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This blog explores the following questions: (1) is there something about the evolved brain-mind that inclines humans towards supernatural thinking or religious belief; (2) can individual or group level selection account for any such features of brain-mind; (3) can we discern supernatural-religious activities or beliefs from the archaeological record (and if so, what kinds); (4) how have supernatural-religious activities and beliefs changed over time; and (5) what might explain such changes?
Anyone who has watched an episode of “I Survived: Beyond and Back” on the Biography Channel knows that accounts of near death experiences mesmerize the public. They also drive ratings. The typical “I Survived” vignette features someone whose heart has stopped beating and is considered “clinically dead.”
Because everyone who appears on the show is very [...]... Read more »
Wilkins, L., Girard, T., & Cheyne, J. (2011) Ketamine as a primary predictor of out-of-body experiences associated with multiple substance use. Consciousness and Cognition. DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2011.01.005
Blanke, O. (2005) The Out-of-Body Experience: Disturbed Self-Processing at the Temporo-Parietal Junction. The Neuroscientist, 11(1), 16-24. DOI: 10.1177/1073858404270885
Saxe, R., & Kanwisher, N. (2003) People thinking about thinking peopleThe role of the temporo-parietal junction in “theory of mind”. NeuroImage, 19(4), 1835-1842. DOI: 10.1016/S1053-8119(03)00230-1
In 1977, Stephen King published his short story “Children of the Corn” in Penthouse. Seven years later, movie audiences across the nation were horrified by the ritual doings of small town Nebraska kids who worshiped something malevolent in the corn.
It surely was no coincidence that later in the year, Nebraska experienced a sharp drop in [...]... Read more »
Atkinson, Quentin D., & Whitehouse, Harvey. (2011) The Cultural Morphospace of Ritual Form: Examining Modes of Religiosity Cross-Culturally. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(1), 50-62. DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.09.002
Cognitive archaeologist David Lewis-Williams has long argued that the spectacular Paleolithic paintings in European caves such Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira were created by early shamans who were experiencing altered states of consciousness (“ASC”). Because Paleolithic rock art around the world displays the same or similar types of symbols, which Lewis-Williams calls “entoptics,” he contends that [...]... Read more »
Akers, B., Ruiz, J., Piper, A., & Ruck, C. (2011) A Prehistoric Mural in Spain Depicting Neurotropic Psilocybe Mushrooms?. Economic Botany. DOI: 10.1007/s12231-011-9152-5
In his 1880 Hibbert Lecture on the history of early Christianity, Ernest Renan commented: “I sometimes permit myself to say that, if Christianity had not carried the day, Mithraicism would have become the religion of the world.” While it is doubtful that a Persian-influenced mystery cult that appealed primarily to Roman soldiers, officials, and aristocrats [...]... Read more »
Beck, R. (1998) The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis. The Journal of Roman Studies, 115. DOI: 10.2307/300807
Indiana Jones would have loved it: 65,000 years ago, stone age hunters in Africa gathered at night in a hidden cave to worship the giant rock snake that seemed to move in the flickering firelight and hissingly promised fertility so long as the rituals were performed. They came to this place every year during when [...]... Read more »
Coulson, Sheila, Staurset, Sigrid, & Walker, Nick. (2011) Ritualized Behavior in the Middle Stone Age: Evidence from Rhino Cave, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana. PaleoAnthropology, 18-61. info:/10.4207/PA.2011.ART42
Everyone knows the experience: you happen upon a wreck and know you shouldn’t look but can’t help it. You know there is a chance of seeing something you don’t want to see and which may haunt you, but you look regardless. There should be a word for this and in the absence of one, I [...]... Read more »
Reser, Jared E. (2011) Conceptualizing the Autism Spectrum in Terms of Natural Selection and Behavioral Ecology: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, 9(2), 207-238. info:/
Imagine you are dining at a friend’s home. Your host is excited because she has prepared a special dish for you. When dinner is finally served, you are surprised to see a whole egg on your plate and when you open the egg, you are even more surprised to see this:
That’s balut, a dish of [...]... Read more »
Ritter, Ryan, & Preston, Jesse Lee. (2011) Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. info:/10.1016/j.jesp.2011.05.006
Head cheese may not be for everyone but it has an intensely devoted following. Most head cheese recipes call for the removal of brain, eyes, and ears before preparation, but purists scoff at this and include everything except bones. It is doubtful that Upper Paleolithic humans made head cheese; it is too time consuming. It [...]... Read more »
Prat S, Péan SC, Crépin L, Drucker DG, Puaud SJ, Valladas H, Lázničková-Galetová M, van der Plicht J, & Yanevich A. (2011) The oldest anatomically modern humans from far southeast europe: direct dating, culture and behavior. PloS one, 6(6). PMID: 21698105
As Cold War propaganda in the West would have it, communist states were to be despised because they were atheist and Godless. The reality, however, was quite different. In the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church never went away and popular belief was often at odds with official state doctrine. It is doubtful that the [...]... Read more »
This past week, British newspapers carried sensational headlines about an archaeological find in Prague: “First Homosexual Caveman Found” (The Telegraph) and “Oldest Gay in the Village: 5,000 Year Old is ‘Outed’ By the Way He Was Buried” (Daily Mail). Although the assemblage in question has not been published in a journal, the archaeologists called a [...]... Read more »
Grosman, L., Munro, N., & Belfer-Cohen, A. (2008) A 12,000-year-old Shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(46), 17665-17669. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806030105
“It has long been recognized that any interpretation of prehistoric religious behavior should be based on concrete archaeological evidence. Yet evidence for Paleolithic belief systems is extremely scanty, and that which does exist is usually enigmatic — or as [Mircea] Eliade has expressed it, semantically opaque” (Freeman & Echegaray 1981).
