Skip to main content

A Story Told Backwards

  • 128 Accesses

Part of the New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion book series (NASR,volume 10)


Archeological and paleoanthropological evidence which might relate to prehistoric religion is outlined in exemplary form and sorted by age. The earliest plausible examples are ritual burials from archaic Homo sapiens, and from Neanderthals. Later, figurative art (paintings, Venus figurines, animal figurines) can be interpreted as expressions of religious concepts analogical with historic animalism. Handprints (positive images) and stencils (negative images) are of comparable age and are interpreted as traces of shamanistic rituals. Among extant indigenous cultures, animism is the most widespread religious concept. This might hint at its synapomorphic (primal) position in religious evolution. However, the scant evidence allows for widely different hypotheses: ranging from the proposal that religion started with concepts of survival after death around 90,000 BCE, to the suggestion that, at that time, religious performances were already similar to those of extant hunter-gatherer societies.


  • Archeology
  • Paleoanthropology
  • Ritual burials
  • Cave art
  • Venus figurines
  • Animal figurines
  • Animism
  • Animalism

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-70408-7_8
  • Chapter length: 10 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   64.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-030-70408-7
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   84.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   119.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    In this book, the archaeological and paleontological record is not verified by a comprehensive list of research literature. Some exemplary citations suffice for the purpose of the argument; literature concerning all finds mentioned is readily available in a digital format.


  • Bowler, J. M., Johnston, H., Olley, J. M., Prescott, J. R., Roberts, R. G., Shawcross, W., & Spooner, N. A. (2003). New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia. Nature, 421(6925), 837–840.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Chase, P. G. (2005). The emergence of culture: The evolution of a uniquely human way of life. Berlin, Boston: Birkhäuser.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clottes, J. (2010). Cave art. London, New York: Phaidon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dixson, A. F., & Dixson, B. J. (2011). Venus figurines of the European paleolithic: Symbols of fertility or attractiveness? Journal of Anthropology, 569120.

  • Krech, V. (2019). Gescheiter scheitern. Interview by Christian Röther. Retrieved November 31, 2019, from

  • Maryanski, A. (2018). The origin of religion: Recent scientific findings. In A. K. Petersen, I. S. Gilhus, H. Martin Luther, H. S. Jensen, & J. Sørensen (Eds.), Evolution, cognition, and the history of religion: A new synthesis (pp. 206–224). Leiden/Boston: Brill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Narr, K. J. (2008). Prehistoric religion. Britannica online encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 2008-04-09. Accessed 20 February 2020.

    Google Scholar 

  • Peoples, H. C., Duda, P., & Marlowe, F. W. (2016). Hunter-gatherers and the origins of religion. Human Nature, 27(3), 261–282.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • von Schnurbein, S. (ed). (2009). Atlas der Vorgeschichte: Europa von den ersten Menschen bis Christi Geburt. Stuttgart: 2009.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wunn, I. (2018). Barbaren, Geister, Gotteskrieger: Die Evolution der Religionen—entschlüsselt. Berlin: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Hemminger, H. (2021). A Story Told Backwards. In: Evolutionary Processes in the Natural History of Religion. New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion , vol 10. Springer, Cham.

Download citation