Anthropology is the study of humanity. One of the questions the discipline has striven to answer from it's very conception is the question of what it is that ultimately makes us human. Where is that unique distinction that takes us from being just another creature populating the world and the fossil record and pushes us that next step to something more?
According to Donald Johanson in his book From Lucy To Language,
A human is any of the species Homo sapiens (“wise man”), the only modern living member of the family Hominidae. The Hominidae, or hominids, are a group of upright-walking primates with relatively large brains. So all humans are hominids, though not all hominids could be called human. (1)
Under this definition, we are in some ways the last of our kind, though without doubt the most prolific. Yet it does beg the question of what was it exactly that changed us from “upright-walking primates” and turned us into the “wise man” of today. Some Anthropologists argue it is the formation and use of complex tools – except further research has shown all primates and even some other species grasp the concept of making and using tools. Others say it is our capacity for higher, rational thought – except current research into other non-primate species is showing again and again a grasp of abstraction and other cognitive capacities we formerly believed were the domain of humanity alone. So, now, the researchers’ theories have reached further into the abstract. Perhaps it is our capacity, our need, to believe in something; to possess a mythology, a history beyond history, to explain our existence and the existence of the world around us. Our concepts of symbolism, a belief in a spirit world and those people who have the ability to bridge the gap between our world and “theirs” through complex rituals, and our belief in some sort of existence after the death of our physical bodies are perhaps what ultimately make us “human.”
The term “Ur-Religion” refers to the beginnings of religion itself and causes many arguments in the academic and Anthropological world, simply because there is no way to know for sure what these first humans believed. We “...can draw on neither inscriptions nor texts; nor can [we] question prehistoric people about their beliefs” (Hinnells 4). But these first religious practitioners did not leave us totally without record of their beliefs and their lives. Perhaps one of the best sources of information on Paleolithic belief comes as close to straight from the mouths of these ancient peoples as possible – or, rather, from their fingers. These records are the art they left behind, decorating stone walls all across the globe with incredibly consistent images of running animals and spear-carrying hunters. Pictures of people seemingly crossed with those animals, and of surprisingly anatomically accurate depictions of all creatures great and small.
We cannot “read” these images and marks. Nevertheless, an extraordinarily complex...