How to Think About Human Origins

HomeArticlesHow to Think About Human Origins

Since Voegelin has said that the reality of experience is self-interpretive, let’s turn this question around and ask, how did the earliest humans think about origins. I’ll draw on Voegelin’s well-known reflections on symbolization to remind us of the kind of expressions of that early thinking about origins we’ll be dealing with here:

For, in the first place, the symbols are not concepts referring to objects existing in time and space but carriers of a truth about nonexistent reality.[1] Moreover, the mode of nonexistence pertains also to the experience itself, inasmuch as it is nothing but a consciousness of participation in nonexistent reality. . . .We have spoken . . . of a truth experienced rather than of a truth attaching to the symbols.

Before having a look at a range of key archaic symbolizations of what Voegelin calls ‘nonexistent reality’—a phrase equivalent to ‘transcendence’ as used in the heading for our panel, ‘Transcendence as the Order of Politics—a few references to the refusal of palaeontologists, specializing in the relationship between the sequence of hominins from over 6 million years ago up to the emergence of modern Homo sapiens will help to indicate the gulf dividing us from all previous hominins. Rejecting the flattening out of this difference among their paleontological colleagues Tattersall and Schwartz point out:

. . . our pattern has essentially been one of business as usual for the natural world: a story of repeated evolutionary experimentation, diversification, and, ultimately, extinction. And it was clearly in the context of such experimentation rather than out of constant fine tuning by natural selection over the eons, that our own amazing species appeared on Earth. Albeit, in the end, with a difference: for unlike even our closest relations, Homo sapiens is not simply an extrapolation or improvement of what went before it…our species is an entirely unprecedented entity in the living world, however we may have come by our unusual attributes.[2]

Some of the earliest expressions of the quest for origins

1) Blombos

At Blombos Cave on the southern coast of South Africa, with archaeological remains dated about 75,000 years ago, where – along with 2,000 pieces of blood-red ochre brought there for body pigment, and shell beads showing evidence of ochre on the bodies of those who wore them – Christopher Henshilwood discovered two slabs of ochre in 1999 and 2000 and describes them as having been ‘repeatedly scraped or rubbed to form a flat facet’. Following which:

. . . an abstract design was … deliberately engraved on that surface. On one piece the design consists of a serious of oblique lines in one direction and a lesser number of lines that cross over these … On another piece a distinct crosshatched pattern was engraved and, as if to emphasise the design, three further lines were engraved across the top, through the middle and at the bottom of the pattern. . . .These designs were engraved with deliberate symbolic intention and had meaning for the maker and very likely for a wider social grouping … The Blombos ochre engravings are perhaps two of the earliest known examples of abstract designs that represent symbolic systems stored outside the human brain.[3]

In terms of later symbolisations, it’s not too difficult to decipher a possible meaning for the two roughly rectangular shaped ochre ‘boxes’ just a few centimetres long. The rectangular shape could stand for the world in its various dimensions. Marie König comments on cube-shaped stones from Mas d’Azil in the Pyrenees around 10,000 years ago as possibly symbolizing the world too. The prominent lozenge-like shapes divided into triangles across the face of both pieces reminded me of the so-called ‘false lintel’ in 5,000 year old Newgrange mound in Co. Meath, Ireland, where that rectangular surface features eight such triangles within bisected lozenges. There the four-sided figures may, following König, be interpreted as representing the world or the earth or space, with the triangles symbolising the three principal moon phases, and more generically the heavens or time. König speaks of seven as the building block of culture, in the sense that it brings together Earth and Heaven symbolisation.[4]

Whatever the meaning of those ochre blocks, we can presume they carried the myths of those who created them, where like every myth they’re an expression of the human desire to understand our place within the cosmos. Steven Mithen sees Blombos Cave as:

. . . the most important currently known archaeological site for understanding the origin of modern thought and behaviour – and, by implication, language … The patterns … are sufficiently ordered to rule out any risk that they arose by chance. Moreover, as the same design is repeated on two separate artefacts, the impression is of a symbolic code.[5]

2) Chauvet

Discovered in 1994, this limestone cave-system in the Ardeche region of south-central France, has as its centre piece a natural rock formation from the cave roof (possibly shaped like a human penis) with a human female body from the waist down and a bison’s head on top. The pubic triangle is very marked, similar to Venus statuettes, including a recently discovered one from the Swabian area thought to be easily connected to Chauvet. Given that the cave-system’s paintings have been dated to about 34,000 years ago, I’d suggest we’re finding here a symbolization of human participation the source of order. At the very least, this dramatic expression of life-renewing action possibly between divinized beings like the powerful bison and an equally powerful human female figuration wedded to the phallic-shaped rock, conveys something of their experience of the truth of cosmic existence.

