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← The roots of religion | Genvieve Von Petzinger | TEDxVictoria

Genevieve von Petzinger talks about the development of the conceptual ability of the human mind – the ability to make tools and to develop religion being thought to be somewhat concomitant.

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Showing Revision 16 created 02/02/2016 by Robert Tucker.

  1. We live in a world

  2. that is absolutely infused
    with religion and spirituality,
  3. sometimes even to the point
    where maybe we don't recognize it.
  4. It affects everything from something
    as simple as the holidays we celebrate,
  5. to the names that we give our children,
  6. to something much more really
    saddening and sort of disheartening,
  7. which is finding a conflict
    on the other side of the world somewhere.
  8. I mean, any given day,
  9. somewhere somebody is fighting
    about spirituality and religion.
  10. So, let's take a look at how this all
    plays out then on a global scale.
  11. Depending on whom you talk to,
    there's about 20 major world religions -
  12. so, these are ones that are in more
    than one country, more than one continent.
  13. Add to that hundreds of belief systems,
  14. and out of the 7 billion people who live
    on this planet at this point in time,
  15. just under 6 billion profess
    to follow some sort of faith.
  16. Now, I want you to try and imagine
    a world with no religion.
  17. What would it look like?
  18. Because that is the reality,
  19. is if we go far enough back
    into our own deep history,
  20. there was a time, maybe not
    with Homo sapiens, maybe further back,
  21. where we didn't have any religion.
  22. So, as you can see in the slide behind me,
  23. that's a very simplified
    evolutionary chart,
  24. but it's a question that people
    in my field, palaeoanthropology,
  25. have asked: How far back
    does the religious impulse go?
  26. And how would you get at that?
    It's incredibly subjective, right?
  27. So, obviously Homo sapiens at the top.
  28. We know that Homo sapiens
    have religion, that's us.
  29. But, what about heidelbergensis
    before us, and erectus,
  30. and all the way back to Homo hails.
  31. You know, Homo habilis
    2.5 million years ago,
  32. they're considered to be a good candidate
    for the original toolmakers.
  33. And you might wonder - tools, religion,
    what do these potentially have in common?
  34. But, if you actually think about
    what a cognitive leap making tools is,
  35. there are some things in common.
  36. For instance, when you're
    actually making a tool -
  37. so you've got one piece of stone
    and you've got another to shape it -
  38. you have to hold a mental template
    in your head
  39. of what that finished product
    is going to look like.
  40. And also what we find
    with these early toolmakers,
  41. is that they actually were exhibiting
    forethought and pre-planning.
  42. They were potentially taking
    a nice piece of flint with them,
  43. along the landscape,
    so that when their current tool ran out,
  44. or got down to kind of a nub,
    they could make themselves a new one.
  45. So, there are some
    researchers in my field,
  46. especially a fellow
    by the name of Thomas Wynn,
  47. has teamed up with a neuropsychologist,
    by the name of Frederick Coolidge,
  48. and the two of them have talked
    about something called working memory.
  49. And so, it's not one spot in the brain
  50. so much as sort of several functions
    that kind of work together,
  51. that allow things like mental templates
    and allow things like pre-planning.
  52. Now, they've made the argument
    that even on a very basic level
  53. chimps probably do have
    some working memory as well.
  54. Of course, they can also use tools,
  55. they're just not very good at -
  56. Basically, they'll take their stick,
  57. they'll rip off the leaves,
    they'll use it to dip some termites out,
  58. but then they tend to dump it.
  59. That's pretty much it,
    they're done with that tool.
  60. So, there's not a lot of examples
    of chimps reusing tools
  61. or sort of behaving
    in exactly the same way
  62. as what we see with Homo habilis.
  63. But with that as sort of the base
    and that idea of working memory,
  64. they've then sort of extrapolated that
  65. and said, let's talk about something
    that they call enhanced working memory.
  66. And so enhanced working memory -
  67. basically there's
    several components to it.
  68. This is sort of taking that,
    and then basically putting it on steroids.
  69. So, not just that basic mental template
    and pre-planning,
  70. but now let's add to that
    the ability to envision
  71. and work with abstract concepts.
  72. Let's talk about mental time travel.
  73. Now, what I mean when I say
    mental time travel,
  74. is the ability to think about
    past and future.
