In fact the article turned out to be evidence that my theory is righty-o: a report on “a startling archaeological discovery [that] changes our understanding of human history.” The startling archaeological discovery is a remote cave in Botswana where certain ancient Botswanians, believing themselves to be descended from snakes, carved a giant python head into the wall, to which they apparently ritually sacrificed spear heads. ca. 70,000 BCE.
I’m sure that I, too, would be “startled” by the sudden discovery of a giant python head and the hideous charred remains of thousands of ancient Botswanian spearheads. Even without spearheads, unexpected snakes have a way of taking one aback. Longtime readers may recall the painful episode wherein my inadvertent — albeit extremely temporary — juxtaposition with a diamondback rattler actuated, on my part, an injudicious sideways leap the ultimate destination of which turned out to be the aciculate embrace of an opuntia cactus. I was pullin’ pricklies out of my pear for quite some time afterward, I tell you what.
However, the giant stone age python head startles Norwegian archaeologists for less comical reasons. In “chang[ing] our understanding of human history” the discovery appears to push the date of the earliest human ritual practice 30,000 years back from where it used to be on the Timeline of Ill-Advised Human Innovations. It also shifts the official location of the invention of deity-worship from Europe to Africa.
Archaeologist Sheila Coulson describes the tableau: â€œStone age people took these colourful spearheads, brought them to the cave, and finished carving them there. Only the red spearheads were burned. It was a ritual destruction of artifacts. There was no sign of normal habitation. No ordinary tools were found at the site. Our find means that humans were more organised and had the capacity for abstract thinking at a much earlier point in history than we have previously assumed. All of the indications suggest that Tsodilo has been known to mankind for almost 100,000 years as a very special place in the pre-historic landscape.â€
Coulson also reveals that hidden in the cave behind the giant stone snake head is a conveniet secret hidey-hole, complete with secret hidden escape shaft. The speculation is that a shaman — or some other species of prehistoric pompadoured evangelist godbag con-man — would secret himself there in his undisclosed location and intimidate, Cheney-like, a gullible audience of true believers with smoke and mirrors.
So you see? You grasp the gist? Domination of submissives through ritualized religious bogosity is a learned behavior resulting from the serendipitous intersection of opportunity and imagination, not some kind of biological imperative. If the Norwegians are right — and when has a Norwegian ever been wrong? — and it’s been going on for twice as long as everyone thought, well, no wonder everybody thinks church is as natural as camembert.
But the reality is, it’s only as natural as All-Natural Kraft American Singles