The earliest evidence yet discovered that our ancestors believed in some kind of life after death is to be found in graves of the Neandertals (who lived from about 200,000 to about 25,000 y.a.). Careful arrangement of the deceased, as well as accompanying flint implements together with broken animal bones (likely to have come from food buried with the body), suggest that these accoutrements were considered to be needed by the dead. (Neandertal cave artwork depicting burial rituals also supports the premise that they assumed a life after death.)
At least as early as 30,000 y.a., Cro-Magnon followed more complex rituals. They buried their dead in sewn clothing, covered them with ornaments and bead decorations, and surrounded them with tools, weapons and food. One grave, 28,000 years old, in Sungir, Russia, contains the body of a sixty year old man wearing bracelets and necklaces, and dressed in a tunic sewn with hundreds of mammoth-ivory beads; he was accompanied by rich grave goods.
For some as yet unknown reason, ornamenting the dead with red pigment has also been a long-lasting and widespread custom. The skeleton of a young man some 25,000 years old, discovered in a cave in South Wales, was covered with red ochre and accompanied by a shell necklace, ivory beads and bracelets. Ornamentation continued until at least 6,500 y.a., for the head of one of seventeen Stone Age bodies (dated to that age and found in a cemetery at Bøgebakken, Denmark) was surrounded by red ochre. Burial customs such as these and others provide strong evidence that early man believed in the existence of some kind of afterlife, for which the body needed to be prepared and provisioned.
Burial rituals increased in complexity during the Neolithic Age (9,000–5,000 y.a.), to the extent of including animal sacrifices, cremation, entombment in stone chambers roofed with huge boulders and body preservation. The Chinchorro culture of northern Chile conducted extremely elaborate burial rituals, as is readily evidenced by mummified bodies dating back 9,000 years. The head, hands and feet were removed, the body was skinned and soft tissue excavated, and the skull was packed with a mixture of grass, hair and ashes. The skin was then reapplied, the whole body plastered with an ash paste and then painted black and red. It is inferred from this elaborate practice that some intense religious assumption (one that sooner or later may well have metamorphosed into a belief) must have prompted such effort.
A different form of evidence suggesting early Homo had the intellectual ability to invent assumptions is to be found in several now-European countries where Cro-Magnon left rock drawings and engravings in caves. These sketches illustrate their prowess in hunting large herds of animals (and the skeletons of hundreds of early horses found in sites frequented by Cro-Magnon show how successful these pursuits were). Such hunting strategies require abstract thought, organization and planning, and from this it is deduced that they had a language complex enough to be able to conduct a discussion of options and to manage assumptions.
Another item occasionally shown in cave drawings, and of significance to this discussion, is a figure in clothing associated with shamans or medicine men. These figures appear to have a significant role in the behaviours being depicted in the drawings. Shamans are traditionally involved in caring for the dead, and their thoughts and practices would certainly influence ideas held by clan members.
The accepted conclusion from this kind of evidence is that our ancestors assumed that an afterlife existed—that they actualized the concept of an afterlife thousands of years before the same notion was incorporated into the religions of early Egyptians and, later, into many of ours. This suggests that when describing “heaven” today we are not simply repainting a vision first drawn by prophets or theologians—we are actually maintaining or embroidering a Neandertal assumption. Of course, we don’t say that we are describing an assumption, but such is its origin. And our belief in an afterlife remains an assumption because there is no credible evidence that an afterlife actually exists, whether for the Neandertals, the Pharaohs, or for any modern-day human.
- A well written description of some of the many fascinating beliefs and rituals humans have conceived can be read in Man’s Religions. See John B. Noss, Man’s Religions, 5th ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974).
- Arrow-head-shaped sharpened stones, cutting knives, shaped piercing stones, and stores of red ochre have been found in South African coastal caves, in debris layers that are over 100,000 years old.
- If such an afterlife did exist, it must certainly be rather crowded by now, for where is the line drawn on admittance? (And what a temporally and culturally wide and interesting mix of inhabitants we would encounter!)