  75. These are actually very unusual things.
  76. We take them for granted,
  77. but they're not something that necessarily
    other species can conceive of.
  78. I mean obviously your dog seems
    to remember about going to the vet,
  79. which is sort of an interesting thing,
  80. but you know he doesn't have
    a strong sense of clear episodic memories
  81. of having been to the vet
  82. so much as this is a bad thing
    when I go into this building,
  83. it smells a certain way - and, you know,
    this is danger basically flashing.
  84. So, the clear ability to also say,
    with mental time travel,
  85. "When I tried making a tool
    using this material before,
  86. this didn't work very well,
  87. so, I'm going to do it
    differently this time."
  88. Or, "I saw this person in the next
    hunter-gatherer group over do something.
  89. That worked really nicely,
    I want to do that."
  90. All those kinds of things,
    as well as being able to think forwards:
  91. so, pre-planning,
    but even at a greater degree.
  92. Imagination, because again the ability
    to sort of conceive of something,
  93. like a mental template
    when you're making a tool,
  94. relies on us being able
    to visualize something
  95. that doesn't actually exist
    at that moment in time -
  96. it's more, again,
    that we're looking forward.
  97. And then, of course, the capacity
    to understand and manipulate symbols.
  98. And, so, this is where we get to things
    like language and to art.
  99. So, you probably saw
    I said the "God spot,"
  100. what we're talking about there is that,
  101. certainly starting in probably about,
    I think, in the 1990's,
  102. once we, especially neuropsychologists,
  103. once they had their fancy MRI's
    and other brain scans,
  104. they really started looking to see
  105. if there was one spot in the brain
    that could be associated with God.
  106. And they even actually did some study
  107. where they actually had
    the people in the MRI,
  108. and they were like, okay,
    we want you to think about
  109. your vision of God or faith
    or spirituality while you're in here,
  110. while we see if we can map
    the areas of the brain
  111. that light up while we're doing that.
  112. And they kept getting one spot
    that was lighting up,
  113. and so it was this huge, like, we did it,
    aha, we found the God spot.
  114. Turns out it's the spot that lights up
    when people are concentrating.
  115. (Laughter)
  116. So, we definitely know
    where they concentrate,
  117. but, of course, everybody concentrated
    on thinking about God,
  118. so, that was the problem.
  119. But I think really what neuropsychologists
    and what people working on evolution
  120. are working towards, is the idea
    there's probably not one spot.
  121. Similar to enhanced working memory,
  122. there's actually
    several parts of the brain
  123. that are all kind of working together
  124. to create that space
    and those types of abilities.
  125. So, is it all in the lobes?
  126. Behind me on the slide what you'll see
  127. is that on the left-hand side
    we have a Homo erectus,
  128. so that's 1.65 million years ago.
  129. And then on the right-hand side
    we have a Homo sapiens skull
  130. from about 20,000 years ago in Germany.
  131. 20,000 years ago in Germany,
    their skulls were identical to ours -
  132. I just thought it might be cooler
  133. to use a sort of fossil skull
    for Homo sapiens.
  134. Now, what I want you to look at though,
  135. is that when you see the profile,
  136. erectus has that nice
    big brow ridge we think of,
  137. but you'll notice behind that,
  138. it actually slopes at quite
    a sharp angle backwards.
  139. Now look at that beautiful,
    big, old forehead
  140. on the Homo sapiens skull.
  141. Those are the frontal lobes.
  142. This is pretty much where all
    of our higher reasoning comes from,
  143. from those spots right there.
  144. You know, thinking about it,
    what's so interesting
  145. is that while we sit here, in this room,
  146. having this conversation,
  147. you're using those frontal parts
    of your lobes, aren't you?
  148. But the question that's come up is:
  149. It can physically be there,
    but is it maybe more about wiring?
  150. Not just about size,
    but then also about how is it wired,
  151. how are the neural pathways moving.
  152. So, this is where
    the scholars I mentioned,
  153. Wynn and Coolidge working together,
  154. have made the argument that they believe
    that the truly modern thought,
  155. that ability [which includes]
    imagination, mental time travel,
  156. they believe it started
    with modern humans.
