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Prehistoric religion

Prehistoric religion

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Prehistoric religion is a general term for the religious beliefs and practices
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

 of prehistoric
Prehistory is the span of time before recorded history. Prehistory can refer to the period of human existence before the availability of those written records with which recorded history begins. More broadly, it refers to all the time preceding human existence and the invention of writing...

 peoples. More specifically it encompasses Paleolithic religion
Paleolithic religion
Religious behaviour is thought to have emerged by the Upper Paleolithic, before 30,000 years ago at the latest,but behavioral patterns such as burial rites that one might characterize as religious - or as ancestral to religious behaviour - reach back into the Middle Paleolithic, as early as 300,000...

, Mesolithic
The Mesolithic is an archaeological concept used to refer to certain groups of archaeological cultures defined as falling between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic....

 religion, Neolithic religion
Neolithic religion
Prehistoric religion is a general term for the religious beliefs and practices of prehistoric peoples. More specifically it encompasses Paleolithic religion, Mesolithic religion, Neolithic religion and Bronze Age religion.-Burial:...

 and Bronze Age religion.


Intentional burial
Burial is the act of placing a person or object into the ground. This is accomplished by excavating a pit or trench, placing an object in it, and covering it over.-History:...

, particularly with grave goods
Grave goods
Grave goods, in archaeology and anthropology, are the items buried along with the body.They are usually personal possessions, supplies to smooth the deceased's journey into the afterlife or offerings to the gods. Grave goods are a type of votive deposit...

 may be one of the earliest detectable forms of religious practice (the onset of burial itself being a canonical indicator of behavioral modernity
Behavioral modernity
Behavioral modernity is a term used in anthropology, archeology and sociology to refer to a set of traits that distinguish present day humans and their recent ancestors from both living primates and other extinct hominid lineages. It is the point at which Homo sapiens began to demonstrate a...

) since, as Philip Lieberman
Philip Lieberman
Philip Lieberman is a linguist at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, United States. Originally trained in phonetics, he wrote a dissertation on intonation. The remainder of his career has focused on topics in the evolution of language, and particularly the relationship between the...

 suggests, it may signify a "concern for the dead that transcends daily life."

Animal worship

A number of archeologists propose that Middle Paleolithic societies such as Neanderthal societies may also have practiced the earliest form of totemism
Totemism is a system of belief in which humans are said to have kinship or a mystical relationship with a spirit-being, such as an animal or plant...

 or animal worship
Animal worship
Animal worship refers to religious rituals involving animals, especially in pre-modern societies, such as the glorification of animal deities, or animal sacrifice....

. Emil Bächler in particular suggests (based on archeological evidence from Middle Paleolithic caves) that a widespread Middle Paleolithic
Middle Paleolithic
The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. The term Middle Stone Age is used as an equivalent or a synonym for the Middle Paleolithic in African archeology. The Middle Paleolithic and the Middle Stone Age...

The Neanderthal is an extinct member of the Homo genus known from Pleistocene specimens found in Europe and parts of western and central Asia...

 bear cult existed (Wunn, 2000, p. 434-435). A claim that evidence was found for Middle Paleolithic
Middle Paleolithic
The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. The term Middle Stone Age is used as an equivalent or a synonym for the Middle Paleolithic in African archeology. The Middle Paleolithic and the Middle Stone Age...

 animal worship c
Circa , usually abbreviated c. or ca. , means "approximately" in the English language, usually referring to a date...

 70,000 BC originates from the Tsodilo Hills in the African Kalahari desert has been denied by the original investigators of the site. Animal cults in the following Upper Paleolithic period, such as the bear cult, may have had their origins in these hypothetical Middle Paleolithic animal cults.

Animal worship during the Upper Paleolithic was intertwined with hunting rites. For instance, archeological evidence from art and bear remains reveals that the Bear cult apparently had a type of sacrificial bear ceremonialism in which a bear was shot with arrow
An arrow is a shafted projectile that is shot with a bow. It predates recorded history and is common to most cultures.An arrow usually consists of a shaft with an arrowhead attached to the front end, with fletchings and a nock at the other.- History:...

s and then was finished off by a shot in the lungs and ritualistically buried near a clay bear statue covered by a bear fur with the skull and the body of the bear buried separately.


