Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion

Julian Bell writes:

It is unlikely we will ever pinpoint just when the human habit of investing objects with significance took hold. But for the moment, until fresh discoveries arrive, the most striking evidence we have comes from the Blombos cave on South Africa’s Cape coast, which was inhabited some 75,000 years ago. Another site along the same coast, Pinnacle Point, indicates that anatomically modern humans had already added an interest in collecting chunks of red ochre to their long-standing use of hand axes and of fire nearly a hundred thousand years before that. It was occupants of Blombos, however, who fashioned what Lewis-Williams calls ‘the world’s oldest objets d’art’, when they scored a linear design onto two small blocks of ochre, each the size of a box of cook’s matches, making their marks on one of the long narrow faces – on the striking panel, as it were. What was the purpose of the patterns? Perhaps, Lewis-Williams writes, they ‘refer to something inside the ochre’ – a pre-eminently symbolic substance, he suggests, in its intense inherent redness – ‘rather as the title on a book spine refers to what is inside the volume’. He pursues the speculation further: ‘We may have here an early hint of an important component of religious thought: immanence. Gods and supernatural powers can be inside statues, mountains, lakes, seas, nature itself, and of course people.’

(LRB 10 June 2010)