Oldest Known Ritual: Python Worship, Archaeologist Says
Until now, scholars have largely held that the first rituals occurred over 40,000 years ago in Europe, according to Sheila Coulson of the University of Oslo in Norway.
Coulson said she turned up evidence of the python ceremonies while studying the origin of the San people of Ngamiland, a sparsely inhabited part of northwestern Botswana.
“Our find means that humans were more organised and had the capacity for abstract thinking” much earlier than previously assumed, she said.
Coulson argues that ancient worshippers saw the likeness of a python in this rock, and pockmarked it to mimic snake skin. (Full image here. Photo: Sheila Coulson)
Coulson said she found the evidence while seeking Middle Stone Age artifacts in the Kalahari Desert’s Tsodilo Hills, an isolated cluster of small peaks with the world’s largest concentration of rock paintings.
The hills are still sacred to the San, who call them the “Mountains of the Gods” and the “Rock that Whispers.”
San mythology holds that mankind descended from the python. Ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been made by the snake as it circled, ceaselessly seeking water. Coulson said her find shows local people had a specific place for python-related rituals: a small cave on the hills’ northern side, so secluded and hard-to-access that it was was unknown to archaeology until the past decade.
The spearheads were described as particularly beautiful, and as brought to the site from hundreds of kilometers away. (Photo: Sheila Coulson)
When she entered it this summer with three master’s students, they noticed a rock resembling a huge python’s head, she said.
The six-meter-long by two-meter-tall (20 feet by 6.6 feet) stone bore more than 300 dents that she argues are man-made.
“You could see the mouth and eyes of the snake. It looked like a real python. 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.”
There was no sign of recent work on the rock; its surface was heavily worn, she said.
A photo supplied by Coulson alongside a statement announcing the find this week seemed to show the serpent’s “snout” planted in an extraneous stone. This, she wrote in an email, might be because it’s all a natural formation except for the dents. The snout might have been hard to reach to make modifications because the floor was two meters lower in ancient times, she added. Also, snakes in late Stone Age paintings commonly “run into or out of cracks in the wall—or into wall faces,” she wrote.
She also argued that a wealth of surrounding evidence backs her theory.
The researchers dug a pit directly before the python stone and found many stones, which they said were tools used to make the pockmarks. Some of these were dated as more than 70,000 years old. They also found a piece of the wall that had fallen off during the work, and more than 13,000 artifacts, all spearheads and items that could be linked to ritual use, they said.
The stones used as spearheads aren’t from the Tsodilo region, Coulson added, but seem to have come from hundreds of kilometers away. The spearheads are better crafted and more colourful than other spearheads from the same time and area, she added, and only red spearheads had been burned.
“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... All of the indications suggest that Tsodilo has been known to mankind for almost 100,000 years as a very special place,” said Coulson.
An apparent secret chamber lay behind the python stone, she added, and parts of its entrance were worn smooth, suggesting many people had passed through it over the years.
A shaman, she said—still a key figure in San culture—could have hidden in the chamber and had a good view of the cave interior. When he spoke from his crevice, it could have seemed as though the snake were speaking. “The shaman would have been able to control everything. It was perfect,” she argued, adding that the priest could also have “disappeared” by crawling out onto the hillside through a small shaft.
While large cave and wall paintings abound throughout the Tsodilo Hills, this cave has only two small paintings, she continued: an elephant and a giraffe, painted, surprisingly, exactly where water trickles down the wall. Coulson thinks San mythology might explain this. In one San story, the python falls into water and can’t escape. A giraffe saves it. The elephant, with its long trunk, often serves as a metaphor for the python.
“In the cave, we find only the San people’s three most important animals: the python, the elephant, and the giraffe... many pieces of the puzzle fit together here,” Coulson said.
She added that she plans to submit a paper on the findings to a research journal. Normally, she acknowledged, to sustain the credibility of new findings, researchers should wait to announce results publicly until a research paper is accepted for publication. But she made an exception, she said, because these findings have already been publicized widely on Botswana TV and radio, and she has has discussed them in detail with colleagues worldwide.
Torfinn Ørmen, a zoologist who lectures on human evolution at the university and was not a member of the research team, told the school’s research magazine Apollon that “This is the oldest ritual site that we know of and it was in use before physically modern man left Africa.” The San, also called Bushmen, belong to the most ancient race of humans, he added. “Some researchers believe that modern man descended from the San. What is certain is that the San... have a very deep connection to this area of Botswana.”
- Courtesy Research Council of Norway
and World Science staff