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And the Word was made Sacred: Speech in Early Animism

Posted March 23rd, 2011 at 10:24 PM by Gile na Gile
Updated March 24th, 2011 at 12:18 AM by Gile na Gile

The possibility of religious thought begins with the descent of the larynx among early hominids.

Animistic thought - the seed of religious belief - entails as we know, the attribution of sentience to inanimate objects and natural phenomena yet none of this could have taken place without a concomitant growth in the complexity of human speech. Such linguistic abstractions as attributing powers of cause and effect to unseen entities occupying a shadowy "other region" appear to me to derive from a boost in the brain's basic processing power and the imaginative faculties.

The capacity to form a subjunctive clause, to inflect a verb, to distinguish between past, present and future - all of these linguistic capacities emerged at some point in the distant past and all had profound social implications for the groups in questions. They also conferred on the members of the groups in question the ability to convey for the first time notions of a spiritual world.

In the beginning it seems, it really was "The Word" and it had become Sacred. In the earliest days there must have been a mystery attached to it's usage as it's listeners were oftentimes incapable of repeating it, and if you can't repeat it, you are then presumed not to understand it - and you are henceforth cut from the loop, whether this be planning a hunting expedition, gathering flint or officiating at a ceremonial ritual. But when precisely did our linguistic capacities begin to attain the required complexity to posit the existence of a spiritual domain or 'otherworld' beyond the senses?

Apparently, there is a debate ongoing at present over the issue of whether the Neanderthals could "speak". This is because of the discovery of a hyoid bone (deemed necessary for distinct articulation) in a specimen uncovered recently which dates to 100,00 years ago. If this were the case then this would assign an upper limit to the birth of the possibility of religious thought. Yet, other indirect evidence points to a much later date for the arrival of religious concepts. All mammals to produce sounds make use of formants which are bandpass filters in the laryngeal pipe that take the sound emanating from the vocal tract and convert them into a spectrum of peaks and valleys. The extensive development of formants in humans give us the possibility of a much wider range of articulation. We know that the descended larynx of humans enabled greater movement of the tongue and soft palate which is otherwise constrained in chimpanzees and orangutans. For example, the standard mammalian tongue rests flat in the oral cavity and cannot produce vowel sounds such as /i/ or /u/ - deemed vital for rapid and efficient speech communication.

Unfortunately, changes in the structure of the human vocal tract which enabled this greater speech complexity cannot be properly assessed via the fossil record - the larynx being soft and perishable and connected via elastic ligaments. The only parts of human anatomy concerned with vocalisation that can be fossilised are the skull and hyoid bone. Now, it was once thought that the angle of the base of the skull would indicate the position of the larynx but recent x-ray studies of modern humans has shown that this is not necessarily the case. Also, the Neanderthal hyoid bone discovered in Kebara, Israel, only demonstrates that they had none of the large air sacs in the throat that are common among other primates. The larynx descends twice in humans, once in infancy and again during puberty but in neither instance is there a change wrought in the morphology of the hyoid so we cannot conclude it's presence is indicative of complex speech. And again, the static nature of their cultural artefacts reinforces the impression that there were no selective pressures here relating to more advanced communication skills.

In Broca's aphasia, a speech condition, it is known that sufferers thinking is otherwise not impaired. They can do all manner of complex puzzles and demonstrate a flawless understanding of what has been said but are simply unable to communicate that understanding because a vital relay junction in the brain has been damaged. Auxillaries such as "or" "else" "then" etc or qualifying pronouns such as "he" "she" "it" - simply cannot be said - the conceptual area of the brain can process they're meaning and prepare them for articulation - but the speech circuit responsible has been immobilised. The point here is that the ability to produce complex speech patterns also makes demands upon the listeners and those who cannot follow the "laying out" of the "order of things" will be quickly left behind. We can easily see here how sexual selection will weed out those unable to appreciate the birth of innuendo, the emergence of the "plot" which has gone over their heads or the anger and frustration of simply being unaware of what is being said by your 'Darwinised' companions. If you look at some language disorder conditions such as Broca's aphasia and how damage to a small localised area of the brain can have such appalling effects on the ability of the sufferer to communicate basic concepts you will appreciate that these areas of the brain at one time did not even exist; they had evolved.

Whereas the evidence of the timing of the emergence of complex speech is inconclusive at present elaborate burials certainly bear all the hallmarks of animistic thought. Wherever we see the ritual use of red ochre and other symbolically important objects (such as flowers) being placed in the ground along with the deceased we may be assured that there are definite lineaments of a conception of an otherworld. These are tokens of appreciation which may have had a practical value in "this world". In later, more elaborate burials, swords and trinkets and other tokens of prestige were lain in the ground alongside the departed to presumably aid the soul's journey, such as for instance is found in the various objects that were placed alongside the Egyptian Pharoahs. The idea here being to indicate to the denizens of the spiritworld that the deceased was a king, or a chief and so on - we do get to a point where people are buried along with an artefact that indicates their occupation/profession etc, - or a symbol of the totem group or clan to which they belonged (the bones of auroch, rhino and so on). However, there does appear to be a quantitive leap between simple decorative embellishments such as red ochre being applied to the deceased and the later burial of valuable artefacts the former being only suggestive of conceptions of an otherworld.

