Researchers working in Ethiopia's remote Afar region have recovered evidence that humans began using stone tools and eating meat far earlier than previously thought. The finds—cut-marked animal bones dating to nearly 3.4 million years ago—push the origin of butchery back a stunning 800,000 years. Furthermore, these ancient butchers were not members of our own genus, Homo, but the more primitive Australopithecus, specifically A. afarensis, the species to which the celebrated Lucy fossil belongs.
One aspect of that past inheritance appears to be the hearth, where fire has a religious function in the household or community itself. How the fire is used changes but the emphasis on its connection to the divine/spirituality remains the same.
But then why the hearths?
It has been suggested that they were used to heat the caves, and this, indeed, would seem to have been the only practical end to which they were turned. However, even if this were the case, one would still have to ask by what accident Sinanthropus could have learned that the blast of a forest, prairie, or volcanic fire could have been turned to such congenial use.
A possible answer is provided by the Ainu ritual of the mountain bear ceremonially entertained during his night-long conversation with the goddess of the hearth; for the fire in that context was not a mere device for the provision of heat but the actual presence of a divinity. The earliest hearths, too, could have been shrines, where fire was cherished in and for itself in the way of a holy image or primitive fetish. The practical value of such a living presence, then, would have been discovered in due time.
The suggestion is rendered the more likely, furthermore, when it is considered that throughout the world the hearth fire remains to this day a sacred as well as secular institution. In many lands, at the time of marriage, the kindling of the hearth in the new home is a crucial rite, and the domestic cult comes into focus in the preservation of its flame. Perpetual flames and votive lights are known practically everywhere in the developed religious cults. The vestal fire of Rome, with its attendant priestesses, was neither for cooking nor for the provision of heat. And we have already learned of the holy fire made and extinguished at the times of the installation and murder of the god-king.
The hearth, then; the mountain sanctuary of the bear; and the ceremonial burial with grave gear, animal sacrifice, and perhaps occasional ritual cannibalism - these, in the period of Neanderthal Man, supply our chief clues to the religious life of a broad middle paleolithic province, documented from the Alps to the Arctic Ocean, eastward to Japan and south to Indonesia. But where the mythogenetic zone and where the diffusion zones within this vast area may have been we do not know, though, surely, the earliest points of reference thus far discovered are the bear-skull sanctuaries of the Central European peaks.
Since the discovery of the Homo Erectus female statue we can take Joseph Campbells outdated view and stretch it back further indicating that Goddess cultures/religions might be one of humanities first religions along with the religions of the hunt:
Neanderthals started burying their dead possibly as 300,000 years ago in southern Europe, and indisputably since 130,000 years ago.
As Joseph Campbell writes on page 66; "the idea of the earth as mother and of burial as a re-entry into the womb for rebirth appears to have recommended itself to at least some of the communities of mankind at an extremely early date. The earliest unmistakable evidences of ritual and therewith of mythological thought yet found have been the grave burials of Homo neanderthalensis, a remote predecessor of our species, whose period is perhaps to be dated as early as 200,000 – 75000 B.C. Neanderthal skeletons have been found interred with supplies (suggesting the idea of another life), accompanied by animal sacrifice (wild ox, bison, and wild goat), with attention to an east-west axis (the path of the sun, which is reborn from the same earth in which the dead are placed), in flexed position (as though within the womb), or in a sleeping posture – in one case with pillow of chips of flint. Sleep and death, awakening and resurrection, the grave as a return to the mother for rebirth; but whether Homo neanderthalensis thought the next awakening would be here again or in some world to come (or even both together) we do not know."
Neanderthals have also been linked to cave art and thus must have started the Temple Cave tradition/religions and not us (which still influences religion today);
"The second mythology of this important era, that of the great temple-caves, is definitely centered in northern Spain and southern France - the so-called Franco-Cantabrian zone - and though the cult may have commenced as a provincial form of some earlier mask ritual of the men's dancing grounds developed in areas to the south, it achieved here a character and ritual investment of such force that the area must be regarded as our first precisely pin-pointed mythogenetic zone; one, furthermore, from whose truly marvelous amplifications of the symbology of the labyrinthine chambers of the soul every one of the high religions and most of the primitive, also, have received instruction. Page 397
Stage IV, then (c. 30,000 - 10,000 B.C.) reveals the mythology of the naked goddess and the mythology of the temple caves. Page 397
"The Cult of the Cave Bear" is a specific hunting religious cult/tradition so long that it stretches from the age of the Neanderthals (and probably earlier to Africa), to its last remnants in Japan today. The cult of the cave bear. The minimum age of this cult of 40,000 years given how old the archaeological find is:
Mythologist Joseph Campbell explores the earliest history of human religion, looking at bear cults from the time of Neanderthals to the modern day.
In Dreachenloch and Wildermannlisloch little walls of stone, up to 32 inches high, formed a kind of bin, within which a number of cave-bear skulls had been carefully arranged. Some of these skulls had little stones arranged around them; others were set on slabs; one, very carefully placed, had the long bones of a cave bear (no doubt its own) placed beneath its snout, another had the long bones pushed through the orbits of its eyes.
The cave in Germany, Petershohle, near Velden, which was explored by Konrad Hormann from 1916 to 1922, had closet like niches in the walls, which contained five cave-bear skulls – and once again the leg bones.
Now the cave bear, it must be told, for all its size, was not an extremely dangerous beast. In the first place, it was not carnivorous but herbivorous, and in the second place, like all bears it had to go to sleep in the winter. But during the ice age the winters were long. The bears would go into the caves to sleep and, while there, could be readily killed. In fact, a tribe of men living in the front part of a cave with a couple of sleeping bears in the rear would have had there a kind of living deep freeze.
