Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Re: snake ritual discovery in Africa


See my response to your private message, minus your personal details, on my blog CED.

[Graphic: Python carved from stone in a Botswana cave, MSNBC]

----- Original Message -----
From: AN
To: Stephen E. Jones
Sent: Monday, December 04, 2006 3:01 PM
Subject: snake ritual discovery in Africa

> Hi, Mr. Jones,
> I was interested in hearing your take on this discovery from Africa, apparently of a ritual site from 70,000 years ago of a religion that seems similar to one practiced in the area now:

Thanks for the link. Here is the original Livescience article:

Startling Discovery: The First Human Ritual, Livescience, Robert Roy Britt, 30 November 2006 ... A startling discovery of 70,000-year-old artifacts and a python's head carved of stone appears to represent the first known human rituals. Scientists had thought human intelligence had not evolved the capacity to perform group rituals until perhaps 40,000 years ago. But inside a cave in remote hills in Kalahari Desert of Botswana, archeologists found the stone snake [image] that was carved long ago. It is as tall as a man and 20 feet long. "You could see the mouth and eyes of the snake. It looked like a real python," said Sheila Coulson of the University of Oslo. "The play of sunlight over the indentations gave them the appearance of snake skin. At night, the firelight gave one the feeling that the snake was actually moving." ... More significant, when Coulson and her colleagues dug a test pit near they stone figure, they found spearheads made of stone that had to have been brought to the cave from hundreds of miles away [image]. The spearheads were burned in what only could be described as some sort of ritual, the scientists conclude. "Stone age people took these colorful spearheads, brought them to the cave, and finished carving them there," Coulson said today. "Only the red spearheads were burned. It was a ritual destruction of artifacts. There was no sign of normal habitation. No ordinary tools were found at the site." The discovery was made in a remote region of Botswana called Tsodilo Hills, the only uplifted area for miles around. It is known to modern Sanpeople as the "Mountains of the Gods" and the "Rock that Whispers." Their legend has it that mankind descended from the python, and the ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been created by the python as it circled the hills in its ceaseless search for water. That legend made the discovery of the stone python all the more amazing. "Our find means that humans were more organized and had the capacity for abstract thinking at a much earlier point in history than we have previously assumed," Coulson said. "All of the indications suggest that Tsodilo has been known to mankind for almost 100,000 years as a very special place in the pre-historic landscape." ... The scientists found a secret chamber behind the python carving. Worn areas indicate it's been used over the years. "The shaman, who is still a very important person in San culture, could have kept himself hidden in that secret chamber," Coulson explained. "He would have had a good view of the inside of the cave while remaining hidden himself. When he spoke from his hiding place, it could have seemed as if the voice came from the snake itself. The shaman would have been able to control everything. It was perfect." The shaman could also have made himself disappear from the chamber by crawling out onto the hillside through a small shaft, the scientists found. Paintings in the cave appear to support part of modern San mythology. While cave paintings are common in the Tsodilo Hills, inside the python cave there are just two small paintings, of an elephant and a giraffe. The images were painted at the exact spot where water runs down the wall. One San story has the python falling into water, unable to get out. It's saved by the giraffe. The elephant, with its long trunk, is often a metaphor for the python in San mythology. "In the cave, we find only the San people's three most important animals: the python, the elephant, and the giraffe," Coulson said. "That is unusual. This would appear to be a very special place. They did not burn the spearheads by chance. They brought them from hundreds of kilometers away and intentionally burned them. So many pieces of the puzzle fit together here. It has to represent a ritual."

I have no reason to dispute any of the above. According to my understanding of E.K.V. Pearce's two `Adams' model:

"The literary structure of Genesis is based upon eleven sections, each of which commences with the phrase `These are the generations of.' The word `generations' is `toledoth' in the Hebrew, and refers to the origins of nations and races. ... The first two toledoths embodied in Genesis used to be taken as two separate stories of creation, the second starting in Genesis 2:4. Now that one can be regarded as a sequel to the other, many of our difficulties concerning the Biblical origin of man can be solved. This would mean that in Genesis 1, Old Stone Age man is described, the Hebrew collective noun `adam' meaning mankind as a whole; but in Gen. 2:4, the second toledoth commences. This second toledoth makes the characteristic brief summary of the preceding toledoth, and then speaks mainly about Eden. Here the noun becomes `The Adam' or `the Man', with the article referring to an individual, and then becomes a proper name 'Adam' . This man named Adam is the individual from whom our Lord's descent is eventually traced. ... We shall use the name Adam to refer to this individual, a New Stone Age farmer of about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Although the Hebrew word adam is used collectively in the first chapter of Genesis, we will call him Old Stone Age Man, to avoid confusion, and the proper name, `Adam', will be reserved for the Adam of Eden." (Pearce, E.K.V., "Who Was Adam?," Paternoster: Exeter UK, 1969, pp.18,21. Emphasis original)

all humans are descended from Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) "Genesis 1 `man'", while the line from which Christ ("the last Adam"-1 Cor 15:45) came was from a Neolithic (New Stone Age) "Genesis 2 `Adam'":