  157. So, what do I mean
    when I say modern humans?
  158. About 200,000 years ago,
  159. we've been able to find
    the earliest skeletons,
  160. that we currently have of what
    we would call fully modern humans.
  161. That means that their skeletons
    were identical to ours,
  162. and their brain size was exactly the same.
  163. Now, that doesn't mean though,
  164. that they were actually using
    all of the abilities we had,
  165. and this is something
    that is a particular area of mine
  166. that I find really fascinating,
    as well, trying to figure out:
  167. When did they become us?
  168. Because we're more
    than just the brain size and the body,
  169. it's also about how we use that brain.
  170. And what's so fascinating
    about the early humans in Africa,
  171. is that, for probably about the first
    80,000 years or so,
  172. they're not really doing much different
  173. than the ancestor species
    that came before them.
  174. They're making really nice tools,
  175. surviving quite well,
    making good use of their landscape,
  176. all of those types of things are in place.
  177. But what we're not seeing is those kinds
    of behaviours that make us go: They're us.
  178. And then, suddenly,
    around 120,000 years ago,
  179. what starts happening
    is we suddenly start finding
  180. what we call symbolic behaviour.
  181. And what we mean when we say that
  182. are things that we would consider
    to be non-utilitarian.
  183. So, not something that's useful
    at a very 1:1 ratio level of survival,
  184. something to keep you warm at night,
  185. something to eat,
    something to shelter you.
  186. We start finding burials.
  187. 120,000 years ago is the oldest burials
    we know of in the world,
  188. and not just burials but burials
    with grave goods in them.
  189. So, in this case, what we're talking
    about at the 120,000 mark -
  190. they were finding a few marine shells
    that have perforations,
  191. and some of the perforations look
    like they probably occurred naturally,
  192. some may have been made by tools,
  193. but the kicker is that those little holes
    in the shells have wear marks on them,
  194. which means that they were
    being worn in some fashion.
  195. Now, there's nothing about doing that
    that is remotely useful
  196. for again heat, shelter, food.
  197. So, what's going on?
    What's happened? What's changed?
  198. And this is kind of
    the story going forward,
  199. and this is again where Wynn and Coolidge
    have made this argument,
  200. and other scholars have as well,
  201. that modern humans is where
    that big change takes place.
  202. They've made the argument potentially even
    that the change started here,
  203. but that some sort of genetic mutation
    or something else
  204. happened around 40-50,000 years ago,
  205. and that that was
    when truly modern behaviour,
  206. the full suite of behaviours
    that we associate with being modern,
  207. music and mathematics and the ability
    to envision things that aren't there,
  208. and all of these things
    which are very much about us,
  209. and, of course, full language,
    communication, all that kind of thing.
  210. They see it as happening
    around 40-50,00 years ago,
  211. which coincides with
    when modern humans left Africa.
  212. Maybe it might have been
    as early as 60,000,
  213. so somewhere in that 40-60,000 range,
  214. is when modern humans left Africa
  215. and basically went out
    and populated the Old World.
  216. Now, I'm personally going to talk to you
    tonight about the Ice Age in Europe,
  217. and it's not that there weren't
    interesting things being done
  218. by modern humans who went
    to other parts of the Old World.
  219. In Asia and Australia,
    there's lots of fascinating stuff,
  220. but I study the Ice Age,
    so it's what I know best.
  221. So, that's where we're going to stick
    with, looking at the Ice Age, today.
  222. When it comes to Europe,
    let's set the scene a little bit.
  223. Obviously, we've got an Ice Age going on,
  224. and an Ice Age is not static by any means.
  225. We certainly have movement
    of the glacier sheets,
  226. but overall definitely colder,
    an icy environment,
  227. but very rich in animals as well.
  228. Huge herds of bison and mammoth
  229. and all these other things
    on the landscape.
  230. So, lots of things to eat,
    which was kind of a pull factor
  231. that probably kept modern humans there.
  232. They show up in Europe somewhere around
    40,000, even 45,000, in some spots,
  233. and they spread out around there,
  234. and this again coincides with what
    we call the creative explosion, sometimes.
  235. It's not that they weren't doing
    interesting things before,
  236. but this is when it starts
    getting really interesting.
