From Paleolithic Diviners to Axial Prophets

A person of many astute observations, one of Robert Bellah’s most astute is his refrain (when talking about the history of religions) that “nothing is ever lost.” By this I take Bellah to mean that at any given point in time, an existing religion will contain elements from earlier religions. There is continuity in religious history and “new” religions are never sui generis. Because these elements have been transformed and are continuously being reconstituted, identifying them can be a challenge. The first step in any such identification is knowing what came before.

One of the world’s oldest supernatural practices, aspects of which can be found in all of today’s “world religions,” is divination sensu lato. It is no accident that the earliest organized religions, those which arose in conjunction with Neolithic city-states, revolved around divination. And as some city-states grew into empires, divination remained front and center. In China emperors interpreted the tortoise shells and oracle bones, while in Rome they consulted sacrificial livers and conferred with augurs or auspices. When things did not augur well or omens were inauspicious, plans were changed or put on hold. Around the world, the affairs of city, state, and empire were conducted in accordance with divination.

Attempts to ascertain (and by extension control) the future did not originate in classical antiquity. Noting that hunter-gatherers around the world divine the location of game or enemies by “reading” viscera and bones, anthropologists have surmised that the practice is more ancient. Because such inferences rely on ethnographic analogy and backward projection, what was a reasonable surmise long remained uncertain. The discovery of 14,000 year old “dice” and a divining scapula at El Juyo Cave in Spain make it almost certain.

Few Paleolithic archaeological sites are richer than El Juyo Cave. Used extensively by Magdalenian hunter-gatherers 14,000 years ago, it contains what may be the world’s oldest ritual sanctuary, highlighted by a large carved rock face or “spirit” at the entrance.

In “Coping with Chance: Animal Bones and the Aleatory,” Freeman and Echegaray (2005) report on two extraordinary finds from El Juyo. The first is a set of three worked bone pieces, similar in size and shape, which were found stacked on top of one another and which probably were bound together as a set. They greatly resemble “dice” sets used by Amerindians and the authors interpret them as such. The second is a deer scapula or shoulder blade that has been engraved with images of deer, incised, drilled, burned, and shattered. Because this kind of treatment precisely parallels divination practices among known hunter-gatherers, the authors’ scapulimancy interpretation is uncontroversial.

What I like most about the authors’ report is their extended meditation on the relationship between divination and chance:

In the specific cases to be discussed here, bone artifacts seem to reflect game-playing and/or divination, and to attest to early attempts by Upper Paleolithic humans to deal with chance: to cope with the seemingly “uncontrollable” randomness of natural phenomena. [Humans] find it hard to understand that many natural phenomena are simply random, a fact that is at least perplexing if not troubling, and that leads us to invent various means of coping with this randomness.

It is a characteristic of [humans] to behave as though such random phenomena as the availability of game, the likeliness of success in the food quest, and other vagaries of nature could be controlled or, what is the same thing, “divined” or predicted, in the sense of determining their indeterminable future direction.

[W]e can show that there are artifacts such as “dice” and engraved scapulae in the bone inventory from the Magdalenian site of el Juyo (presumably other such pieces have been or will be found in other Upper Paleolithic sites as well) that are most effectively explained as devices showing an awareness of the effects of chance and as implements to predict the direction of the aleatory: to cope with the randomness of nature.

While some may dismiss ancient divination practices as mere “magic” or superstition, it would be well to remember that nothing is ever lost. It is but a short conceptual step from Paleolithic divination to the kinds of prophecy that are so characteristic of Axial or modern religions. If we are going to draw lines, they should not be conceptual lines of sand but rather historical lines of continuity.


Freeman, L.G., & Echegaray, J.G. (2005). Coping with Chance: Animal Bones and the Aleatory Munibe (Antropologia-Arkeologia), 57, 159-176

Did you like this? Share it:

6 thoughts on “From Paleolithic Diviners to Axial Prophets

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Consider, also, meditation. Perhaps there is more than chance in the roll (role) of the dice, but coerced mental focus and meditation. There are many subtle patterns in nature not at first obvious, that our minds catch and meditations can unlock. These practices have persisted, perhaps, because they impart advantage. An advantage realized but not understood. Various meditations can help the mind find patterns, meanings in data not fully conseptuallized. Our lack of understanding does not make the practice ‘placebo’ (nor magic).

  2. Cris Post author

    Perhaps; I know that Matt Rossano speculates about this sort of thing. One problem: I have yet to find anything that looks or smells like modern meditation in the hunter-gatherer ethnohistoric and ethnographic records. While it might be nice to imagine that foragers were meditating, it doesn’t seem as if any foragers meditate.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    The whole ‘dream time’ phenomenon looks and smells a lot like meditation to me – this centers around the shaman afterall.

  4. Cris Post author

    Except that shamans use a wide variety of techniques — including dancing, drumming, fasting, drugs, deprivation, and torture — to achieve the altered states of consciousness associated with “dreamining” or “visioning.” This seems quite different from what I understand to be modern meditation. Indeed they seem kind of like opposite techniques for affecting consciousness.

  5. J. A. Le Fevre

    I believe there is a second, more obvious, feature in this play – establishing credibility as giver of advice. This is a two step phenomenon, as you cannot fool all of the people, all of the time: Secondly, the show itself adds to the credibility of the claim (that old monster of ‘expensive signaling’ that we humans, like so many animals, are born victims of), and the show heightens the showman’s visibility in the community.
    Firstly, however, the central figure must establish a record of positive (appear to be accurate/helpful) pronouncements. This is easier than may first appear as most problems solve themselves and most complaints are driven by the emotions of the complainer and a slightly detach person with a bit of experience can quickly see through them.

    Taken in order, every community can benefit from a sensible ‘elder’, and the more people rely on such elders/thinkers (rather than fly off on a rage – or jump into a Slipknot mosh pit) the overall better that community will perform. If nothing else, it’s a ‘count to ten’ mechanism, but people are not, typically, consistently foolish, and come in time to recognize who best to turn to for help through life. The most benefit comes from the most people seeking good advice as early as possible.
    This is where part two fits in: the show and ritual of the ‘divining’ motivates people to go quickly to the advice giver and the promise of supernatural insight encourages same people to take the advice (or, at a minimum, rethink their first reactions). As a part of the ‘Darwinian check’, too much bad advice, you get run out or run through, leaving the field open for other diviners.

    Bottom line is that the community which regularly follows good advice outperforms the one which simply reacts to first impulses, and these divining rituals appear to me to be techniques developed to encourage seeking advice.

  6. London Counselling

    It isn’t a surprise that human did, and still do attempt to control the world around them. In the past it was with augury, nowadays it’s with prayer. There are still cultures who perform dances for rain (that interestingly coincide with the expected start of the rainy season). Humans have a built in dislike for the belief that everything in nature is essentially random.

Leave a Reply