The Anthropology of Religion Part I: Definitions

So let's compare the early humans, starting with H. erectus, the first human that was substantially like us (i.e., of a normal-tall height, with a large brain, and that thought to travel out of Africa).

Homo erectus was around from about 1.8 million years ago to about 200,000 years ago, and she managed to be the first one to leave Africa, traveling all over the lower part of Asia throughout Indian and China, and down to some areas that are now islands in upper southeast Asia but were (back then during the Ice Age) connected by land bridges. H. erectus was also throughout the Middle East and of course Africa, and some speculate in Europe (but no clear evidence at this point).

The interesting cultural features that arise with H. erectus are that she used fire (though it is not likely she manufactured it), there is evidence that there may have been organized stampedes to get meat (no evidence of large-game hunting, though), and that he came up with the Acheulian tool kit, the most famous and prevalent tool being the hand ax. I've held hand axes over a million years old in my grubby little paws. It was pretty cool to think of holding an antique from some dude that was so much like me yet so unlike me.

Anyhoo, they obviously had some very new and interesting changes going on compared to H. habilis. Not only did they have all these new cultural things going on, they had physical changes too. They were much, much bigger than H. habilis- they were slightly taller than we are today. Their brains exploded in size, reaching an average of 985 cc (compared to our avg of 1350 today). Yet... they still were really different from us. Their bodies show that they most likely had the vocal tract of an ape, not like ours. They had practically no forehead.


Debates around if they had language center on how difficult it is to teach hand ax making. That's about the most difficult thing they did, with the possible addition of organizing a stampede. Could they have learned hand ax making through observation, and visual instruction? Do you have to have language to stampede, or can you point to a herd and a cliff? There is no indication among H. erectus that there was higher level thinking. They did live in groups, but there are no burials, no art, no evidence of even making clothing (though of course they must have had skins because it was freezing in Asia at the time). So, most people think language (at least in its complex, spoken form) is unlikely for H. erectus. However, it is highly probable that the beginnings of group cooperation with gestures and some sound would have been the norm, given the activities. We currently don't know why they left Africa; population pressure was unlikely. Perhaps that was the first glimmer in the human mind of wanting to explore, of having a goal, of thinking in new ways about the world around them.
The early Archaic humans, such as H. heidelbergensis and H. antecessor, were around in Europe, Africa, and Asia about 780-425K years ago. Over time, the modern human skull began to become more apparent. In the first specimens, we see brain sizes of about 1000 cc and practically no forehead. By the time of the latest specimens, the brains averaged 1300 cc (nearly modern) and a forehead pops up!


With these new humans, we begin to find bodies in caves- people were putting bodies together in caves after death. However, we still don't see grave goods or burials.
The Neanderthals are somewhat of a mystery. They arise around 250K years ago, and lasted until about 36K years ago. This means they overlapped with modern humans for more or less their entire existence on earth, sharing the same ranges in Europe and the Middle East.

Their culture was much like early modern humans. They hunted big game cooperatively in groups, processed skins for some sort of clothing to protect them from the cold, and made their homes in caves. They likely were manufacturing fire (it's nearly unimaginable to survive in Ice Age Europe without it). They showed the first evidence of caring for the elderly and infirm, evidenced by skeletons that show significant healing from life threatening injuries and skeletons of advanced age with debilitating arthritis and no teeth. This was the beginning of real evidence for human compassion, emotional attachment, and/or group interdependence. Additionally, it is in Neanderthals that we see the first burials with grave goods- items used during life, ochre, and flowers.

Their skulls and bodies, though, are quite different from us. Their bodies are easily explained- they were stouter and hardier, which was necessary for survival in a freezing climate where much of the food came from dangerous hunts of very large mammals. Their skulls are somewhat a mystery. Their brains averaged larger than ours- 1475 cc compared to our 1350 cc. But they had little forehead, and instead the skull sloped backward, long and low, toward and occipital bun, a little knot of bone on the back of the skull to which powerful neck muscles attached.