Vestiges of a circumpolar Paleolithic cult of the bear have been identified throughout the arctic, from Finland and Northern Russia, across Siberia and Alaska, to Labrador and Hudson Bay: among the Finns and Lapps, Ostyaks and Vogul, Orotchi of the Amur river region, Gilyaks, Goldi, and peoples of Kamchatka; the Nootka, Tlingit, Kwakiutl, and others of the Northwest American Coast; and the Algonquins of the Northeast. And so here is a northern circumpolar hunting continuum in counterpoise to tha broad equatorial planting belt which we traced from Sudan to the Amazon in Part Two. And just as there a certain depth of time was indicated, going back to perhaps c. 7500 B.C., the dawn of the proto-neolithic, so here too there is a depth in time – but how very much greater! For in the high Alps, in the neighborhood of St. Gallen, and again in Germany, some thirty miles northwest of Nurnberg, near Velden, a series of caves containing the ceremonial arranged skulls of a number of cave bears have been discovered, dating from the period (it is almost incredible!) of Neanderthal Man.(Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology page 339)
Page 349: Several other themes also emerges from the evidence reviewed. The orientation east-and-west of the skeleton at La Chepelle-aux-Saints points to a solar reference; as does likewise the position of the handsomely buried rickety 4 year old in the much later grave at Malta. The crouch position of the two adult skeletons at La Ferrassie, as well as of the child at Malta, suggests the fetal position for rebirth; though, on the other hand, they may represent an attempt so to bind the ghost that it should not return to terrify those left behind. For the burial rites of the Ainus, as well as those of the more primitive Aranda of Central Australia, illustrate vividly a primitive fear of the dead, which, as we have already said, is in radical contrast to the attitude expressed in the rites of the primitive planters of the Sudan. The North African hunter's ritual of defense against the killed panther's evil eye, and the curious thrusting of the bones through the eyes of the paleolithic bear, suggest, by analogy, that in that remote period, too, fear was felt of the revengeful magic of the slain beast. And finally, we note that as the animals of the hunt changed, so too did the focal figure of the rites. The earliest animal master, apparently was the cave bear, whose counterpart in Africa was the lion, leopard or panther; whereas in what was perhaps a later context we find the mammoth; and then bison.
In short, then, a prodigious continuum has been identified, deriving in time at least from the period of the Riss-Wurm inter-glacial, about 200,000 B.C. It is represented in its earliest known forms in the high-mountain Neanderthal caves of Germany and Switzerland, but then also, millenniums later, in the caves of Homo sapiens of southern France. Its range in space extends, on the one hand, northeastward throughout the circumpolar sphere of the primitive arctic hunters and collectors, where its ritual of the Master Bear is continued to the present day, and, on the other hand southward into Africa, where the great felines - lion, leopard, panther, etc. - are in the role that is played by the bear in the north. In the survey of the main outlines of the archaeology of our subject, in Part Four, we must ask whether, actually, the African forms of the cult may not go back even further in time than the bear cult of the Neanderthal, so that the shift of role would have been rather from lion to bear then from bear to lion - according to the principle of land-nama, described earlier. For the present, however, our concern can be only: (1) to identify in the broadest terms the cultural zone of the cult of the animal master; (2) to see it in contrast to the younger mythological zone of the maiden sacrifice; and (3) to distinguish both primitive (or relatively primitive) contexts, as far as possible, from the much more securely documented prehistoric assemblages of the basal and high neolithic. from which emerged the great civilizations of the hieratic city state. page 348
i.e. The Bear hunting cult/religion probably originates from the South and a much older culture (Africa). The only differences is that the primary animal changes depending on what is available and the accompanying body of myth and ritual simply becomes attached to this new animal through a process coined as "land naming". This is how a myth can carry forward for so many millenniums.
Iyomande: The Ainu Bear Festival
A documentary film which records the religious bear festival ceremony of the animistic Ainu people in Japan. Includes songs
Campbell: The main idea would seem to be that there is no such thing as death, but simply, as we have said, a passing back and forth of the immortal individual through a veil. The idea was well expressed in the words of the Caribou Eskimo shaman Igjugarjuk: "Life is endless. Only we do not know in what form we shall reappear after death." This idea is apparent also in the Ainu prayers both at the bear sacrific and at teh funeral rite. To the bear: "Precious little divinity... please come again and we shall again do you honor of a sacrifice"; and to the man: "Take hold of [your staff] firmly at the top, and walk securly, minding your feet." The grave gear and sacrificed animals found in the graves in the Dorgone, at La Ferrassie, Le Moustier, and La Chapelleaux-Saints, surely indicate something of the kind for the period of Neanderthal. And though we do not know whether burials of such a type were unusual or unusual at that time, the fact remains that in these cases, at least, a life beyond death was envisioned. Was the handsome hand ax in the grave at Le Moustier a souvenir to be presented to the god or ancestors in the other world? We do not know. And would the dead return at will, or remain with the ancestors. This we do not know either. But there was another world, there can be no doubt. [Primitive Mythology -Pages 348]
Svante Pääbo: DNA clues to our inner neanderthal - Sharing the results of a massive, worldwide study, geneticist Svante Pääbo shows the DNA proof that early humans mated with Neanderthals after we moved out of Africa. (Yes, many of us have Neanderthal DNA.) He also shows how a tiny bone from a baby finger was enough to identify a whole new humanoid species.
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