An archaeological discovery was announced from South Africa this week of new skeletal remains of Homo Naledi. Multiple age-dating techniques indicate that these early hominids lived an estimated 230,000 years ago. It was expected that they would have used their arms and legs much like humans do today, except that these beings would have had a brain only one-third that of modern humans. We refer to the blog from last week to learn how astronomy plays a role in such age measurements.
Even so, there is new evidence that these hominids buried their dead deliberately in cave structures. From this behavior, archaeologists infer some level of religious ritual to have been present in their community. One wonders if this might be the first example of religious rituals.
Expanding on this idea, one can wonder also by which process did these beings decide to build religious rituals into their lives? Finally one can take a step back and ask if religious rituals require higher levels of thought, or the other way around. Put another way, which came first: intelligence or religion?
To look at this big question, one can make a list of the most difficult questions we face today that may have been in common with those of ancient peoples. Among them are questions such as: why do we have to die, does someone/thing decide when we die, and what happens to loved ones after they die? This “death” problem may have been as important 230,000 years ago as it is today.
In fact, what if such questions such as the death of a loved one were so intense, so poignant, so as to press early hominids into thinking about their potential answers? What if these questions provided sufficient motivation for the hominids to struggle to make the thoughts, to invent ways to express them, and to stretch their brains just enough to accommodate setting up the building blocks of the first religion? In other words, might intelligence itself be related to our insatiable curiosity to address the big questions of religion?
Wouldn’t it be fascinating if it turns out that religion is the reason why we are intelligent? In the meanwhile, perhaps we should also be thankful to live on a planet with such low levels or geological activity, and such high levels of stability of our own nearby Sun, to be able to use our intelligent brains to study these beings over a 230,000 years baseline.