A Stone Age mega-church has been found (not a joke) and my views on this have just been printed in top international science journal New Scientist
HUMAN CIVILIZATION WAS FOUNDED on the religious impulse, scientists discovered.
And Stone Age man even built his own megachurch.
Scientists now believe that the imaginative, metaphor-based symbolic thinking associated with spiritual beliefs led to regular gatherings being organized among hunter-gatherer clans—which in turn gave rise to agriculture, the growth of multi-family communities, and the first human society.
The findings reverse previous theories, which said that the development of agriculture triggered the growth of cultural activities.
“The discovery of huge temples thousands of years older than agriculture suggests that culture arose from spiritual hunger, not full bellies,” reports New Scientist, a hard-science magazine not known for its sympathy to faith groups.
National Geographic reports: “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.”
Uniquely among members of proto-human species, Homo sapiens started to think about cause and effect, existence, meaning and fulfillment. They looked to nature and the skies for answers and met regularly at places of contemplation—which became sites of pilgrimage.
This first search for a Theory of Everything led to numerous experiments to determine how cause and effect worked, and what clues could be had from external and (crucially) internal data.
As the need arose to feed increasingly large numbers of people interested in seeking answers, farming arose.
Archeologists reached these conclusions after discovering numerous examples of ritual gathering places which pre-dated the existence of organized agriculture, in the same places, by thousands of years.
Most impressive was Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, a mega-sanctuary more than 11,000 years old. (Agriculture is 8,000 to 9,000 years old.)
These reports, not surprisingly, triggered some hostility, with people arguing in the letters page of New Scientist that the ancient structures could have been designed for astronomy by atheists.
But that same venerable magazine recently featured the thoughts of an author of science-themed books for young people—yes, it was me—pointing out that such an argument was anachronistic. “The astronomer and the heaven-watcher have almost always been the same person: the individual interested in big questions,” I wrote. An example of the historical unity between scientific and spiritual seekers can be found in the Christmas story, where three coveted seats at the stable in Bethlehem went to professional astronomers.
In the same issue of New Scientist, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins admits that humans may well be hard-wired to attribute physical happenings to a conscious agent, albeit in his usual condescending tone: “Seeing agency where there isn't any is something that may have been programmed into our brains.”
LOCATIONS ARE REVEALING
One of the most intriguing aspects of the findings is the location of these early ritual “mega-churches”—not in Egypt, nor China, nor the Indus Valley or other places which claim to be cradles of civilization.
All the oldest human gathering places were—yes, you guessed—in the Middle East. The ones found up to now are mostly in the area between Turkey and Jerusalem.
This suggests that that much fought-over piece of land was not just a recent favored spot for certain cultural groups, but has a deeper significance reaching back, quite literally, to the dawn of human civilization.
In other words, human groups are fascinated by the “Holy Land” for reasons so deep they may even be genetic. That’s quite a thought.
ANIMALS AS INSPIRATION
In a separate study, scientists concluded that animal domestication also had religious origins.
“People did not invent domestication of animals for economic purposes: they did so for socio-religious ones,” say David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, co-authors of Inside the Neolithic Mind (Thames & Hudson).
Early man took inspiration from specialist traits that animals had, which is why the earliest cave paintings most frequently focus on highly stylized depictions of beasts. He desperately wanted to be as strong as an ox, or be able to run like a horse, and so used these animals as totems.
WE ARE ALL PART OF A STORY
For me, these findings strongly reinforce my belief that the unifying story is the key to understanding how human society has turned out so complex yet so (relatively) peaceful. (See Steven Pinker.)
More than 11,000 years ago, communities united by shared stories triggered the growth of human civilization. They did so by focusing on the one thing that no other primate had: the ability to create complex narrative metaphors which united them and inspired the development of challenging moral codes. These in turn enabled large groups of Homo sapiens to work together with altruistic aims.
The result is humanity. (And some of us are still interested in big questions.)