  237. This is when we start finding
    a lot of symbolic materials,
  238. like portable art pieces and lots
    of jewellery and other interesting things,
  239. in the archaeological record
    alongside the stone tools.
  240. So, what would we look for?
  241. Let's go back to this idea
    of religion and spirituality,
  242. and how you get that
    in the archaeological record.
  243. Because, if you think about that far back,
  244. basically, we're working with stone tools.
  245. So, there's not really much to go at,
  246. and so how do we start trying
    to move beyond that,
  247. and actually look for
    these indirect clues?
  248. Well, there's three main things
    that people in my field tend to use
  249. looking at that.
  250. The first is burials
    with elaborate grave goods.
  251. So, the necklace itself
    at the 120,000 mark,
  252. very interesting, very cool,
  253. but we can take that a bit farther,
  254. and say: What about if they're putting
    lots of elaborate items into that burial?
  255. Impossible entities being depicted.
  256. So, when I use the term
    impossible entities,
  257. we're referring to things
    that do not appear anywhere in nature.
  258. So, we're not referring
    to anything in the real world.
  259. Something that's, say,
    half-animal, half-human,
  260. would be an impossible entity.
  261. And then, of course, trying to identify
    magic and spiritual themes
  262. in the art itself.
  263. And this is on portable pieces
    and, of course,
  264. my particular area of study,
    the cave walls.
  265. So, to quickly go over a couple of these
  266. and I'll give you some ideas
    of what we're seeing.
  267. For an elaborate burial,
    this one is a very famous burial
  268. and it's an absolutely fascinating one.
  269. This is actually one
    of three burials from this site.
  270. This particular one is the adult male,
  271. and it's about 28,000 years old,
    it's from Russia,
  272. and you notice there's little white things
    all over his skeleton there.
  273. Those are ivory beads.
  274. There are approximately
    3,500 ivory beads in this burial.
  275. An archaeologist in our field,
    his name's Randy White,
  276. actually went to the effort
    of trying to do
  277. what we call experimental archaeology.
  278. And he actually took
    the mammoth ivory and practiced
  279. until he could get quite good
    at making the beads,
  280. and even when he was good at it,
    it took an hour per bead.
  281. Do the math on that.
  282. Then on top of that,
    we actually have the fact
  283. that the two other burials
    at that particular site
  284. are actually of two children.
  285. A little boy and a little girl,
  286. and they're buried in a double burial.
  287. The little boy has 4,500 beads,
  288. so 1,000 more than the adult male,
  289. and the little girl has over 5,000.
  290. So, what we're seeing here then
    is potentially the fact
  291. that they're seeing death as being a state
    that's different than life,
  292. and yet worth recognizing
    and worth paying attention to,
  293. and worth acknowledging, and, frankly,
  294. worth the sheer amount of effort
    of making all those beads
  295. only to bury them in the ground
    and cover them up.
  296. So, something is definitely
    going on in that sense.
  297. Then, of course, we come
    to impossible entities.
  298. And this one is a wonderful,
    classic example.
  299. This is an ivory carved figurine,
    it's probably about this tall.
  300. Head of a lion, body of a human.
  301. Again coming back to that,
    that doesn't exist anywhere in nature.
  302. So, what's going on?
    Why are they depicting this?
  303. This is not a self-representation.
  304. And there's people in my field
    who have made the proposal
  305. that, maybe, this could be
    some sort of mythology,
  306. something to do with origin stories
    and things like that.
  307. So, there's these interesting examples
  308. that exist throughout
    the archaeological record.
  309. That particular one
    is about 32,000 years old.
  310. What about hunting magic?
  311. When I say hunting magic, I mean this,
  312. this is from the cave
    called Niaux, in France,
  313. and you've got a bison
    that's painted on a cave wall,
  314. and if you notice it looks like
    there's almost some sort of spear
  315. sticking out of its side.
  316. So, in this case what people have proposed
  317. is that what we could be seeing is them
    almost trying to kill the animal
  318. ritually in the cave first,
  319. in order to ensure success
    when they go out on the real hunt.
  320. And we do have some examples
    where there's not just the spears,
  321. but there's also punctuation marks,
  322. which almost looks like maybe somebody
    was banging a real spear or something
  323. at the image on the wall.