There is an example of a Neanderthal child with disarticulated limbs being buried after some months exposure to the elements. But this, it appears to me is on much the same level as the chimp mothers who would often carry their young about for days before finally "accepting" that they are no longer alive. Or maybe the body was discovered by another group and they simply decided to hide it from view, it being an unpleasant "memento mori". Again, such behaviour says nothing concrete about the level of sophistication their views were on an "afterlife" or of a spiritual dimension. For such notions to develop, it would have entailed an advancement in cognitive capacities, which were perhaps beyond neanderthalensis.

It is has already been established via the anthropological ethnographic record that such animistic beliefs were almost certainly ubiquitous - it is simply the way of the world - rivers, trees, plants, the skies; they have all become animated, possessed and controlled by "the Gods". These "Gods" - nymphs, sprites, river deities - can be placated via ritual and this ritual becomes vitally important for the group's survival for on it's success depends the fecundity of the land, the capture of game, the health and very lives of the group. It is not a question of asking what advantages there were in believing "what doesn't exist"; as the evolutionary "by-product" camp led by Dawkins does - it is a question of understanding that once the belief had taken hold, through a variety of psychological mechanisms which appear to have been universal, how did they in turn effect group dynamics, and what those group dynamics did to ensure the adaptive advantage of the group?

Durkheim has mentioned social cohesion; and now you have to ask yourself were there many groups who didn't see in the rivers, trees, etc these supernatural entities and if they didn't, did they then fall by the wayside - "unfit", unable to carry on , lacking the advantages of those groups that did make attributions. Evidently, the group dynamics initiated by the propensity to attribute a presence in otherwise inanimate objects conferred a very strong advantage indeed. I would suggest that ritual provided a focus for everyone's attention, helped garner a sense of common purpose - and the sacrifice emerged as an expression of the seriousness of intent - a raw and bloody spectacle that reminded everyone of the powerful cosmic forces that demanded placation.

All in all it appears that approaches using the fossil record to determine the time of the evolution of human speech appear to be running out of steam and very inconclusive. What is evident is that increased cranial capacity peaked at around 500,000 ya and so is something of a red herring when used to infer linguistic capability. Many humans today with excellent language skills have craniums the same size as homo erectus and it is deduced from the archaeological record that erectus would have had at best a linguistic ability intermediate between modern humans and chimpanzees and so not at all accomplished enough to produce the abstractions of thought required of animism.

Personally, I'm inclined to go for the period of cultural lift-off of the Upper Palaeolithic around 50,000 years ago as the birth of animism proper. There is evidence of red ochre being 'industrially' mined (which indicates more extensive use in ritual/hunting), the emergence of the first pieces of figurative art (abstract thought) and of course the Venus figurines which are heavily suggestive of a fertility goddess. There is also evidence from the type and variety of tools that greater symbolic capacity was required to transmit knowledge of their proper use. None of these developments on their own indicate definitively the emergence of animistic thought proper but taken together they offer a strong likelihood that something indeed quite revolutionary had taken place during this period.

Once animistic thought and practice takes hold it rapidly becomes ubiquitous and we have to await the birth of agriculture (c.10,000 years ago) before there is a centralisation of practice and worship with the first city-states. By then the cults will have been absorbed and distinct pantheons will have emerged awaiting the final syncretism occasioned by the arrival of the Abrahamic faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
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  1. Old Comment
    Pedro's Avatar
    Nice post Gile!!
    Posted March 24th, 2011 at 08:50 AM by Pedro Pedro is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Gile na Gile's Avatar
    Cheers Pedro
    Posted March 25th, 2011 at 05:23 AM by Gile na Gile Gile na Gile is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Kuon's Avatar
    Fascinating material there, Gile.
    Posted March 31st, 2011 at 06:35 AM by Kuon Kuon is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Gile na Gile's Avatar
    Much obliged Kuon - now you see where comic books have led me.
    Posted April 2nd, 2011 at 10:18 AM by Gile na Gile Gile na Gile is offline
  5. Old Comment
    Kuon's Avatar
    And it is to a good place that it has led you.
    Posted April 4th, 2011 at 11:23 AM by Kuon Kuon is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Kotromanic's Avatar
    A wonderful post, Gile.
    Posted April 22nd, 2015 at 06:34 PM by Kotromanic Kotromanic is offline
  7. Old Comment
    Gile na Gile's Avatar
    Much obliged, Kotromanic.
    Posted June 18th, 2015 at 10:45 PM by Gile na Gile Gile na Gile is offline

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