Jean Clottes, leader of the Chauvet research team, has said in an interview: “Everyone agrees that the paintings are, in some way, religious. I’m not a believer myself, and I’m certainly not a mystic. But Homo sapiens is Homo spiritualis. The ability to make tools defines us less than the need to create belief systems that influence nature.”

 3) Lascaux as symbolising the drama of cosmic destruction and renewal

Continuing our exploration of early humanity in a search for what Voegelin calls the reality of order:

The reality of order is not my discovery. I am speaking of the order in reality discovered by mankind as far back as we have any written records, and now ever farther back as we become familiar with the symbols in monuments discovered by archaeologists as far back as the Paleolithicum. By order is meant the structure of reality as experienced as well as the attunement of man to an order that is not of his making – i.e., the cosmic order.[6]

How might we understand Lascaux in terms of a symbolisation of the Cro-Magnons’ search for attunement to the everlasting order of the cosmos, so that they transformed the cave-system into a cosmion, or reflection of the unity of the cosmos in which they desired intensely to participate?

What we’re trying to do in interpreting the 16,000 year old symbols is to keep in mind Voegelin’s admonition that ‘their meaning can be understood only if they evoke, and through evocation reconstitute, the engendering reality in the listener or reader’. Take for example, Norbert Aujoulat’s comments on the underlying themes he’s discovered in the cave-paintings. In his study, Lascaux: Movement, Space and Time, Aujoulat brings out how the original Cro-Magnons transformed the various branches of the cave into a splendid Paleolithic cathedral with 1,963 representations, including 915 animal figures and 434 abstract signs. This sacralised space has its own levels of mystery, with the relatively modest Apse having 1,073 figures, so that it is ‘a sanctuary at the heart of a sanctuary’.

There’s also the sacralisation of time, with the various seasons represented by different animals – horses for spring, aurochs (the far larger ancestor of modern cattle) for summer, and stags for autumn – each are represented as they appear during those seasons, which also correspond to that species’ mating season.[7] To complete Lascaux’s attunement to the recurring order of the seasons, we can bring in Marie König’s understanding of the grounding story of Lascaux, which is based on the winter season.[8]

The composition in the six-metres-deep shaft at Lascaux portrays a life and death struggle between two figures. On the right is a bison, whose head is turning back, either to attack with its horns, or to gaze at its terrible stomach wound, from which its entrails are hanging out. The wound seems to have been inflicted by a long spear lying across its body over the wound. Facing the bison on its left is a figure of what could be a man with a bird’s head, a long narrow rectangle for a body, four fingers on each hand, and an erect phallus. Since the bison’s horns are aimed menacingly in his direction, and the male figure is falling backwards, it looks as if he’s been gored by the bison. Underneath the man is a complete painting of a bird, facing left, away from the scene of conflict. The bird is perched on a vertical line. What the bird is looking towards is the partly completed figure of a powerful rhinoceros, striding further leftwards. Three vertical sets of two dots are painted, in a horizontal direction, two sets under the rhinoceros’ tail and one in the direction of the man.

Marie König has found bull, mammoth, and other horns frequently used to represent moon-phases, and is inclined to see the dying bison as symbolising the waning moon. Since the earth is often represented by symbolisations of its four directions – four lines, squares, and so on – she interprets the rectangular-bodied male figure with its four-fingered hands as symbolising the dying earth. The long vertical line the bird is perched on could represent the sun, moving in a line from east to west across the sky, while bird symbols often represent messengers from the heavens. The rhinoceros, the only one depicted in Lascaux, by contrast with the two dying figures, might represent vigorous new life, while the six dots could indicate the six moons/ months of the New Year.

The choice of the natural shaft could indicate its functioning as a symbol of the underworld, contrasting with the painted cave ceilings possibly representing the heavens. Basically, if we combine Aujoulat’s and König’s interpretations, it’s possible to understand Lascaux’s attunement to the unchanging rhythms of the four seasons. The dramatic focus for this cosmic attunement – if we can take the shaft as the spiritual centre of the entire ‘cathedral’ complex – is on the cosmic struggle between death and life in the depths of winter, with the hope of cosmic rebirth symbolized by the rhinoceros closely linked to the six moons of the new year. Far from being meaningless, the close proximity of ‘abstract’ geometrical symbols with representational ones could imply a ‘theological’ explanation included with the representational symbols.

