Beheading the “Snake God” at Rhino Cave

Indiana Jones would have loved it: 65,000 years ago, stone age hunters in Africa gathered at night in a hidden cave to worship the giant rock snake that seemed to move in the flickering firelight and hissingly promised fertility so long as the rituals were performed. They came to this place every year when the surrounding desert was dead or dying. The plants were withered, game scarce, and water precious. The Snake God promised rain and renewal, but only if it was fed. The faithful crafted beautiful and rare hunting darts in the presence of the god, and then sacrificed the points by burning and smashing them. The snake spirit was placated and the rains came.

This was the scene that, since 2006, many have imagined was played out in the Tsodilo Hills of northern Botswana during a critical time in human history. It is about this time, the Middle Stone Age of Africa, when we begin seeing the earliest evidence of symbolic thought and modern behavior in the archaeological record. Surrounded for many miles by the flat and featureless Kalahari, the Tsodilo Hills rise unexpectedly and have been attracting humans for tens of thousands of years.

The San or Bushmen who consider this area home have been coming here for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. It is for them a special and supernatural place, and is known to visitors as “Mountain of the Gods.”

Those who were looking forward to confirmation of this sensational story by Sheila Coulson, the Norwegian archaeologist who (inadvertently) turned the world’s attention to “Python” or Rhino Cave in 2006, are bound to be disappointed by her recently published study, “Ritualized Behavior in the Middle Stone Age: Evidence from Rhino Cave, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana” (open access). Coulson and colleagues present their finds in considerable detail (a forty page article!) and conclude that ritual activities did in fact take place in Rhino Cave during the Middle Stone Age. But there is no mention of worship, religion, shamans, prayer, or a “snake god.” While this will surely displease Paleo-religion and other enthusiasts, it makes for good archaeology.

The authors’ primary argument is that “Rhino Cave was a site with unusual behavioral patterns involving the manufacture and abandonment or intentional destruction of artifacts….Once complete, these [MSA] tools, which are normally associated with hunting or butchering, never left the cave. Instead, they were burnt (along with their waste debitage), abandoned, or intentionally broken.” If this indeed the case, the authors are surely correct this is evidence for ritualized behavior. Coulson is appropriately cautious about saying more, though she suggests these could have been acts of “sacrifice” and the unusual rock formation (i.e., the “snake” or “turtle”) may have played a role.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The biggest problem at the moment is that these finds remain undated. Archaeologists who have previously worked the site and others will surely comment. Back in 2006, Julien Riel-Salvatore commented on Coulson’s preliminary results and raised several questions the current study does not appear to address. It addresses many others, however, and Coulson and colleagues deserve praise for their careful and thorough analysis.

In the meantime, Coulson’s study should put to rest the fanciful idea that Rhino or “Python” Cave provides evidence for the “world’s oldest religion.” While it is clear that something interesting and perhaps unusual was happening at Rhino Cave, we don’t know exactly when or in the service of what. Stay tuned for the rest of the story.


Coulson, Sheila, Staurset, Sigrid, & Walker, Nick (2011). Ritualized Behavior in the Middle Stone Age: Evidence from Rhino Cave, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana PaleoAnthropology, 18-61 : 10.4207/PA.2011.ART42

Photo Credits: Special thanks to “Biker Tony” for the incredible photos of Tsodilo Hills. I spent some time on his site today, and although I don’t know him, he obviously is a special person. Anyone who tours the world on a bicycle obviously is. His comprehensive travelogue website truly is an inspiration.

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12 thoughts on “Beheading the “Snake God” at Rhino Cave

  1. J. A. LeFevre

    As ritual is the principal component I see in religion, I think you are celebrating the death (of religion this early) too soon.

  2. admin Post author

    Ritual behavior does not religion make. Many ritual activities are not religious. The gist of “religion” is metaphysics or supernaturalism.

  3. J. A. LeFevre

    The DNA trace of ‘modern’ man leads to S. E. Africa at about this time. I predict this was religion, but accept that more evidence is desired. The ‘function’ of religion, I submit, is human community.

  4. admin Post author

    Great. So we have not learned anything in 125 years? Durkheim said the same thing. One of the roles of religion may have been “community” (though I fail to understand how Paleolithic “communities” gained more traction from “religion” than they did from language and fictive kinship) but this certainly cannot explain it. No single causal factor can explain it. The causes go much deeper and are far more complex.

  5. J. A. LeFevre

    In learning, we may return to our origins. Re-read, for my entertainment, your ‘resource’ posting from Jarred Diamond – a bit off topic, but the best ‘supporting reference’ I’ve come up with. It simply comes down to everything else already being in place, as I tried to explain in my ‘rock art’ post. Religion ‘caused’ it by supplying the only missing piece. As you pointed out, most apes have community, chimps have community, humans wanted community (instinctively, and community is a significant competitive advantage as you regularly point out – so, yes, it looks like a good instinct), but could not achieve it (at least not reasonably effective community) without solving the question of ‘who-da-boss’ – and how do we not kill too many settling on an answer.

  6. admin Post author

    Serious question: Why is this a fetish for you? Do you have a personal stake in a particular kind of outcome?

  7. J. A. Le Fevre

    This was my epiphany on putting aside ‘The God Delusion’. That religion drove the two human revolutions: Basic for the Upper Paleolithic, organized for the neolithic. My ‘grand unified theory’ of why humans have religion. You have mentioned a belief that religion served a function – albeit packaged with a lot of dressing. I am simply offering my undressed ‘function’ for review – should that suit your fancy.

  8. admin Post author

    “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them; the will to a system is a lack of integrity.” — Friedrich Nietzsche. I distrust all grand unified theories and am aware of none that explain what they attempt or hope to explain. Religion may be explicable but being explicable is not a causal explanation.

  9. admin Post author

    These are the kinds of bad things that happen when you read Richard Dawkins on religion!

  10. J. A. LeFevre

    Or mosh through too much slipknot – who’s to say.

    Yet I sense a most constricting and unfortunate phobia, as a vigorous command of systems is surly what separates the men from the apes.

    Least we forget, Nietzsche’s integritate corporis was lost the minute his systems stopped supporting him, perhaps justifying his angst.

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