What I believe about Creation, Evolution and Design ... Adam & Eve. I regard the best fit of the Biblical and scientific data on Adam and Eve to be E.K.V. Pearce's "two `Adams'" model. That is, there was both Genesis 1 "man" (Heb. 'adam in Gen. 1:26-28 is without the article and therefore is translated "man") and a Genesis 2 "Adam" (Heb. 'adam in Gen. 2:20 is with the article ("the man") and therefore is translated "Adam", i.e. an individual, a name). Genesis 1 "man" (male and female-Gen. 1:26-28) were the actual and/or symbolic common ancestors of all Homo sapiens. But Genesis 2 "Adam" (Gen. 2:4,20;3:17,20-21; 4:1, 25; 5:1,3-5; Hos 6:7; 1 Tim. 2:13-14; Jude 1:14) was a literal individual and/or symbol ("the pattern of the one [Christ] to come"-Rom. 5:14) and was/symbolised the common ancestor only of the line which led to Christ (Lk. 3:23,38) and therefore through Him, "the last Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45) was united back through Genesis 2 "Adam" and Genesis 1 "man," to all humans as their Representative (Rom. 5:12-14; 1 Cor. 15:22,45).

Therefore this evidence of paleolithic African religious experience would relate to Genesis 1 "man" so would have only tangential relevance to the Biblical account, which is mainly about the descendants of Genesis 2 "Adam." As Ramm points out, "The emphasis in Genesis is upon that group of cultures from which Abraham [and through him Christ] eventually came":

"Noah certainly was not a preacher of righteousness to the peoples of Africa, of India, of China or of America-places where there is evidence for the existence of man many thousands of years before the flood (10,000 to 15,000 years in America). The emphasis in Genesis is upon that group of cultures from which Abraham eventually came." (Ramm, B.L., "The Christian View of Science and Scripture," [1955] Paternoster: Exeter UK, 1967, reprint, p.163).

If I have a dispute, it only is that "70,000" years is a long time and what modern rituals involving the stone python mean is not necessarily what they meant originally.

For example, here is a quote by Daniel Dennett in which he makes a good point about our modern "anachronistic tendency to contrast religious practices with `functional' practices" when "The people who engaged in" these "practices made no such distinction. For them a sacrificial altar and a dry storehouse were equally functional":

"What is crucial to any such interpretation of human behaviour based on artefacts is the assumption that the person who crafted the object would not have gone to such lengths to make these things if they didn't strongly believe that they worked. People have long valued nonfunctional decoration for its own sake, but if people have devoted the bulk of their lives to making doodads (are they weapons? calculating devices? culinary tools?) or a single great thingumabob (a fort? a temple? a storehouse?), they presumably thought, rightly or wrongly, that there was a pressing requirement to make such a thing. So if one cannot show that the artefacts did perform some valuable function, one is left having to explain how their makers could have been so convinced of a falsehood. At this point I detect serious confusion on the part of at least some of the contributors to this volume. They have a tendency to reserve `cognition' for such elevated or `cultural' topics as religion, ritual and style of government, as opposed to such mundane practicalities as agriculture and self-defence-as if one could farm or hunt or build a shelter without cognition, but needed cognition to engage in ritual when bury. Allied with this is the surely anachronistic tendency to contrast religious practices with `functional' practices. To our eyes, the systematic placement of carefully conserved seeds into the ground in the spring is not a ritual, while the systematic placement of ancestors bones into the ground on some other occasion is. But this is only because we know the former `works' and the latter, presumably, does not. The people who engaged in both practices made no such distinction. For them a sacrificial altar and a dry storehouse were equally functional, equally essential protections against the vicissitudes of nature. Presumably these people really believed in the efficacy of what they were doing; they were not, like many of today's masters of ceremony, just `keeping a tradition alive'." (Dennett, D.C., "Sifting the evidence for belief in the past." Review of "The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology," by Colin Renfrew & Ezra B.W. Zubrow, eds, Cambridge University Press. New Scientist, 6 August 1994, pp.41-43)

So when a headline reporting on this says, "World's Oldest Ritual Discovered -- Worshipped The Python 70,000 Years Ago" we should realise that what we mean by "ritual" and "worship" may be very different to what the original paleolithic carvers of this python meant by it.