4) Göbekli Tepe

Potbelly Hill is an archaeological site at the top of a mountain ridge in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey, discovered and excavated by Klaus Schmidt from 1996 until his death in 2014. There are 20 temples on top of the hill, dated from about 10,000 years ago.

There are two huge monumental pillars in the center of each installation, surrounded by enclosures and walls, featuring smaller pillars.

All pillars are T-shaped with heights ranging from 3 to 6 meters, with carvings of animals as well as abstract symbols, sometimes picturing a combination of scenes. Each T-shaped pillar varies between 40 to 60 tonnes, leaving us wondering how simple hunter-gatherers could have organized such a huge deployment of labour. Many commentators on Gobeckli Tepe have asked whether the site poses a challenge to conventional views on the development of human culture. Like the much later Chaco Canyon site in New Mexico, dating from around 700 to 1200 AD, Gobeckli Tepe was only a ritual centre.

A fairly standard understanding of the emergence of more sophisticated forms of human order was that it followed on the development of centralized societies based on agriculture. Gordon Childe, a highly influential archeologist held this view, which seemed to validate his Marxism, that material conditions grounded the later superstructures erected upon and caused by them.

However, this construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that an experience of nonexsitent or transcendent order  organized seems to occur before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. Childe thought that agriculture had to occur first. But the facts of Gobeckli Tepe and neighbouring sites hardly bear that out. For example, Nevalı Çori is now inundated by a recently created lake that provides electricity and irrigation water for the region. But before the waters shut down research, archaeologists found T-shaped pillars and animal images much like those Schmidt would later uncover at Göbekli Tepe. Similar pillars and images occurred in settlements of the same period up to a hundred miles from Göbekli Tepe. Schmidt considered the imagery in these sites indicates a shared religion—a community of faith that surrounded Göbekli Tepe and may have been the world’s first truly large religious grouping. He remarked that “Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces. I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.”


I’ve never forgotten my first visit to the much later Neolithical site of Newgrange in Ireland—encouraged by Voegelin’s own visit in 1972—armed with Mircea Eliade’s useful handbook for archaic cultures, Patterns in Comparative Religions. I was ‘reading’ Newgrange in the light of Voegelin’s depth grammar of archaic experience that we all know, with its underlying Quest for the Mystery of existence, articulated in terms of categories like the search for attunement to what outlasts all the passing forms of existence. That ancient burial complex, based on hope of the renewal that occurs each winter solstice with the bursting of the first rays of sunlight into Newgrange’s darkened chamber, was yet another dramatic exploration of the underlying quest to belong in some way to transcendent or nonexistent reality. Each of these far earlier explorations can still speak to us today of our deepest quest, perhaps as profoundly by their greatest constructors, sculptors and painters, even if in clearly what Voegelin would say, in a relatively undifferentiated mode, as some of the greatest cultural figures in human history.



[1] Voegelin has probably taken ‘nonexistent’ from F. M. Cornford’s translation of Plato’s Parmenides (160e) in his Plato and Parmenides (London: Routledge, 1977), where Plato is trying to convey an existence that’s not the same as perceptible existence but beyond it. Voegelin doesn’t want to use the more obvious ‘transcendent’ since the lecture goes on to interpret ancient Egyptian texts belonging to an epoch where the later differentiation between what’s within this world and what’s beyond it hadn’t yet been made.

[2] Ian Tattersall and Geoffrey H, Schwartz, Extinct Humans, New York: Westview Press, 2000, p. 9.

[3] Christopher Henshilwood, ‘Modern humans and symbolic behaviour: Evidence from Blombos Cave, South Africa,’ in Geoffrey Blundell, ed., Origins: the story of the emergence of humans and humanity in Africa, Cape Town: Double Storey Books, 2006, pp. 78–85 at p. 82. (Again, there are excellent, fully illustrated Internet sites both on Pinnacle Point and Blombos.)

[4] On the cube as a possible representation of the Whole, see König, Am Anfang der Kultur, pp. 143–5; on 4-symbols (Earth) + 3-symbols (Heavens) as the building block of culture, pp. 240–8. For Eliade on squares as Earth symbols, see his Patterns in Comparative Religion, p. 374.

[5] Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005, pp. 250–1.

[6] Autobiographical Reflections, ed. Ellis Sandoz (1989), p. 75.

[7] Norbert Aujoulat, Lascaux: Movement, Space and Time, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005, p. 257, p. 262.

[8] König, Unsere Vergangenheit ist älter, pp. 106–11.

Brendan Purcell

Written by

Brendan Purcell is Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University in Sydney. He is author of several books, including From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (New City Press, 2012).