The Tribe of Gum

The tribe say you are from Orb and when you are returned to him on the stone of death, we will have fire again.

A stone age tribe, struggling for survival. A cave of skulls, imbued with supernatural power. Human sacrifice to the Sun God. A society where political power goes to the man who can make fire. It’s a perilous situation that our time travellers find themselves pitched into after their abrupt flight from London, forced to contend with the superstitious fanaticism of a stone age people.

Human beings are the only animals to have religion. The origins of this idiosyncratic phenomenon are obscure. Although other apes are not religious, they do have social rituals that help to bind their tribe together and create peaceful relationships with other tribes. These range from the ceremonial scrotum-grab of male baboons, to the ritualised group-greeting behaviours of chimpanzees, to the notorious bonobo gang-bangs.

It seems – and we’re never going to get definitive answers on this, so informed speculation is the best we can do – that early humans had ecstatic group rituals of their own, and that these were the first steps towards religion.

Any kind of shared activity can promote group cohesion and bonding. Music, chanting and rhythmic movement all help to build the group identity in the course of the ritual – and these all predated the development of speech. Drugs help, too. There doesn’t need to be any supernatural element. Rock concerts and football matches will do just fine.

These elements persist in modern religions. I still remember the full-on Catholic masses of my youth in St Aloysius Chapel, the great organ resounding around the cavernous, mosaic-covered church, the choir singing, the incense wafting across the congregation as they stepped through the ritual dance of kneeling, standing, genuflecting. And the rituals remain potent even without the theological content: even Richard Dawkins goes carol-singing.

Bonding rituals would certainly have been important in the Paleolithic era, that vast panorama of time that stretches off into the partially-glimpsed origins of our species some hundreds of millennia ago, and which ends around ten thousand years ago with the domestication of plants and animals. Early humanity consisted of small family tribes, thinly scattered across the east of Africa, and their need for rituals to bind their own tribe together and establish peaceful relations with other tribes would have been just as strong as it is for our ape cousins.

But something changed. These rituals became something darker, deeper, more profound. The earliest signs of this are hundreds of thousands of years old – collections of skulls, cracked open in ways that match more recent practices of ritual cannibalism. By eating the brains of the dead, their kin would seek to absorb some of their power and spirit. These skulls also bear the marks of flint knives that show that the flesh was thoroughly removed from them. Later defleshed skulls show signs of staining with red ochre. This naturally-occurring iron oxide is found in the form of a soft rock that can be made into a powder or used directly to make marks like a pencil. It became increasingly used by our ancestors for marking sacred objects and buried corpses, and remains popular to this day in some tribes who use it for body painting.

These early rituals indicate some kind of spiritual attitude concerning the dead, but they are rudimentary compared to the elaborate religious practices found in every human society in the present day. At some point between then and now something changed in human consciousness, and we became a species with the full panoply of supernatural beliefs.

It’s generally reckoned that this change took place around 50,000 years ago. Even with just the fragmentary evidence we have, it seems like a switch suddenly flips in people’s heads, and immediately we have music and art of a recognisably modern form. Indeed, there are etchings on ice-age animal bones showing artistic techniques that seemed revolutionary when Picasso reinvented them in the last century.

The cause of this change is still a matter for speculation. It isn’t linked to any physical change that we can see in fossilised bones: our ancestors were anatomically modern, indistinguishable from ourselves, well before this cultural revolution.

However it happened, we can see in the art our ancestors left behind, in the location of their sacred spaces and in their careful burials of the dead, a new religious sensibility. We can also fill in the gaps by looking at the religious beliefs and practices of modern-day people who live in isolated, tribal societies. You can’t blithely assume that religion has somehow been transmitted unaltered down fifty millennia, but where contemporary practices of people living the closest anyone comes these days to a Paleolithic lifestyle match up to the fragmentary evidence from the lives of our ancient common ancestors it would be perverse not to allow that to inform our speculation.

Figurative art from this period is largely concerned with animals – horses, bison, birds of prey. There are also sculptures of humans – some realistic, some stylised. But some of the most striking art depicts human/animal combinations, such as a man with the head of a lion. This blurring of the boundaries between human and animal is typical of shamanistic religion, and the shaman might well have appeared as a lion-man during rituals, wearing a lion’s head as a head-dress, and there is cave art showing human figures in animal hides apparently dancing and playing musical instruments, similar to shamanistic rituals that have been observed in Siberia and North America. Bears also feature prominently, and it may be that these animals, that seem so close to human when they walk upright, were considered to be the spirits of dead people.