>There was also Joy's take on it at Telic Thoughts, which I've been mulling over, though I don't agree with it, and thinks she goes to far: http://telicthoughts.com/?p=1075

Sorry, but my policy is usually to not comment about other blogs.

>Anyways, since I respect your writing a lot (I've written you a few times, as you may remember) I just wanted to see where you thought this fit into the overall picture.

See above for the "two `Adams'" model which is my "overall picture" for what I consider to be the best fit of the Biblical and scientific evidence for the origin of Man.

>Was this a form of idolotry?

See above the Dennett quote of how we wrongly read into ancient religious and cultural practices our modern concepts, of which "idolatry" would be another. The Bible's first mention of idolatry concerns the covenant people, Israel, about ~1,300 BC:

Exodus 20:4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

The Bible further says in St Paul's Acts 17 address to the pagan idolaters of Athens that "In the past God overlooked ["winked at" KJV] such ignorance, but now" with the resurrection of Christ "he commands all people everywhere to repent"before God "overlooked":

Acts 17:16,22-23,29-31. 16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. ... 22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. ... 29"Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone-an image made by man's design and skill. 30In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."

So I assume that God's standard of what was idolatry was lower for ancient man, including for these python ritualists ~70,000 years ago (assuming that is what they were).

It seems to me that we each should be more concerned about our own idolatry (bearing in mind that the Bible says that "greed ["covetousness" KJV]... is idolatry"- Col. 3:5), than whether people who lived 70,000 years ago were guilty of "a form of idolotry"!

Was man originally monotheistic or not? When did belief in God come to exist? Were these spiritual people in the image of God, morally accountable to Him, etc?

On Pearce's two `Adams' theory, Genesis 1 "man" (Gn 1:26-27) and therefore his descendants, which would include these paleolithic humans ~70,000 years ago and Genesis 2 "Adam" (Gn 5:1; 9:6), were made in the image of God.

As for "Were these ... morally accountable to" God, see my comments above on "idolatry."

As for "Was man originally monotheistic or not?" and "When did belief in God come to exist?" who could know? There are two main possibilities, that either: 1) man originally believed in only one God (monotheism) which then later degenerated into belief in many gods (polytheism), including one supreme God among many lesser gods (henotheism); or 2) man originally believed in many gods, then in one supreme God among many and finally came to believe in only one God. Of course 1) can follow 2) in endless cycles.

I personally think that 1) is more likely. One line of evidence is the universality of innate belief in God in children, even across cultures as different as Britain and Japan, the latter where "Shintoism (Japan's predominant religion) does not include creation as an aspect of God's activity at all," yet both Japanese and British children answer "God" to the question, "Who placed the sun in the sky?" and, "How did the first dog every come into being":

"Can science corroborate the Apostle Paul? This might sound a little far-fetched. However, at the latest encounter between some of the world's most powerful minds of science and religion, reports of a remarkable discovery seemed to support this idea. Saint Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans, `Ever since the creation of the world his (Gold's) invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made' (Romans 1:20). During the second one-week conference on Science and the Spiritual Quest (SSQ II) that ended Tuesday in New York, Oxford University psychologist Olivera Petrovich revealed preliminary research data suggesting that the knowledge of a creator might be intrinsic to human existence. Prof. Petrovich tested the ability of British and Japanese children to distinguish between physical and metaphysical explanations for certain images. For example, she would show the four- to 14- year old children a picture of a book on a table and ask, `Who put this book there?' The kids replied, `Mom.' Then she put a picture of the sun in front of them and asked, `Who placed the sun in the sky?' The young Britons answered, `God,' and to Petrovich's surprise their Japanese contemporaries said `Kamisama (God)! He did it!' As Petrovich pointed out, `Japanese culture discourages speculation into the metaphysical because that's something we never know. But the Japanese children did speculate, quite willingly, and in the same way as British children.' In an interview with the journal, Science & Spirit, the British scientist gave another example. The European and the Asian children were to look at the photograph of a dog and then asked, `How did the first dog every come into being.' Again, both groups replied, `God did it.' `This was probably the most significant finding,' Petrovich reported. `But where did these Japanese kids get the idea that creation is in God's hands? This is absolutely extraordinary when you think that Shintoism (Japan's predominant religion) does not include creation as an aspect of God's activity at all. `My Japanese research assistants kept telling me that thinking about God as creator is just not part of Japanese philosophy." (Siemon-Netto, U., "Interface between science and faith," Science and the Spiritual Quest, 2 December 2000)