Some speculate that the lack of a forehead meant that their frontal lobe was less developed, and that other areas must have been considerably larger. This speculation is what forms the baseline for ideas like those in "Clan of the Cave Bear" that Neanderthals had ancestral memory rather than higher order reasoning and philosophical skills. We really don't know. It could be that they did not have a large frontal lobe and larger other parts of the brain. Or it could be that the brain was just shaped differently but worked much like ours, much like we find cranial modifications due to head shaping in modern humans does not seem to alter our ability for higher order reasoning and thought.
Finally, here's a comparison of Neanderthals with modern H. sapiens:


The map just shows Neanderthal sites.

Modern humans show up in the archaeological record around 200K years ago in Africa. The MtDNA evidence points to 300K years ago in Africa. By 120,000 years ago, modern humans had radiated throughout the Old World (Europe, Africa, Asia) and they had reached Australia by 30,000 years ago. Around 15,000 years ago, they entered North America by a land bridge connecting modern day Russia and Alaska.

Modern humans had a very different skull with a high forehead that dominated the face. With a brain of 1350 cc, it was not substantially different from early Archaics and Neanderthals, but the shape of the skull certainly was, and there was no mistaking the explosion of culture, including spoken complex language, religion (starting with animism), art, and eventually domestication of animals and plants beginning around 10,000 years ago.

After domestication and the rise of modern state level governments, religion shifted from being a shamanic, animistic social activity to institutions with priesthoods, structural inequality, and an increasing separation between the gods and humans. More on that later...
Differing opinions and competition within science, I would argue, can make it more difficult for the researchers to step back and take a wider view. On another thread in discussion with Juantoo we went into the Neanderthal question in some detail. As a result of the reading I did at that time I noted that not only did my current position seem the most credible but that those with counter claims usually had research grants dependent on their stated positions. This is a problem in science that can easily be overcome by those less worried about funding issues and more about what really makes sense. The non-partisan and curious individual who draws from many fields to put together a coherent and credible picture. That is what I attempt to be. Some things are never provable but make so much sense they take on their own logic. Like looking at a sphere and knowing it would take less energy to roll it than a cube. Sometimes very diverse sources of information collate together in a kind of empirical stature that states, "it could be no other way". It not always scientifically provable but makes too much sense to ignore.

It appears you're right, Tao. :D I read a few articles in the last month or so that were published and from what I gathered, Neanderthals definitively did not interbreed with humans, and our DNA (they finally got a good Neanderthal sample) is 99.9% the same. It appears Neanderthals and modern H. sapiens branched off around 300K years ago from populations of early Archaics in differing geographic regions (Europe vs. Africa).
NARRATOR: For archaeologists this realisation that art, language and thought were all the same thing was a huge breakthrough. Suddenly what they had to look for was clear. Discover the earliest forms of human art and you would have found the day we learned to think. So starting decades ago archaeologists went hunting for art. They looked in the obvious place: Africa, the cradle of human evolution itself, but they found nothing. They traced the path the early humans took out of Africa through the Middle East. Still nothing. So archaeologists turned to Europe and then a wonder- the first ever cave paintings, stunningly crafted and detailed.

RANDALL WHITE: This is their representation of the world around them, so when I walk into one of these caves it just, absolutely gives me chills to think that in some miniscule percentage I'm able to actually peek into the way that they saw their world. We can walk into a cave like that and say I understand, I understand the mystery. A modern human would have done that, I would have done that.

NARRATOR: And they found far more: intricately worked statuettes; thousands of pieces of jewellery. Here at last in Europe was the evidence archaeologists had been searching for - symbolic art that could only have been made by people who could talk and think, like us, and it all dated from the same period - around 35,000 years ago. The European evidence was beyond doubt. It was as if a light bulb had gone on inside the human brain, a thinking Big Bang. For some reason we'd suddenly become truly modern humans.

RANDALL WHITE: All of the elements of the human mind were in place to create everything that exists subsequently - to go to the Moon, to create writing, to create agriculture, to do all of the things that we've done over the subsequent 35,000 years.
BBC - Science & Nature - Horizon - The Day We Learned To Think