Death in the Palaeolithic and the Future of Mankind


The world would have been created about 6000 years ago, according to Jewish tradition. However, modern science estimates that the Big Bang took place 13.8 billion years ago. These both claims seem contradictory. But it is easy to retort that the biblical years could just be metaphors. Moreover, the alleged age of the Big Bang is itself questionable. Our universe may have had earlier forms of existence, impossible to observe from our present position in space-time, because the cosmological horizon forms an impenetrable barrier.

Science has its own intrinsic limits. It can definitely not go beyond the walls of the small cosmological jar in which we are enclosed, apparently. What about the meta-cosmic oceans which undoubtedly exist beyond the horizons perceived by current science?

For those who nevertheless seek to contemplate the possibility of origins, there are other ways of meditation and reflection. Among these is the exploration of the depth of the human soul, which in a sense goes beyond the dimensions of the cosmological field.

When Abraham decided to emigrate from Ur in Chaldea, around the 12th century BC, it was already more than two thousand years that Egypt observed a religion turned towards the hope of life after death. Ancient Egyptians worshiped a unique God, Sovereign of the Universe, Creator of the world, Guardian of all creation. Archaeological traces of funerary rites testify to this, which have been discovered in Upper Egypt, and which date from the 4th millennium BC.

But can we go even further back into the past of mankind?

Can we question the traces of prehistoric religions in order to excavate what is meta-historical, and even meta-cosmic?

In the caves of Chou-Kou-Tien, or Zhoukoudian according to the Pinyin transcription, 42km from Beijing, archaeologists (including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) discovered the remains of hominids in 1926. They were given the name Sinanthropus pekinensis, then Homo erectus pekinensis. Dating is estimated at 780,000 years. These hominids mastered hunting, tool making and fire. They managed to live for hundreds of thousands of years and to face successive periods of glaciation and warming. The successive geological strata that contain their remains and those of animals from those distant times bear witness to this.

The geological earth is like a memorial and trans-generational Noah’s Ark.

Skulls have been found at the Chou-Kou-Tien site, but none of the other bones of the human skeleton. According to some interpretations, these are therefore the remains of cannibal feasts, carried out for religious purposes.

“The bodies had been decapitated after death, buried until they had decomposed, and the heads were then carefully preserved for ritual purposes, doubtless, as in Borneo today, because in them it was supposed that soul’substance resided having the properties of a vitalizing agent. As the skulls show signs of injuries they may have been those of victims who had been killed and their crania broken open in order to extract the brain for sacramental consumption. If this were so, probably they represent the remains of cannibal feasts, organized cannibalism in that case having been an established feature of the cult of the dead in the Mid-Pleistocene in North China in which the cutting off and preservation of the head, skull or scalp was a prominent feature during or after the sacred meal, either to extract its soul substance or as a trophy.”i

This theory takes on more weight if we consider a number of other discoveries in other parts of the world.

In the caves of Ofnet in Bavaria, 33 prehistoric skulls have been discovered, arranged « like eggs in a basket », as one of the discoverers put it. Of these skulls, 27 of them were covered in red ochre and facing west. It has been established that the skulls were detached from the bodies with the help of carved flints.

The manner in which the skulls were detached from the skeleton and the traces of trepanation suggest that the brains were ritually extracted and probably consumed during funeral meals, as a sign of « communion » with the dead.

This cannibalism would therefore not be directed against enemy hordes. Moreover, on the same site, 20 children’s skeletons adorned with snail shells, 9 women’s skeletons with deer tooth necklaces, and 4 adult men’s skeletons were found. This reinforces the idea of funeral ceremonies.

In Jericho, 7 skulls were found whose features had been cast in plaster and then carefully decorated with shells (cowries and bivalves representing the eyelids, vertical slits simulating the pupil of the eye).ii

In Switzerland, in the Musterian Caves of Drachenloch, a set of bear heads looking to the east has been found, and in Styria, in Drachenhöhle, a Musterian pit with 50 bear femurs also looking to the east.

Similar traces of ritual burial have been found in Moustier (Dordogne), La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze) and La Ferrassie (Dordogne).iii

It can be deduced from these and many other similar facts, that in the Palaeolithic, for probably a million years, and perhaps more, the cult of the dead was observed according to ritual forms, involving forms of religious belief. Certain revealing details (presence of tools and food near the buried bodies) allow us to infer that hominids in the Palaeolithic believed in survival after death.

In these caves and caverns, in China or Europe, Palaeolithic men buried their dead with a mixture of veneration, respect, but also fear and anxiety for their passage into another world.

From this we can deduce that, for at least a million years, humanity has been addressing an essential question: what does death mean for the living? How can man live with the thought of death?

For a thousand times a thousand years these questions have been stirring the minds of men. Today’s religions, which appeared very late, what sort of answers do they bring ?

From a little distanced point of view, they bring among other things divisions and reciprocal hatreds, among peoples packed into the narrow anthropological space that constitutes our cosmic vessel.

None of today’s religions can reasonably claim the monopoly of truth, the unveiling of mystery. It is time to return to a deeper, more original intuition.

All religions should take as their sacred duty the will to ally themselves together, to face in common the mystery that surpasses them entirely, encompasses them, and transcends them.

Utopia? Indeed.

iE.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957, p.18

iiKinyar. Antiquity, vol 27, 1953, quoted by E.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957

iiiE.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957