There are no extant textual sources from the Neolithic
The Neolithic Age, Era, or Period, or New Stone Age, was a period in the development of human technology, beginning about 9500 BC in some parts of the Middle East, and later in other parts of the world. It is traditionally considered as the last part of the Stone Age...

 era, the most recent available dating from the Bronze Age
Bronze Age
The Bronze Age is a period characterized by the use of copper and its alloy bronze as the chief hard materials in the manufacture of some implements and weapons. Chronologically, it stands between the Stone Age and Iron Age...

, and therefore all statements about any belief system
Belief system
A belief system is a set of mutually supportive beliefs. The beliefs may be religious, philosophical, ideological or a combination of these.The British philosopher Stephen Law has described some belief systems as "claptrap" and said that they "draw people in and hold them captive so they become...

s Neolithic societies may have possessed are glimpsed from archaeology.

The archaeologist Marija Gimbutas
Marija Gimbutas
Marija Gimbutas , was a Lithuanian-American archeologist known for her research into the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of "Old Europe", a term she introduced. Her works published between 1946 and 1971 introduced new views by combining traditional spadework with linguistics and mythological...

 put forward a notion of a "woman-centered" society surrounding goddess worship
Goddess worship
Goddess worship may be*the cult of any goddess in polytheistic religions*worship of a Great Goddess on a henotheistic or monotheistic or duotheistic basis**Hindu Shaktism**the neopagan Goddess movement**Wicca**Dianic Wicca...

 throughout Pre History (Paleolithic
The Paleolithic Age, Era or Period, is a prehistoric period of human history distinguished by the development of the most primitive stone tools discovered , and covers roughly 99% of human technological prehistory...

 and Neolithic Europe
Neolithic Europe
Neolithic Europe refers to a prehistoric period in which Neolithic technology was present in Europe. This corresponds roughly to a time between 7000 BC and c. 1700 BC...

) and ancient civilizations, by using the term matristic "exhibiting influence or domination by the mother figure".

However, these views are questioned by the majority of the scientific community. Archaeologist Sarah M. Nelson criticizes Gimbutas suggesting that she used the same techniques used in the past to disparage women but in this case to glorify them, and quotes another archaeologist, Pamela Russell as saying "The archaeological evidence is, in some cases, distorted enough to make a careful prehistorian shudder".

Bronze Age


The early Bronze Age
Bronze Age
The Bronze Age is a period characterized by the use of copper and its alloy bronze as the chief hard materials in the manufacture of some implements and weapons. Chronologically, it stands between the Stone Age and Iron Age...

Proto-Indo-European religion
Proto-Indo-European religion
Proto-Indo-European religion is the hypothesized religion of the Proto-Indo-European peoples based on the existence of similarities among the deities, religious practices and mythologies of the Indo-European peoples. Reconstruction of the hypotheses below is based on linguistic evidence using the...

 (itself reconstructed
Historical linguistics
Historical linguistics is the study of language change. It has five main concerns:* to describe and account for observed changes in particular languages...

), and the attested early Semitic gods, are presumed continuations of certain traditions of the late Neolithic.

Bronze Age Europe

Hints to the religion of Bronze Age Europe
Bronze Age Europe
The European Bronze Age is characterized by bronze artifacts and the use of bronze implements. The regional Bronze Age succeeds the Neolithic, it starts with the Aegean Bronze Age 3200 BC...

 include images of solar barges, frequent appearance of the Sun cross
Sun cross
The sun cross, also known as the wheel cross, Odin's cross, or Woden's cross, a cross inside a circle, is a common symbol in artifacts of the Americas and Prehistoric Europe, particularly during the Neolithic to Bronze Age periods.-Stone Age:...

, deposits of bronze axe
The axe, or ax, is an implement that has been used for millennia to shape, split and cut wood; to harvest timber; as a weapon; and as a ceremonial or heraldic symbol...

s, and later sickle
A sickle is a hand-held agricultural tool with a variously curved blade typically used for harvesting grain crops or cutting succulent forage chiefly for feeding livestock . Sickles have also been used as weapons, either in their original form or in various derivations.The diversity of sickles that...

s, so-called moon idols, the conical golden hat
Golden hat
Golden hats are a very specific and rare type of archaeological artefact from Bronze Age Central Europe. So far, four such objects are known...

s, the Nebra skydisk
Nebra skydisk
The Nebra Sky Disk is a bronze disk of around 30 cm diameter, with a blue-green patina and inlaid with gold symbols. These are interpreted generally as a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent, and stars . Two golden arcs along the sides, marking the angle between the solstices, were added later...

