Pythons were the oldest gods?

Given the interest in questions of religion, faith, and atheism among so many of my fellow ScienceBloggers, I’m a bit surprised that none of them picked up on this interesting tidbit of a story:

Pythons were probably the first idols to be worshipped by man, archaeologists said after unearthing evidence of a ritual dating back 70,000 years.

A rock shaped like an enormous python’s head, discovered in a cave in the Tsodilo hills of Botswana, puts back the date of the first known human ritual by 30,000 years, they say.

Behind the rock, which was covered in man-made indentations, was a chamber that the archaeologists believed was used by a shaman who could have spoken without being seen, giving the impression that it was the snake speaking.

“The shaman would have been able to control everything. It was perfect,” Sheila Coulson, from the University of Oslo, said.

She said that she was astonished to find the rock when she first walked into the cave this year. “You could see the mouth and eyes . . . it looked like a real python.”

Dr Coulson said that sunlight gave the indentations the appearance of scales, while at night firelight made the snake seem to move.

Buried in front of the rock were 13,000 human artefacts, including red stone spearheads that appeared to have been burnt. The researchers believe that they were an offering to the snake.

Here’s more detail:

When Coulson entered the cave this summer with her three master’s students, it struck them that the mysterious rock resembled the head of a huge python. On the six meter long by two meter tall rock, they found three-to-four hundred indentations that could only have been man-made. They found no evidence that work had recently been done on the rock. In fact, much of the rock’s surface was extensively eroded.

When they saw the many indentations in the rock, the archaeologists wondered about more than when the work had been done. They decided to dig a test pit directly in front of the python stone. At the bottom of the pit, they found many stones that had been used to make the indentations. Together with these tools, some of which were more than 70,000 years old, they found a piece of the wall that had fallen off during the work. In the course of their excavation, they found more than 13,000 artifacts. All of the objects were spearheads and articles that could be connected with ritual use, as well as tools used in carving the stone.

The stones that the spearheads were made from are not from the Tsodilo region but must have been brought from hundreds of kilometers away. “Stone age people took these colourful spearheads, brought them to the cave, and finished carving them there. 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. Our find means that humans were more organised and had the capacity for abstract thinking at a much earlier point in history than we have previously assumed.” says Sheila Coulson.

Sheila Coulson also noticed a secret chamber behind the python stone. Some areas of the entrance to this small chamber were worn smooth, indicating that many people had passed through it over the years. “The shaman could have kept himself hidden in that secret chamber. 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.”

While large cave and wall paintings are numerous throughout the Tsodilo Hills, there are only two small paintings in this cave: an elephant and a giraffe. These images were rendered, surprisingly, exactly where water runs down the wall. Sheila Coulson thinks that an explanation for this might come from San mythology. In one San story, the python falls into a body of water and cannot get out by itself. The python is pulled from the water by a giraffe. The elephant, with its long trunk, is often used as a metaphor for the python.

I’m sure PZ will be disappointed to find out that it wasn’t cephalopods that were the first creatures to be worshiped.

In any case, with Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and others arguing that humans are in essence biologically hardwired for religious belief, this is just one more bit of evidence that suggests that humans have probably been engaging in religious rituals and worshiping Gods or creatures far longer than we had believed before, perhaps meaning that religion is embedded more deeply in our behavior.

ADDENDUM: Mark Shea says this finding is evidence showing the origin of Vaal worship.