The Atheists’ Picnic

Julian Bell

  • Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion by David Lewis-Williams
    Thames and Hudson, 320 pp, £18.95, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 500 05164 1

‘God created man.’ There are various ways you might read those words even without looking beyond the scriptures. Set them in the context of archaeology and a different reading altogether suggests itself. Primates turn recognisably human when factors beyond the reach of the senses leave traces in their behaviour. It is an intrusion of the invisible that sets homo sapiens apart from other species. This animal has the unique habit of making one thing stand for another: where prehistoric evidence of that habit shows up, we infer that the agents knew – in the way that we know, and in a way that other creatures seemingly do not – what it is like to contemplate and to relate physical objects, on some plane distinct from the objects themselves. ‘Mind’ is the obvious label for that not exactly material zone. It is not obvious, however, where mind cuts off from the larger bodilessness that we point towards when we speak of God. Perhaps objects interrelate in our individual minds because they are already interrelated within a communal mind. Perhaps understanding is located not in us alone, but in the world about us in the manner of water under the ground, of blood under the skin or the flame within fuel: perhaps it’s a stuff within objects, awaiting release. In which case, homo sapiens becomes sapient by dowsing for that flow – or, to switch metaphors, by seeking spark-points where that fire will catch to illuminate the world.

Engraved ochre block
Engraved ochre block, c.75,000 BCE

Was it in some such matrix that the concepts ‘God’ and ‘man’ first arose? That seems to be the implication when, in the opening pages of Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion, the archaeologist David Lewis-Williams examines the earliest records of symbolic behaviour. 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.’

We also have here – though the fact does not concern Lewis-Williams – our earliest evidence of systematic line-drawing. The ends of the blocks were flattened to make planes suitable for patterning. The closed off criss-cross hatchings rendered on one block roughly correspond to those on the other; the intervals and intersections of the scorings aim at regularity. Such patterning makes best sense as a conscious stab at perfection. Beyond each scratch that we can see, there lay an intended ideal geometry, luring the draughtsman on. A pure, complete and cohesive network of interrelations was evidently the endpoint. If we take these little chunks of red mineral seriously – if we accept that as 3D objects, they possessed a symbolic charge that set them apart from their environment and that they were in effect keys to unlock its meanings – then we might also consider that the scratches on the objects’ 2D planes had to do with thought as a weightless, abstract thread, one fit to weave the environment around it into unity. Religion, Lewis-Williams might have added, has always shuffled from one foot to the other: here it isolates some object, place or person and declares them special, there it proposes to embrace everything in a resolved coherence.

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[*] Wits, 400 pp., R650, November 2009, 978 1 86814 497 6