, and burial in tumuli
A tumulus is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Tumuli are also known as barrows, burial mounds, Hügelgrab or kurgans, and can be found throughout much of the world. A tumulus composed largely or entirely of stones is usually referred to as a cairn...

, but also cremation
Cremation is the process of reducing bodies to basic chemical compounds such as gasses and bone fragments. This is accomplished through high-temperature burning, vaporization and oxidation....

 as practised by the Urnfield culture
Urnfield culture
The Urnfield culture was a late Bronze Age culture of central Europe. The name comes from the custom of cremating the dead and placing their ashes in urns which were then buried in fields...


Iron Age

While the Iron Age
Iron Age
The Iron Age is the archaeological period generally occurring after the Bronze Age, marked by the prevalent use of iron. The early period of the age is characterized by the widespread use of iron or steel. The adoption of such material coincided with other changes in society, including differing...

 religions of the Mediterranean, Near East
Near East
The Near East is a geographical term that covers different countries for geographers, archeologists, and historians, on the one hand, and for political scientists, economists, and journalists, on the other...

, India
Iron Age India
Iron Age India, the Iron Age in the Indian subcontinent, succeeds the Late Harappan culture, also known as the last phase of the Indus Valley Tradition...

 and China
Iron Age China
The Iron Age in Ancient China began in ca. 600 BC . Ancient China is taken to last until the beginning of Early Imperial China and the rise of the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd century BC...

 are well attested, much of Iron Age Europe, from the period of about 700 BC down to the Great Migrations
Migration Period
The Migration Period, also called the Barbarian Invasions , was a period of intensified human migration in Europe that occurred from c. 400 to 800 CE. This period marked the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages...

 falls within the prehistoric period. There are scarce accounts of non-Mediterranean religious customs in the records of Hellenistic and Roman era ethnography.
  • Scythian mythology (Herodotus
    Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

  • Celtic polytheism
    Celtic polytheism
    Celtic polytheism, commonly known as Celtic paganism, refers to the religious beliefs and practices adhered to by the Iron Age peoples of Western Europe now known as the Celts, roughly between 500 BCE and 500 CE, spanning the La Tène period and the Roman era, and in the case of the Insular Celts...

    Posidonius "of Apameia" or "of Rhodes" , was a Greek Stoic philosopher, politician, astronomer, geographer, historian and teacher native to Apamea, Syria. He was acclaimed as the greatest polymath of his age...

  • Paleo-Balkans mythology
  • Germanic polytheism (Tacitus
    Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors...

  • Slavic polytheism (Procopius
    Procopius of Caesarea was a prominent Byzantine scholar from Palestine. Accompanying the general Belisarius in the wars of the Emperor Justinian I, he became the principal historian of the 6th century, writing the Wars of Justinian, the Buildings of Justinian and the celebrated Secret History...

  • Altaic mythology
    Altaic mythology
    The mythologies of the Turkic and Mongol peoples are related and have exerted strong influence on one another. Both groups of peoples qualify as Eurasian nomads and have been in close contact throughout history, especially in the context of the medieval Turco-Mongol empire.The oldest mythological...

In the case of Circumpolar religion (Shamanism in Siberia, Finnic mythology
Finnic mythology
Finnic mythologies are any of the various mythologies of the Finnic peoples , such as the Volga Finns, Baltic Finns, Permians, and Sami.The mythologies of the Finno-Lappic speakers have some common aspects; the Sami people are deeply shamanistic and these traits are present also in Finnish-Karelian...

), traditional African religions, native American religions and Pacific religions, the prehistoric era mostly ends only with the Early Modern period
Early modern period
In history, the early modern period of modern history follows the late Middle Ages. Although the chronological limits of the period are open to debate, the timeframe spans the period after the late portion of the Middle Ages through the beginning of the Age of Revolutions...

 and European colonialism
Colonialism is the establishment, maintenance, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. It is a process whereby the metropole claims sovereignty over the colony and the social structure, government, and economics of the colony are changed by...

