Deep History of Symbolic Thinking

Deep history, or the evolutionary history of the human species, is an interesting context for theology. Recent research offers insight in the way early humans (50 000 – 30 000 years ago) created a symbolic world in the region north of Australia. Two things strike me as important:

  1. It’s just a side note in the report, about portable objects: we do not know the meaning of their decoration (“‘portable’ art objects: stones incised with geometric patterns, the meaning of which is unknown.”) It is true, history has hidden more than one secret, and some of these secrets are beyond our conceptual grasp. Symbolic meaning depends on intergenerational transmission. If, for instance, my wife and I do not tell our children what happened during the Last Supper,  and why Christians gather each year in celebration of what was revealed in Jesus Christ, our children would not know the meaning of Easter. Or if my Muslim neighbors across the street do not tell their children how the Quran was first revealed to Muhammed, and why a month of fasting is respected each year in celebration of this, these children would probably not bother to hold the Ramadan. Or if Jewish parents would stop telling the Exodus story, and why part of this story is reenacted each year at Passover, they might only come together for a festive meal with their family, without ascribing further meaning to it. In other words, without intergenerational transmission, some of the most widely performed religious rituals would become unintelligible for us .
  2. But cultural reference is not the whole story. The artifacts found in Indonesia show how human symbolic thinking is intimately connected with the natural world. As you will read in the original blogpost, not only are artifacts made of – and made possible by – natural materials, e.g. stone, bone, etc., but, moreover: “(…) the spiritual beliefs of modern humans may have transformed as they encountered new forms of animal life on the journey from Asia to Australia.” We have a tendency to forget this, certainly in theological reflections on the meaning of particular religious rituals or artifacts. But there is, I think, a profound meaning to be found in the deep history of symbols. This kind of meaning lies in the fact that, for example, sacramental bread, however clean and industrialized its look today (cardboard disks…), has its roots in the soil in which grain grows. There is deep meaning too in the fact that water seems to be one of the most widespread religious symbols. Other examples can be listed easily. This connection between religious symbols and nature is not in any way a reduction of their meaning (as in: “it’s only cultural evolution, nothing else”), but, on the contrary, reveals one of the oldest layers of meaning contained within them. Turning back to that layer of meaning, which has always been there in religious traditions, may change our way of thinking about the natural world as profound as the journey from Africa to Sulawesi did for those long-gone travellers.

“Scientists have long been curious about the cultural lives of the first Homo sapiens to inhabit the lands to the immediate north of Australia sometime prior to 50,000 years ago — part of the great movement of our species out of Africa,” Associate Professor Brumm says, “Some have argued that Pleistocene human culture declined in […]

via Prehistoric Art and Ornaments from Indonesian ‘Ice Age’ — Learning Cultural Change

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