>In Christ,

In our past exchanges, you were very worried about how the early chapters of Genesis and the rest of the Bible related to what science has revealed about ancient man (e.g. "The part of the Bible that got me anxious this time was ... Romans 5:15-19" ) . From memory, I advised you that since these are some of the most difficult parts of the Bible, which may never be completely resolved because of the lack of evidence so far back in the past, to shift your focus to the New Testament. I may have quoted the late Swiss theologian, Emile Brunner that (to paraphrase him) in every other doctrine of Christianity, we start with the New Testament and work backwards to the Old Testament, except for the doctrine of creation where we start with Genesis 1, but we "ought to start with the first chapter of the Gospel of John, and some other passages of the New Testament, and, not with the first chapter of Genesis":

"Unfortunately the uniqueness of this Christian doctrine of Creation and the Creator is continually being obscured by the fact that theologians are so reluctant to begin their work with the New Testament; when they want to deal with the Creation they tend to begin with the Old Testament, although they never do this when they are speaking of the Redeemer. The emphasis on the story of Creation at the beginning of the Bible has constantly led theologians to forsake the rule, which they would otherwise follow, namely, that the basis of all Christian articles of faith is the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. So when we begin to study the subject of Creation, in the Bible we ought to start with the first chapter of the Gospel of John, and some other passages of the New Testament, and, not with the first chapter of Genesis. If we can make up our minds to stick to this rule, we shall be saved from many difficulties, which will inevitably occur if we begin with the story of Creation in the Old Testament. Of course, I do not wish to deny the permanent significance of, and the absolute necessity for, the Old Testament accounts of the Creation-not only in the first two chapters of Genesis but also in the Prophets, the Psalms, and in the Book of Job. In order to expand the somewhat scanty statements of the Testament we certainly need the weighty and enriching testimony of the Old Testament; but in principle these statements are as introductory in character as the Old Testament witness is to the Messiah is to that of the New Testament." (Brunner, E., "The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption," Dogmatics Vol. II, Wyon O., trans, [1952], Lutterworth: London, 1955, Second Impression, pp.6-7. Emphasis in original) .

Another piece of advice I gave to someone who had a similar problem to you (it may even have been you) who asked, "would ... you assist me, as a fellow Christian, in understanding your views on creation further?" was to "put Genesis 1 aside" and first do what I did, every morning for ~8 years read through only the words of Jesus in the New Testament, confessing to God where you fall short of them and praying that the Holy Spirit would apply Jesus' words to your life:

I advised a Christian who asked me similar questions (maybe it was you?), that I went through a spiritual/mid-life crisis in the early 1990's and used to walk at night listening to Chuck Swindoll on the radio. One night he said that we all need a mentor, but if we don't have one (as I didn't), then Jesus could be our mentor. I resolved there and then to read through the New Testament only the words of Jesus in my morning quiet time, confessing where I fell short and praying that the Lord would help me to apply his words to my life. It took me ~8 years and it changed my life forever. I recommend you put Genesis 1 aside and do that first, then go back to Genesis ~8 years later. You will then see it (and everything) in its right perspective.

and then when you "go back to Genesis ~8 years later. You will then see it (and everything) in its right perspective"!

If this advice is not helpful to you (and to date you seem to have taken little or no notice of it), then it may be helpful to other readers of my blog.

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).

Genesis 19:24-29. 24Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah-from the LORD out of the heavens. 25Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities-and also the vegetation in the land. 26But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. 27Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the LORD. 28He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.29So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.


multisubj yb said...

Why should God rain down sulphur? Is he a cruel monster to everybody except Abraham?

Stephen E. Jones said...

multisubj yb

>Why should God rain down sulphur?

Read the Biblical account for why:

Genesis 18:20. "Then the LORD said, `The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous ..."

>Is he a cruel monster to everybody except Abraham?

And also read Genesis 18:25 that the God of the Bible is "the Judge of all the earth" and therefore what He does *is* "right":

"Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

Also, the God of the Bible gives "life to everything" (including the wicked residents of Sodom) in the first place:

Nehemiah 9:6. "You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you."

So if the God you criticise is not: 1) "the Judge of all the earth" who *must* "do right"(Genesis 18:25); and 2) "the LORD" who "give[s] life to everything"; then it is not the God of the Bible you are criticising, but a strawman erected by yourself.

Stephen E. Jones