Home » The Roots of Religion: Genevieve Von Petzinger at TEDxVictoria (Transcript)

The Roots of Religion: Genevieve Von Petzinger at TEDxVictoria (Transcript)

Genevieve Von Petzinger at TEDxVictoria

Genevieve Von Petzinger – TRANSCRIPT

We live in a world that is absolutely infused with religion and spirituality, sometimes even to the point where maybe we don’t recognize it. It affects everything from something as simple as the holidays we celebrate, to the names that we give our children, to something much more really saddening and sort of disheartening, which is finding a conflict on the other side of the world somewhere.

I mean, any given day, somewhere somebody is fighting about spirituality and religion. So, let’s take a look at how this all plays out then on a global scale. Depending on whom you talk to, there’s about 20 major world religions – so, these are ones that are in more than one country, more than one continent. Add to that hundreds of belief systems, and out of the 7 billion people who live on this planet at this point in time, just under 6 billion profess to follow some sort of faith.

Now, I want you to try and imagine a world with no religion. What would it look like? Because that is the reality, is if we go far enough back into our own deep history, there was a time, maybe not with Homo sapiens, maybe further back, where we didn’t have any religion. So, as you can see in the slide behind me, that’s a very simplified evolutionary chart, but it’s a question that people in my field, palaeoanthropology, have asked: How far back does the religious impulse go? And how would you get at that? It’s incredibly subjective, right? So, obviously Homo sapiens at the top. We know that Homo sapiens have religion, that’s us. But, what about heidelbergensis before us, and erectus, and all the way back to Homo hails. You know, Homo habilis 25 million years ago, they’re considered to be a good candidate for the original toolmakers.

And you might wonder – tools, religion, what do these potentially have in common? But, if you actually think about what a cognitive leap making tools is, there are some things in common. For instance, when you’re actually making a tool – so you’ve got one piece of stone and you’ve got another to shape it – you have to hold a mental template in your head of what that finished product is going to look like. And also what we find with these early toolmakers, is that they actually were exhibiting forethought and pre-planning. They were potentially taking a nice piece of flint with them, along the landscape, so that when their current tool ran out, or got down to kind of a nub, they could make themselves a new one.

So, there are some researchers in my field, especially a fellow by the name of Thomas Wynn, has teamed up with a neuropsychologist, by the name of Frederick Coolidge, and the two of them have talked about something called working memory. And so, it’s not one spot in the brain so much as sort of several functions that kind of work together, that allow things like mental templates and allow things like pre-planning.

Now, they’ve made the argument that even on a very basic level chimps probably do have some working memory as well. Of course, they can also use tools, they’re just not very good at – Basically, they’ll take their stick, they’ll rip off the leaves, they’ll use it to dip some termites out, but then they tend to dump it. That’s pretty much it, they’re done with that tool.

So, there’s not a lot of examples of chimps reusing tools or sort of behaving in exactly the same way as what we see with Homo habilis. But with that as sort of the base and that idea of working memory, they’ve then sort of extrapolated that and said, let’s talk about something that they call enhanced working memory. And so enhanced working memory – basically there’s several components to it. This is sort of taking that, and then basically putting it on steroids. So, not just that basic mental template and pre-planning, but now let’s add to that the ability to envision and work with abstract concepts.

Let’s talk about mental time travel. Now, what I mean when I say mental time travel, is the ability to think about past and future. These are actually very unusual things. We take them for granted, but they’re not something that necessarily other species can conceive of. I mean obviously your dog seems to remember about going to the vet, which is sort of an interesting thing, but you know he doesn’t have a strong sense of clear episodic memories of having been to the vet so much as this is a bad thing when I go into this building, it smells a certain way – and, you know, this is danger basically flashing.

So, the clear ability to also say, with mental time travel, “When I tried making a tool using this material before, this didn’t work very well, so, I’m going to do it differently this time.” Or, “I saw this person in the next hunter-gatherer group over do something. That worked really nicely, I want to do that.” All those kinds of things, as well as being able to think forwards: so, pre-planning, but even at a greater degree. Imagination, because again the ability to sort of conceive of something, like a mental template when you’re making a tool, relies on us being able to visualize something that doesn’t actually exist at that moment in time – it’s more, again, that we’re looking forward.

