Human burial - the earliest evidence for religious beliefs
Anthropologists cite human burial is one of the earliest evidences of religious beliefs. Burying of the dead implies that there is some kind of belief of life after death, or some kind of importance placed on the treatment of corpses of loved ones.
For a long time, only homo sapiens were believed to bury their dead, which confirmed notions of humanity's uniqueness in the human world. Some religious traditions believe that only humans possess a divine spark which is related to concepts of the soul. This belief has historically been used to define humans as separate from and superior to animals.
However, in recent years scientist have confirmed that homo sapiens were not the only species discovered exhibiting the earliest forms of religious belief.
In 2013, NatGeo reported that a Neanderthal burial site had been confirmed to show primitive forms of ritual.
Writing for NatGeo, Ker Than stated:
The idea that Neanderthals buried their dead fits with recent findings that they were capable of symbolic thought and of developing rich cultures. For example, findings show they likely decorated themselves using pigments, and wore jewelry made of feathers and colored shells.
Primates and religion
However, this new discovery is even more surprising, as Homo naledi is a much more primitive hominin. He is much more close in appearance to a chimp than a modern human. NatGeo writer Jamie Shreeve states:
Is this a threat to modern religious beliefs?
It is not difficult to understand why these scientific discoveries on human evolution and the development of the earliest forms of primitive religion could be threatening to some religious beliefs, especially people who adhere to fundamentalist forms of religion which reject science and traditionally place humans above animals.
It questions the nature of God. It brings the creation vs. evolution debate back to the forefront. And, the truth that many different species of hominins once walked the Earth is a big issue for people who believe in a literal interpretation of holy books such as the Bible and the Quran.
Berger was responding to tweets over the weekend by former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who insisted he was in no way related to “baboons”, “monkeys” or “apes”.
A discovery that makes us think.
The discovery Homo naledi is important not only for its own intrinsic scientific value, but because it is one of those rare finds that truly makes us think. It has far ranging implications for how we think about ourselves, how we think about God, how we define religion, the importance of religion to humanity, and so on.
It seems that this discovery goes beyond the realm of evolutionary biology into the schools of anthropology and origins of mythological thinking.
Mythology is inextricably linked to symbology. We now know that chimps and early hominins were capable of symbolic thinking. We now know of two other hominins whose burial customs indicate the possibility of belief in the afterlife.
We also know that the mythological systems that began taking recognizable shape during the Neolithic period had their origins in ancestor worship, and so burial sites were incredibly important to our ancestors early religious practices
Article by Carolyn Emerick for Mythology Magazine's Mythology in the News