This is an extract from my forthcoming book “In Our Own Image” (Rider Books, 2015) that I edited out; and therefore free of copyright and happy to share with you.
Social anthropologist Pascal Boyer explains that a belief in non-physical beings, or spirits, is the most common feature in religions. Spirits violate intuitive biological and physical knowledge; they can live forever, pass through walls or exist in many different places and times simultaneously. There are three other recurrent features in religious ideologies. Firstly, that a non-physical component of a person can survive after death and remain as a being with beliefs and desires. Secondly, that certain individuals receive direct inspiration or messages from supernatural agencies. And thirdly, that performing certain rituals in an exact way can bring about change in the natural world. Let us examine these three characteristics of religion separately, and how they result from the cognitive makeup of our modern minds.
Even self-declared atheists honour the dead. And although they might claim that they honour the “memory” of the deceased rather than the corpse itself, the fact is that our minds – atheistic or not – find it hard to come to terms with the notion that a person actually “dies”. To our minds, there is always something about a person that survives his or her death. One may chose to call it “memory” or “soul” depending on one’s convictions. However we approach the end of life our inner inability to deal with death compels us to invent something that does not perish, even after the body dies.
This should not surprise us. Death wrecks havoc with our cognitive systems. Death severs social connections, and by consequence destroys the cognitive social map that make us who we are. Death replaces people we love and care for with empty holes. It hacks at emotional bonds forged over long periods of time. The loss of a loved one is the virtual destruction of our mental universe. The intensity of the feeling of loss is usually proportional to the degree of connection with the deceased. The further the connection of the person who died to our inner social network the lesser our loss, our sadness, and our devastation. Although we may feel shocked and saddened when thousands are killed in a distant country because of a natural disaster or war, we never feel sad in the way we do when a person close to us dies.
Being social primates whose survival depends on a closely knitted group of blood relatives, our modern minds had to invent a way to overcome the death of loved ones. So we invented the notion that life continues beyond death; that the dead keep on living in the hereafter. Indeed, life beyond death is an invention of the modern mind. The earliest human burial dates back 100,000 years. Human skeleton remains discovered in the Skhul Cave at Qafzeh, Israel were stained with red ochre. Around them there were several goods designed to escort them to the life beyond; the mandible of a wild boar was found in the arms of one of the skeletons. No human burials have been discovered prior to that date. Once the concepts of an afterlife and the survival of the soul had been conceived, logic kicked in to produce numerous new ideas relating to these notions. To this invisible realm access was privileged to the very few, or under very special circumstances to the many. The few would be called shamans – and later priests, prophets, messiahs, or gurus. The special circumstances would occur during communal rituals where rhythmic dances or the use of hallucinogenic drugs induced ecstatic states of mind. Shamans and hallucinations further enforced beliefs in non-physical beings. The roots of religion were sown.
A cave painting of the Upper Palaeolithic from the cavern of Trois-Freres in Ariege, France probably shows one of those “special individuals”. The painting was made around 13,000 years ago and it depicts a being with an upright posture and hands that look human, the back and ears of a herbivore, the antlers of a reindeer, the tail of a horse and a phallus positioned like that of a feline. The “sorcerer” – as the painted figure is known – is interpreted by scientists as some kind of great spirit, or master of animals. The French anthropologist Henri Breuil has suggested that the painting depicts a shaman performing a ritual.
Most archaeologists are convinced that painted prehistoric caves were sites for the practice of magical ceremonies. This may also explain one of the greatest puzzles about prehistoric cave paintings: why were they painted in the darkest of places, in the deepest of caves, in spaces where people did not live. By 35,000 years ago humans had mostly abandoned cave dwelling. We had ceased to be “cavemen”. Most lived in small, makeshift camps which were befitting to a species of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Nevertheless, the beautiful, naturalistic cave art of the Upper Palaeolithic is profound testament that caves remained a focal point of human life for thousands of years to come. For millennia humans continued to use these caves for purposes other than dwelling. But what were they doing in there? Before beginning to speculate let us look at some interesting facts.