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And then, of course, the capacity to understand and manipulate symbols. And, so, this is where we get to things like language and to art. So, you probably saw I said the “God spot,” what we’re talking about there is that, certainly starting in probably about, I think, in the 1990’s, once we, especially neuropsychologists, once they had their fancy MRI’s and other brain scans, they really started looking to see if there was one spot in the brain that could be associated with God. And they even actually did some study where they actually had the people in the MRI, and they were like, okay, we want you to think about your vision of God or faith or spirituality while you’re in here, while we see if we can map the areas of the brain that light up while we’re doing that. And they kept getting one spot that was lighting up, and so it was this huge, like, we did it, aha, we found the God spot.

Turns out it’s the spot that lights up when people are concentrating. So, we definitely know where they concentrate, but, of course, everybody concentrated on thinking about God, so, that was the problem. But I think really what neuropsychologists and what people working on evolution are working towards, is the idea there’s probably not one spot. Similar to enhanced working memory, there’s actually several parts of the brain that are all kind of working together to create that space and those types of abilities. So, is it all in the lobes? Behind me on the slide what you’ll see is that on the left-hand side we have a Homo erectus, so that’s 165 million years ago.

And then on the right-hand side we have a Homo sapiens skull from about 20,000 years ago in Germany. 20,000 years ago in Germany, their skulls were identical to ours – I just thought it might be cooler to use a sort of fossil skull for Homo sapiens. Now, what I want you to look at though, is that when you see the profile, erectus has that nice big brow ridge we think of, but you’ll notice behind that, it actually slopes at quite a sharp angle backwards.

Now look at that beautiful, big, old forehead on the Homo sapiens skull. Those are the frontal lobes. This is pretty much where all of our higher reasoning comes from, from those spots right there. You know, thinking about it, what’s so interesting is that while we sit here, in this room, having this conversation, you’re using those frontal parts of your lobes, aren’t you? But the question that’s come up is: It can physically be there, but is it maybe more about wiring? Not just about size, but then also about how is it wired, how are the neural pathways moving.

So, this is where the scholars I mentioned, Wynn and Coolidge working together, have made the argument that they believe that the truly modern thought, that ability which includes imagination, mental time travel, they believe it started with modern humans. So, what do I mean when I say modern humans? About 200,000 years ago, we’ve been able to find the earliest skeletons, that we currently have of what we would call fully modern humans.

That means that their skeletons were identical to ours, and their brain size was exactly the same. Now, that doesn’t mean though, that they were actually using all of the abilities we had, and this is something that is a particular area of mine that I find really fascinating, as well, trying to figure out: When did they become us? Because we’re more than just the brain size and the body, it’s also about how we use that brain. And what’s so fascinating about the early humans in Africa, is that, for probably about the first 80,000 years or so, they’re not really doing much different than the ancestor species that came before them. They’re making really nice tools, surviving quite well, making good use of their landscape, all of those types of things are in place. But what we’re not seeing is those kinds of behaviours that make us go: They’re us.

And then, suddenly, around 120,000 years ago, what starts happening is we suddenly start finding what we call symbolic behaviour. And what we mean when we say that are things that we would consider to be non-utilitarian. So, not something that’s useful at a very 1:1 ratio level of survival, something to keep you warm at night, something to eat, something to shelter you. We start finding burials 120,000 years ago is the oldest burials we know of in the world, and not just burials but burials with grave goods in them.

So, in this case, what we’re talking about at the 120,000 mark – they were finding a few marine shells that have perforations, and some of the perforations look like they probably occurred naturally, some may have been made by tools, but the kicker is that those little holes in the shells have wear marks on them, which means that they were being worn in some fashion.