  324. So, again, that suggests
    some sort of harnessing
  325. of some unseen world -
    there's something going on.
  326. And then this is another great example
    here of an impossible entity
  327. which has also been potentially
    identified as being a shaman.
  328. Now, the reason why they say that
    is the idea that:
  329. What if they were wearing a mask?
  330. What if this, rather than being
    an impossible entity,
  331. is an actual depiction of a human
    partially dressed up like an animal?
  332. You see the legs have
    a much more human look,
  333. they're not very bison-like,
    yet the head has that very bison look,
  334. and the arms are also very human.
  335. So, this is where they started to talk
    about the idea of shamanistic practices,
  336. because shamans, of course -
  337. the term itself comes from Russia,
  338. but it's applied a lot
    to basically spiritual practices
  339. where there are
    specific members of your tribe
  340. who intercede on your behalf
    with an unseen world.
  341. Whether it's to influence weather,
    to influence the hunt,
  342. or to do with health,
  343. and with people being sick
    and trying to make them better again,
  344. there's these people that do that.
  345. And what's so interesting about
    some modern examples, for instance,
  346. is that there is a fellow
    by the name of David Lewis-Williams,
  347. who is a researcher in rock art
    who works in South Africa,
  348. and he had the wonderful opportunity
    to actually speak with the San people,
  349. who are a hunter-gatherer group
    living in northern Southern Africa.
  350. They live out in the desert,
  351. and still practice
    the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
  352. And guess what? They still do rock art.
  353. So, here had the opportunity to ask them,
    "So, why do you guys do the art?"
  354. Now, it doesn't explain all the art,
  355. but certainly shamanistic practices
    played a large role in it.
  356. Things like handprints.
  357. They talked about the idea that caves
  358. were almost like a transitional place
    between worlds.
  359. That once you go into a cave -
  360. we go in with headlamps and lots of light,
  361. and we know what a cave is, geologically.
  362. But imagine if you didn't know.
  363. It almost has a feel of maybe being
    a portal to another reality.
  364. And they've talked about
    the idea of those cave walls
  365. as almost being maybe membranes
    that they could touch,
  366. and through those membranes
    touch the unseen.
  367. So, now, we get specifically
  368. to a research project
    that I've been working on,
  369. where I said, okay,
    well, let's try with this,
  370. because, of course, modern people
    in Africa doing this -
  371. minimum of 10,000 years' difference
    between what's happening in Europe,
  372. could we get at that? Is it possible?
  373. Are we seeing on the walls, potentially,
    some of the trance-like imagery
  374. which they have said
    that that's why they're doing it.
  375. Because you see, the actual human mind -
  376. Obviously, trance is when we go
    into an altered state of consciousness.
  377. There's many things that will be
    culturally specific to where you live,
  378. like the animals you see in the imagery,
  379. but geometric imagery
    actually happens to be almost universal.
  380. And the reason for that
  381. is our eyes are only hard-wired
    to be able to produce certain shapes
  382. when we're in a state of trance.
  383. And so this is where,
    what I've looked at is,
  384. can we find those in the caves in Europe.
  385. And the study is still ongoing,
  386. but I thought I'd share a little
    with you today,
  387. which was that with dots,
    with lines, with grids,
  388. yes, absolutely, we're finding those.
  389. But, some of the other ones, not so much.
  390. Zigzags, there's only
    about 15 examples over 300 sites
  391. that have zigzags in them.
  392. So, they're not totally behaving the way
    that the people in, say, South Africa are.
  393. When it comes to spirals,
    there's only two.
  394. So, in that sense spirals
    are even more uncommon,
  395. and not something that we're seeing
    throughout the archaeological record.
  396. So, what does that mean?
  397. Basically, what it suggests to me -
  398. I can't give you a definitive answer,
  399. and say, "Yes, absolutely, there were
    spiritual people living back then."
  400. But, the signs are
    definitely there to suggest
  401. this was something that was developing,
  402. something that existed.
  403. And I'll leave you
    with the thought that they're us.
  404. In every sense of the word,
  405. those people who lived between 10,000
    and 40,000 years ago were modern humans.
  406. So, if we're capable of it,
    why wouldn't they have been?
  407. Thank you.
  408. (Applause)