From Gibraltar to the Ural Mountains archaeologists have discovered around 150 caves with wall paintings. Given the enormous time span from the beginnings of cave art to the end of the Upper Palaeolithic around 12,000 years ago, these caves must have been used only sporadically. On average, for the whole of Europe, there was one painted cave for every five generations of people. Even the most utilized caves seem to have been in use for only a restricted time by a limited number of people. Astonishingly, there is a thematic similarity across all of these disparate caves: big animals, few humans, many geometric designs recur in almost every cave. It is as if there was a common set of beliefs that span peoples that lived across thousands of miles, and across tens of thousands of years.
There are other common features as well. Most paintings are placed in the deepest and darkest of places. At Niaux most images are located at the end of a deep galley. At Chauvet one must descend down a narrow shaft. At Lascaux one has to follow several passages with wall paintings continuing to the very end of the caves several meters deep. These passages and caverns produce few finds of human debris, suggesting that no one lived there on a permanent basis. Engravings, tucked away in narrow or low niches suggest individual devotions. Footprints of adults, adolescents and children suggest that dances were performed. All evidence points to the conclusion that in these deep, dark, underground places, people gathered for special occasions only.
We cannot possibly know what went on in there but many archaeologists believe that our forefathers performed some kind of religious rituals. Caves echo with reverence down the ages to our day, which may indeed have its roots in prehistory. The ancient Greeks believed that caves connected to the underworld; the Eleusinian mysteries were performed in caves. Persians and Romans worshiped Mithras, the god of light, in caves; a tradition that was emulated by the first Christians who worshipped in catacombs. Later Christian iconography depicts Jesus born in a cave. The relationship between caves and religion is not a western phenomenon only; for the Incas caves were places of emergence and origin; for the Maya a conduit to the other world. One of the holiest shrines in Hinduism is the Amarnath cave in Jammu and Kashmir, dedicated to Shiva.
The combination of dances and paintings, reveals evidence of something equally important to the birth of religion: the manifestation and communion of narratives. I can imagine people in those underground caves telling stories about hunts and hero-hunters who transformed into animals, of supernatural beings, of the creation of cosmos. Perhaps those rituals were somewhat like a Palaeolithic movie-theatre-cum-church: a shaman with torchlight at hand leading a procession of faithful into the cave’s mystical innards; stopping under a mural with lions and horses and re-enacting a magical story.
These stories must have passed from mouth to mouth, travelling across space and time, finally arriving at the dawn of the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago. The prehistoric stories, retold numerous times, were now transformed, but ever so slightly. The magical beasts remained; and so did the heroes, although some of them were elevated to gods. The Neolithic man, the farmer, the soldier, the priest, the king, edited the stories of his Palaeolithic past, using the same cognitive apparatus, the modern mind with its wired-in dualism. Complex, agricultural and proto-industrial civilizations reconfigured the rituals of communal dancing and ecstasy into the religious narratives of Ancient Egypt, of Mesopotamia, of Greece. It would take another book to trace these stories into the narratives of the Abrahamic religions. But this is a book about the human mind, and how it can be reproduced in a machine. It is also why we have thought of intelligent machines in the first place. And why we have weaved so many stories about them. But before we draw some crucial conclusions about the questions that concern us based on the archaeological evidence with regards to the big bang of the modern mind, let us return to the human brain for a moment and examine why it so profoundly loves making up stories.
 Boyer, P., (1994), The naturalness of religious ideas. A cognitive theory of religion, Berkeley: University of California Press.
 A frequent exception to this rule happens at the death of a loved celebrity. Even without a direct blood relationship to the deceased many people (fans) feel genuine grief. This phenomenon is probably an indication of the power of empathy to transcend blood relatives. A celebrity becomes one of “us”. Witness the genuine sorrow felt by millions of people at the death of Princess Diana.
 There is disputed evidence that the Neanderthals buried their dead in shallow graves, however this does not necessarily prove belief in an afterlife, they might have buried them for sanitary reasons only.
 Interestingly, modern neuroimaging research in altered states of mind shows that during ecstasy the limbic system of the brain takes over. It is as if our modern mind is disconnected and we re-experience the minds of our distant ape ancestors where the “self” is dissolved and we feel “part of the whole cosmos”.
 Breuil, H., (1954), Quatre cent siècles d’art paiétal, p. 166, Montignac.