Lower or Early and Middle Paleolithic
The oldest burials that attest to a belief in life after death can be placed in the period between about 50,000 and 30,000 bce. The earliest evidence of human activity in any form, on the other hand, goes back more than 1,000,000 years. Yet, since religious conceptions are not always bound to material objects, and since there is evidence that truly human beings existed even during early Paleolithic times, it is inadmissible to infer that earliest man had no religion from the mere fact that no identifiable religious objects have been found.
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A study of very simple hunters and gatherers of recent times shows that several religious conceptions generally considered to be especially “primitive” (e.g., fetishism) hardly play an important part, but rather that, among other things, the supposedly “advanced” conception of a personal creator and preserver of the world does play an important part. Such a belief could never be discovered by examining archaeological sources—the material remains—and hence cannot be ruled out for the Early Paleolithic Period. Whether or not the sacrifices in that era involved divine creators or preservers or other beings can only be a matter of conjecture. Features of animalism, magic, and various other views and practices may have played a role, but probably less so than in later epochs.
Before the development of agriculture, with its associations with solar and lunar calendars, ritual feasts were probably celebrated by hunters...
Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic
The animalistic features encountered in the art of the Upper Paleolithic Period were most likely only a part of the religion that existed at that time. Among present-day “primitives” the animalistic realm often occupies only a lower sphere of what can be considered religious, and beyond and above that sphere are still other notions about gods. Practices concerning the resurrection of animals and the preservation of species evidently also played an important part and were closely tied to animalistic conceptions. The corresponding rituals clearly took on a special significance in relation to bears and became the basis for the bear ceremonies that were later widely diffused. Although shamanism may have been initiated somewhat earlier, it was now evident, at least in some of its aspects.
The realm of hunting was primarily a masculine sphere; nevertheless, it also includes in religious phenomena the feminine aspect, as symbols of female fertility (and probably also of female deities) demonstrate.
Proto-Neolithic and Neolithic
The characteristics of early religion were continued but transformed in the proto-Neolithic and Neolithic periods. Shamanism developed, especially among the pastoralists of central and northern Asia. Animals, viewed as the hypostases (essences) of higher beings, especially the eagle or falcon and the raven, became highly significant in shamanism. Animalistic conceptions continued and often assumed the proportions of a true animal cult. Hoofed animals, especially sheep and oxen, played an important part as sacrifices, and bulls particularly assumed a leading role; they seem to have been relegated to the masculine sphere. Horses appear as domesticated animals and as sacrifices only toward the end of the Neolithic Period. They may have been connected with a heavenly divinity, as later evidence suggests.
In the early period of agriculture, before the full development of the Neolithic Period, deposits of human skulls appear that suggest the presence of ancestor cults. A spiritual identification between humans and plants apparently played a predominant part in conceptions connected with headhunting and cannibalism. The death of a god was often considered a prerequisite to the appearance and prospering of the plants, and this mythical event was repeated through human sacrifice that was either accompanied by or replaced by animal sacrifice.
At an early stage, in addition to an agricultural connection with the earlier feminine aspects, the masculine aspect appears in the form of portrayals of sexual union and, perhaps, of the “holy wedding,” or sacred coupling, as well as in portrayals of couples and families. Among the material remains, however, the direct representation of the male element recedes sharply, yet perhaps the symbol of the axe and probably also that of the bull may indicate the male element. This dualism of the masculine and feminine aspects can possibly be interpreted in terms of father sky and mother earth, and in their union as a couple by which they become parents of the world. In the early civilizations, the conception of a supreme being or a heavenly god (which cannot clearly be recognized either in pictures or in other material objects) plays a minor role. That does not mean, however, that such a conception is necessarily of recent origin but rather that it probably existed at an early period in places where there was no literate tradition (predominantly among pastoral cultures).
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The decisive factors that brought about the early civilizations were the new kinds of economic and social organization, the large-scale exploitation of human energy, the formation of ruling classes, hierarchical organization, and the administrative division of labour. Under such conditions polytheism, which had undoubtedly been nascent before, could develop fully. The social order is mirrored in the conception of city and state gods and of a hierarchically organized “state of gods” with a division of labour. The concentration of power and people in one place, in contrast with the wandering of earlier nomadic cultures, enabled fixed central shrines to become influential. Yet the old traditions continued, and not least among them, that of animalism, in the form of conceptions about a ruler of the animals, animal cults, and similar phenomena. Female fertility figures remain generally prominent, such as the Great Mother and the Earth Mother.