Three lines of evidence are typically [...]... Read more »
Freeman, L., & Echegaray, J. (1981) El Juyo: A 14,000-Year-Old Sanctuary from Northern Spain. History of Religions, 21(1), 1. DOI: 10.1086/462884
The holy grail of archaeology is to discover the earliest evidence of symbolic thought in humans. Generally speaking, symbolism means that one thing represents or stands for another. In its most basic form, symbolic thought is iconic: an object in the world (e.g., rock) is related to an idea in the mind (e.g., person).
Because this [...]... Read more »
d'Errico, Francesco, & Nowell, April. (2000) A New Look at the Berekhat Ram Figurine: Implications for the Origins of Symbolism. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 123-167. info:/10.1017/S0959774300000056
There are many ways in which China remains a cipher for Westerners, most of whom labor under the misapprehension that “modern civilization” originated in ancient Greece and spread slowly outward, eventually reaching “backwards” China and even then only in attenuated fashion. This of course ignores parallel and in some ways more spectacular developments in Neolithic [...]... Read more »
There are a number of scholars who claim that “religion” evolved as an adaptation. What kind of adaptation? A group level adaptation. The story usually goes like this: at some unknown time during the middle or upper Paleolithic, certain groups of hominins developed proto-religious beliefs. These beliefs supposedly caused group members to dance, sing, and [...]... Read more »
Hill, K., Walker, R., Bozicevic, M., Eder, J., Headland, T., Hewlett, B., Hurtado, A., Marlowe, F., Wiessner, P., & Wood, B. (2011) Co-Residence Patterns in Hunter-Gatherer Societies Show Unique Human Social Structure. Science, 331(6022), 1286-1289. DOI: 10.1126/science.1199071
When it comes to classic anthropology, Margaret Mead may garner the lionesses’ share of attention but Ruth Benedict remains the matriarch. Although Benedict today is dismissed by some as a quaint relic of the “culture and personality” school of anthropology, such demurrals underestimate the theoretical sophistication and continuing relevance of Benedict’s work.
Those who understand Patterns [...]... Read more »
It is well known that the modern world religions which trace their origins to the Axial Age are centrally concerned with death. Some might call this concern an obsession. Of these world religions, only Hinduism does not have Axial roots. This is not to say that “Hinduism” (which is neither singular nor unified) was unaffected [...]... Read more »
Blackburn, Stuart H. (1985) Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism. History of Religions, 24(3), 255-274. info:/
In many books and articles addressing the origins of “religious” behavior, one will find the assertion that deliberate burials are indicative of soul beliefs and that because people began burying the dead approximately 100,000 years ago, this marks the beginning of what we today call religion. As I noted in this post, there are several [...]... Read more »
Maher, L., Stock, J., Finney, S., Heywood, J., Miracle, P., & Banning, E. (2011) A Unique Human-Fox Burial from a Pre-Natufian Cemetery in the Levant (Jordan). PLoS ONE, 6(1). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015815
The actor David Carradine may have led a troubled life but he experienced no such trouble as Kwai Chang Caine, a Buddhist monk on the move in the old American west. From 1972-1975, the Kung Fu series was must watch television for kids my age, even if we had no idea that Caine was a [...]... Read more »
Keightley, David N. (1978) The Religious Commitment: Shang Theology and the Genesis of Chinese Political Culture. History of Religions, 17(3/4), 211-225. info:/
Several years ago I read Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006). It wasn’t easy. This is not because Dennett’s ideas and arguments are difficult (they aren’t). It is because I don’t care for Dennett’s style. While I can overlook stylistic deficiencies if the substance is solid, in this case I [...]... Read more »
Geertz, A. (2008) How Not to Do the Cognitive Science of Religion Today. Method , 20(1), 7-21. DOI: 10.1163/157006808X260232
Between 800 and 200 BCE, a remarkable series of sages, mystics, and thinkers gave rise to the transcendental traditions that are known today as “world religions.” In 1949, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers identified several themes common to these traditions and described this six hundred year period as the Axial Age: “These movements were ‘axial’ [...]... Read more »
Jacobsen, Thorkild. (1963) Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: The Central Concerns. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 107(6), 473-484. info:/
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