Now, there’s nothing about doing that that is remotely useful for again heat, shelter, food. So, what’s going on? What’s happened? What’s changed? And this is kind of the story going forward, and this is again where Wynn and Coolidge have made this argument, and other scholars have as well, that modern humans is where that big change takes place. They’ve made the argument potentially even that the change started here, but that some sort of genetic mutation or something else happened around 40-50,000 years ago, and that that was when truly modern behaviour, the full suite of behaviours that we associate with being modern, music and mathematics and the ability to envision things that aren’t there, and all of these things which are very much about us, and, of course, full language, communication, all that kind of thing. They see it as happening around 40-50,00 years ago, which coincides with when modern humans left Africa.

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Maybe it might have been as early as 60,000, so somewhere in that 40-60,000 range, is when modern humans left Africa and basically went out and populated the Old World. Now, I’m personally going to talk to you tonight about the Ice Age in Europe, and it’s not that there weren’t interesting things being done by modern humans who went to other parts of the Old World. In Asia and Australia, there’s lots of fascinating stuff, but I study the Ice Age, so it’s what I know best. So, that’s where we’re going to stick with, looking at the Ice Age, today. When it comes to Europe, let’s set the scene a little bit.

Obviously, we’ve got an Ice Age going on, and an Ice Age is not static by any means. We certainly have movement of the glacier sheets, but overall definitely colder, an icy environment, but very rich in animals as well. Huge herds of bison and mammoth and all these other things on the landscape. So, lots of things to eat, which was kind of a pull factor that probably kept modern humans there. They show up in Europe somewhere around 40,000, even 45,000, in some spots, and they spread out around there, and this again coincides with what we call the creative explosion, sometimes.

It’s not that they weren’t doing interesting things before, but this is when it starts getting really interesting. This is when we start finding a lot of symbolic materials, like portable art pieces and lots of jewellery and other interesting things, in the archaeological record alongside the stone tools. So, what would we look for? Let’s go back to this idea of religion and spirituality, and how you get that in the archaeological record. Because, if you think about that far back, basically, we’re working with stone tools. So, there’s not really much to go at, and so how do we start trying to move beyond that, and actually look for these indirect clues? Well, there’s three main things that people in my field tend to use looking at that.

The first is burials with elaborate grave goods. So, the necklace itself at the 120,000 mark, very interesting, very cool, but we can take that a bit farther, and say: What about if they’re putting lots of elaborate items into that burial? Impossible entities being depicted. So, when I use the term impossible entities, we’re referring to things that do not appear anywhere in nature. So, we’re not referring to anything in the real world. Something that’s, say, half-animal, half-human, would be an impossible entity.

And then, of course, trying to identify magic and spiritual themes in the art itself. And this is on portable pieces and, of course, my particular area of study, the cave walls. So, to quickly go over a couple of these and I’ll give you some ideas of what we’re seeing. For an elaborate burial, this one is a very famous burial and it’s an absolutely fascinating one. This is actually one of three burials from this site.

This particular one is the adult male, and it’s about 28,000 years old, it’s from Russia, and you notice there’s little white things all over his skeleton there. Those are ivory beads. There are approximately 3,500 ivory beads in this burial. An archaeologist in our field, his name’s Randy White, actually went to the effort of trying to do what we call experimental archaeology. And he actually took the mammoth ivory and practiced until he could get quite good at making the beads, and even when he was good at it, it took an hour per bead.

Do the math on that. Then on top of that, we actually have the fact that the two other burials at that particular site are actually of two children. A little boy and a little girl, and they’re buried in a double burial. The little boy has 4,500 beads, so 1,000 more than the adult male, and the little girl has over 5,000. So, what we’re seeing here then is potentially the fact that they’re seeing death as being a state that’s different than life, and yet worth recognizing and worth paying attention to, and worth acknowledging, and, frankly, worth the sheer amount of effort of making all those beads only to bury them in the ground and cover them up.

So, something is definitely going on in that sense. Then, of course, we come to impossible entities. And this one is a wonderful, classic example. This is an ivory carved figurine, it’s probably about this tall. Head of a lion, body of a human.

