Human culture began to develop rapidly at the latest from the end of the Old Stone Age, about 40,000 years ago.1 At least from this time onwards, we have preserved significantly more remains. This concerns art and, connected to this, also mythology.
Most impressive for me, I think, are the graves of a population of non-sedentary mammoth hunters from what is now Sungir in Siberia. The Homo sapiens which we found there lived about 30-34 thousand years ago.2
Among them is a man who was about 55 years old. He is hung with bands full of small beads made of mammoth ivory, 3,000 in total. There are also ivory bracelets on his wrists. On his head sits a hat full of fox teeth. — We wouldn’t wear something like that today, would we?
In addition, scientists discovered a boy of about 12 years and a girl of about 9 years. The boy was covered with 5,000 ivory beads, the girl with 5,250. To put this in perspective: it takes a skilled craftswoman or craftsman about 45 minutes to make one such ivory bead. In other words, the children’s beads mean about 7,500 hours of concentrated work alone.3 If I take today’s average weekly working time of 40 hours, this adds up to almost 4 years of work. Presumably even several groups of mammoth hunters must have cooperated in order to be able to provide these funerary objects.
Whatever their belief was, I find it breathtaking what a significant role the mythological apparently played in our ancestors already more than 30,000 years ago. This was long before we built the first villages or began farming, at a time when the last Neanderthals were still living in their own populations on earth, millennia before we erected the first temples such as Göbekli Tepe, long before bronze, pyramids and the first written words.
The Sungir hunters very likely still had a strong animistic worldview. This means that they perceived lightning, mountains, thunder and other natural phenomena as kind of living beings with souls. They viewed them as direct members of their group. This made it possible to interact with them. It allowed them to speak with these natural phenomena. Thus they could be loved, worshipped or feared, but also appeased, even bribed with gifts and ritual acts.4 At least they could try it, our ancestors — perhaps with sacrifices and a lot of mammoth ivory beads? Who knows. Living conditions could have been rough, back then during the last Ice Age.
Over time, these religious ideas changed. They became more abstract, more invisible and more and more institutionalised, all the way into the present, indeed, up to the teachings and religious ideas that many people still believe in today.
Almost every society we know had narrations and myths about the very beginning (Where do we come from?) and about where we are going (What comes after death?). It seems, that these questions naturally appear in the light of our existence. Maybe it’s some kind of drive to research? Best case, it is.
Our ability to tell stories is clearly what made us humans stand out. Narration and sophisticated language help us to explain things and pass on information to friends and children. And it helped and helps us to unite around common myths and shared narratives. Through this, we form goals and societies, and cooperate in a way that nature has never seen before in any other living being. Because nothing else are our kingdoms, nations, sciences and ideas about right and wrong than shared narratives about the world as it is and as it should be. They exist because we strongly believe and trust in them and their values.
What else do you think makes us humans special? You may want to discuss this with your family and friends.
Footnotes / further reading
- Johanson, D., Edgar, B.: Lucy und ihre Kinder. Munich: Elsevier, 2006, p. 21, p. 41, p. 102-107.
- Trinkaus, E., Buzhilova, A. P.: Diversity and differential disposal of the dead at Sunghir. In: Cambridge University Press (February 9, 2018). URL: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/diversity-and-differential-disposal-of-the-dead-at-sunghir/B7672FB594E94A505A35E10C869F3808. Retrieved May 15, 2023.
- Harari, Y. N.: Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind. London: Vintage Penguin Random House, 2015, p. 63-65.
- Junker, T.: Die Evolution des Menschen. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2021, p. 90.