chapter  17
15 Pages

Ritual and consciousness in the Paleolithic

Modern human consciousness began around 50,000 years ago, perhaps earlier. Caves were being painted by about 36,000 years ago. The ice began to retreat by 10,000 years ago and by 7000 years ago, “the foundations of the modern world had been laid and nothing that has come later has ever matched the signifi cance of these events” (Mithen 2003: 3). The achievements of the European Upper Paleolithic include magnifi cent ivory carvings, masterpieces in fl int, and undisputed evidence for elaborate rituals and religious concepts. The fi rst reverential burials occurred, implying religious belief and the corresponding intellectual development (T. Taylor 2002: 31). The people of the Upper Paleolithic explored concepts of an afterlife, practiced ecstatic rituals in connection with animal cults, initiated one another to positions of prestige, discovered shamanism and established ancestor cults (Hayden 2003: 122). Because they were the fi rst of our ancestors to have left so much evidence behind, they are the fi rst we can discuss at length. What was different about the Upper Paleolithic that enabled it to support such an explosion of cultural development seems to come down to feats of conscious “integration” or “mastery” on two levels. First of all, evidence from earlier in prehistory indicates art objects, graves and the like had been produced on and off for tens, even hundreds of millennia. What was different about the Upper Paleolithic was that humans who had long had the capacity to do these things now employed their talents habitually and repeatedly. The social and cultural context had begun to support such determined “performance” as effi cacious and meaningful (Soffer and Conkey 1997: 6). They had begun the “steady work.” Probably prior to such steady work was “the explosive fusion of language and imagination [so as] to pursue a new type of dialogue” (Harris 2000: 195). We have already considered Mithen’s metaphor of the human mind patterned like a cathedral fl oor plan and his idea that when our ancestors learned to use language for more than gossip everything came together for them, and they became creative and fl exible in all areas of thought and culture. Paul L. Harris, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Oxford University, suggests that, in addition to the conceptual, empirical thinking that Mithen (2003) privileges, there was a recognition of the possibilities inherent in imagination so that conceptual thought could be applied to “the distant past and future, as well as the magical and the

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impossible.” In short, the modern minds of the Upper Paleolithic were driven by their “cognitive imperative” to explore an enlarged “zone of uncertainty,” and to do so habitually and compulsively.