Again coming back to that, that doesn’t exist anywhere in nature. So, what’s going on? Why are they depicting this? This is not a self-representation. And there’s people in my field who have made the proposal that, maybe, this could be some sort of mythology, something to do with origin stories and things like that. So, there’s these interesting examples that exist throughout the archaeological record. That particular one is about 32,000 years old.

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What about hunting magic? When I say hunting magic, I mean this, this is from the cave called Niaux, in France, and you’ve got a bison that’s painted on a cave wall, and if you notice it looks like there’s almost some sort of spear sticking out of its side. So, in this case what people have proposed is that what we could be seeing is them almost trying to kill the animal ritually in the cave first, in order to ensure success when they go out on the real hunt. And we do have some examples where there’s not just the spears, but there’s also punctuation marks, which almost looks like maybe somebody was banging a real spear or something at the image on the wall. So, again, that suggests some sort of harnessing of some unseen world – there’s something going on.

And then this is another great example here of an impossible entity which has also been potentially identified as being a shaman. Now, the reason why they say that is the idea that: What if they were wearing a mask? What if this, rather than being an impossible entity, is an actual depiction of a human partially dressed up like an animal? You see the legs have a much more human look, they’re not very bison-like, yet the head has that very bison look, and the arms are also very human, So, this is where they started to talk about the idea of shamanistic practices, because shamans, of course – the term itself comes from Russia, but it’s applied a lot to basically spiritual practices where there are specific members of your tribe who intercede on your behalf with an unseen world.

Whether it’s to influence weather, to influence the hunt, or to do with health, and with people being sick and trying to make them better again, there’s these people that do that. And what’s so interesting about some modern examples, for instance, is that there is a fellow by the name of David Lewis-Williams, who is a researcher in rock art who works in South Africa, and he had the wonderful opportunity to actually speak with the San people, who are a hunter-gatherer group living in northern Southern Africa. They live out in the desert, and still practice the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

And guess what? They still do rock art. So, here had the opportunity to ask them, “So, why do you guys do the art?” Now, it doesn’t explain all the art, but certainly shamanistic practices played a large role in it. Things like handprints. They talked about the idea that caves were almost like a transitional place between worlds. That once you go into a cave – we go in with headlamps and lots of light, and we know what a cave is, geologically.

But imagine if you didn’t know It almost has a feel of maybe being a portal to another reality. And they’ve talked about the idea of those cave walls as almost being maybe membranes that they could touch, and through those membranes touch the unseen. So, now, we get specifically to a research project that I’ve been working on, where I said, okay, well, let’s try with this, because, of course, modern people in Africa doing this – minimum of 10,000 years’ difference between what’s happening in Europe, could we get at that? Is it possible? Are we seeing on the walls, potentially, some of the trance-like imagery which they have said that that’s why they’re doing it. Because you see, the actual human mind – Obviously, trance is when we go into an altered state of consciousness.

There’s many things that will be culturally specific to where you live, like the animals you see in the imagery, but geometric imagery actually happens to be almost universal. And the reason for that is our eyes are only hard-wired to be able to produce certain shapes when we’re in a state of trance. And so this is where, what I’ve looked at is, can we find those in the caves in Europe. And the study is still ongoing, but I thought I’d share a little with you today, which was that with dots, with lines, with grids, yes, absolutely, we’re finding those. But, some of the other ones, not so much.

Zigzags, there’s only about 15 examples over 300 sites that have zigzags in them. So, they’re not totally behaving the way that the people in, say, South Africa are. When it comes to spirals, there’s only two. So, in that sense spirals are even more uncommon, and not something that we’re seeing throughout the archaeological record. So, what does that mean? Basically, what it suggests to me – I can’t give you a definitive answer, and say, “Yes, absolutely, there were spiritual people living back then.” But, the signs are definitely there to suggest this was something that was developing, something that existed.

And I’ll leave you with the thought that they’re us. In every sense of the word, those people who lived between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago were modern humans. So, if we’re capable of it, why wouldn’t they have been? Thank you.