. These traditions were often only first recorded in the context of Christianization
The historical phenomenon of Christianization is the conversion of individuals to Christianity or the conversion of entire peoples at once...


See also

  • Ancestor worship
  • Anthropology of religion
    Anthropology of religion
    The anthropology of religion involves the study of religious institutions in relation to other social institutions, and the comparison of religious beliefs and practices across cultures.-History:...

  • Bear worship
    Bear worship
    Bear worship is the religious practice of the worshiping of bears found in many North American and North Eurasian ethnic circumpolar religions such as the Sami, Nivkh, Ainu, and pre-Christian Finns...

  • Bull worship
  • Circular ditches
    Circular ditches
    About 150 arrangements of prehistoric circular ditches are known to archaeologists spread over Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Their diameters range from ca. 20 to ca. 130 m, and they date to the 5th millennium BC. Tools, bones, and some artefacts were found in their context....

    • Goseck circle
      Goseck circle
      The Goseck circle is a Neolithic structure in Goseck in the Burgenlandkreis district in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. It consists of a set of concentric ditches 75 metres across and two palisade rings containing gates in defined places. It is considered the earliest sun observatory currently known in...

  • Development of religion
    Development of religion
    The development of religion describes the stages in the evolution of any particular religious system from a social sciences perspective. It includes such considerations as the evolutionary origin of religions and the evolutionary psychology of religion; the history of religions, including...

  • Fire worship
    Fire worship
    Worship or deification of fire is known from various religions. Fire has been an important part of human culture since the Lower Paleolithic...

  • Ġgantija
    Ġgantija is a Neolithic, megalithic temple complex on the Mediterranean island of Gozo. The Ġgantija temples are the earliest of a series of megalithic temples in Malta. Their makers erected the two Ġgantija temples during the Neolithic Age , which makes these temples more than 5500 years old and...

  • Henge
    There are three related types of Neolithic earthwork which are all sometimes loosely called henges. The essential characteristic of all three types is that they feature a ring bank and ditch but with the ditch inside the bank rather than outside...

    • Stonehenge
      Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument located in the English county of Wiltshire, about west of Amesbury and north of Salisbury. One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is composed of a circular setting of large standing stones set within earthworks...

  • Horse sacrifice
    Horse sacrifice
    Many Indo-European religious branches show evidence for horse sacrifice, and comparative mythology suggests that they derive from a Proto-Indo-European ritual.-Context:...

  • Matriarchal religion
    Matriarchal religion
    The concept of a Matriarchal religion is a concept forwarded in second-wave feminism since the 1970s, based on the notion of a historical matriarchy first developed in the 19th century by J. J...

  • Megalithic tomb
    • Tumulus
      A tumulus is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Tumuli are also known as barrows, burial mounds, Hügelgrab or kurgans, and can be found throughout much of the world. A tumulus composed largely or entirely of stones is usually referred to as a cairn...

  • Moon worship
  • Mother Goddess
    Mother goddess
    Mother goddess is a term used to refer to a goddess who represents motherhood, fertility, creation or embodies the bounty of the Earth. When equated with the Earth or the natural world such goddesses are sometimes referred to as Mother Earth or as the Earth Mother.Many different goddesses have...

  • Religions (ancient Near East)
    Religions of the Ancient Near East
    The religions of the ancient Near East were mostly polytheistic, with some early examples of primitive monolatry , Ashurism and Monism...

  • Sacral king
  • Sun worship
  • Tarxien Temples
    Tarxien Temples
    The Tarxien Temples are an archaeological complex in Tarxien, Malta. They date back to approximately 2800 BC. The site was accepted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 along with the other Megalithic temples on the island of Malta.-Description:...

  • Urmonotheismus
    Urmonotheismus or primitive monotheism is the hypothesis of a monotheistic Urreligion, from which non-monotheistic religions degenerated...


  • Marija Gimbutas, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974)
  • Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (1989)
  • Marija Gimbutas, The Civilization of the Goddess (1991)