So we have a picture of a shamanistic religion, with important rituals involving communing with animals and with the realm of the dead. Ritual healing would also be a key part of this. Faith healing is, of course, nothing more than the placebo effect – but when the placebo effect is all you have, it starts to look more attractive. The shaman would use his magic to cure or alleviate pain, from injured limbs to gastric infections to childbirth – pain is a phenomenon of the mind, and thus susceptible to the deployment of placebos. Rituals are a vital part of making the placebo effect work – the patient must believe that the magic will help them, and the ritual sells that belief. In the modern world, while old rituals like acupuncture can still deliver an effective placebo, we also find that many patients will feel their symptoms alleviated by a sugar pill if delivered in a suitably earnest medical context. It’s even been found that the colour of the pill influences the mental effect of the placebo, and a more extreme-looking treatment like an injection with saline solution is a more effective placebo than a benign-seeming pill. We can be sure that the stone age shamans were as expert in enhancing the placebo effect through impressive ritual as our own modern charlatans are today. And in a world without any more effective medicine, the man who could accomplish even that much healing would be powerful indeed. Just don’t get bother him when a lion’s taken your hand off – in that case, you’re pretty much on your own.

As the millennia pass, ancestor worship becomes the dominant aspect of religion. And with this comes a shift in political power. By analogy with present-day tribes, we can presume that Paleolithic societies were not just egalitarian, but aggressively so. Every man was equal, and any who tried to set himself up above the rest would be cut down – literally.

But ancestor worship provided the means to change this. The man with the greater ancestors had access, therefore, to the most powerful spirits, and could lay claim to more temporal power on that basis. This became the foundation for hereditary rule, and hierarchical societies.

So how does the Tribe of Gum fit into this picture? I’m afraid the answer is not very well. The Cave of Skulls does bring to mind the shattered skulls left behind by ritual brain-eaters, but there is little sign of shamanism, let alone the reverence and awe with which our forebears regarded animals. Aggressive egalitarianism has been replaced by the dictatorship of the fire-maker, and ancestor worship is nowhere in sight.

To an extent this is fair enough. We only have physical evidence from a few of our ancestors, and this sorry lot don’t look as though they’re going to be around long enough to leave much. But there’s one thing that really doesn’t fit with any of our understanding of prehistoric religion, and it literally couldn’t be any more glaring.

Sun worship.

It is perhaps surprising how rare sun worship actually is in ancient cultures. The Sun is the most powerful and impressive object in human experience, responsible not only for the cycles of day and night but also for all the processes of growth and development that sustain human life. And yet actual solar religions only appear in a few cultures – Egyptian, Meso-American and Indo-European – and only when these had developed urban civilisations governed by holy kings. In these cases, the Sun as a singular, unapproachable, dominant higher power fits with the ruling ideology – and we might speculate that a greater emphasis on agriculture as the primary occupation of the people led to a greater appreciation of the Sun’s overwhelming power and importance. Paleolithic people never worshipped the Sun – indeed, there is no sign of any attention to astronomy in any of their extant remains. Our Paleolithic ancestors instead venerated – and carved beautiful images of – migratory birds like swans and wild geese, whose comings and goings marked the seasons. It was not until agricultural settlement gave rise to the need to predict and understand the seasons in detail that our ancestors became astronomers, from the Egyptians predicting the flooding of the Nile to the ancient inhabitants of Britain creating Stonehenge.

So if you should find yourself dragged off to Paleolithic times by a silver-haired git in checked trousers, don’t panic. They’re more likely to invite you to a night of dancing and drugs than to attack you for the secret of fire, and they will certainly not strap you to a rock and sacrifice you to the Sun. Just don’t try to explain how they are really your ancestors – that could cause a religious debate that would make the Council of Nicea look like a parish church tombola.

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7 thoughts on “The Tribe of Gum

  1. Saw your post on the Eruditorum. This is an excellent idea for a blog, entertainingly written while informative. Looking forward to seeing what you’ll come up with for future posts.

  2. I recently discovered your blog, and this is one of the most interesting articles to me so far. Can you recommend some further reading?

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