What Role Did Animals Play in the Emergence of Human Spirituality?

There is abundant evidence that animals figured prominently in the origins of rituals and symbolism, both of which are also linked to improved communication of information between individual humans. We can trace the beginnings of symbolic communication to at least 135,000 to 100,000 years ago, when people began making and wearing ornaments (think jewelry, uniforms, shirts proclaiming allegiance to a group or cause), which took the form of pierced shells or animal teeth. These ornaments were literally made from animals and were unquestionably used to identify an individual with a group that was linked to that animal or the place it lived. Animals clearly held an unusually important place in people’s thinking and identity.

By 35,000 years ago, we begin to see artworks with identifiable subjects, and these subjects are overwhelmingly involved with the depiction of animals, their habits, colors, postures, movements, and so on. These images take the form of cave paintings, carvings, sculptures, and engravings. Very few depictions involve humans, plants, landscapes, shelters, tools, or weapons, showing how important knowledge about animals was to the survival of our species. The communication of information about animals apparently involved ritual or spiritual belief so, for example, the placement of paintings in caves is correlated with the location of points of acoustic resonance, where music or singing would heighten the impact of the information. Animal bones—particularly those of bears— were sometimes marked with ochre, again suggesting a reverence or special treatment of the remains of that animal.

Finally, I think the wealth of religious practices and beliefs that involve animals today—that still survive among peoples in many parts of the world—show that humans often find a spiritual quality in their relationship with animals. Barbara King, in her excellent book Being With Animals, has explored the deep spiritual connection between modern humans and animals. I would only add that this connection seems to have very ancient and deep roots among humans and is probably embedded in our genes.

Pat Shipman is a professor of biological anthropology at Penn State and the author of the new book The Animal Connection.

Category: Q&A

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2 Responses

  1. Rob Mitchell says:

    Hope you have your dates right – Hope you are not using the dating theories of to-day – They just may be flawed – To-morrows theories may be a better attempt.

    You cannot be sure can YOU?

    Rob

  2. Maya Pinon says:

    Congratulations on the release of your newest book.
    You may find interesting the work I have been doing, as a naturalist, educator, writer (under other names) and 31 year veteran wildlife rescuer/rehabilitator, on Animal Suicide. http://www.AnimalSuicide.com

    – Maya

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