One of my claims is that religion proper arose along with the settlement in sedentary townships made possible by agriculture. The reason why this is religion, and not, say, the shamanic “religions” of nomadic tribes, in my view, is that in the latter, people are all related closely enough to be sure to whom to offer assistance in hard times with the expectation of mutual support later. The crucial role of religion proper, I think, is to mark out those who one can expect aid from, because they have demonstrated the “costly signaling” religion requires (a view of Richard Sosis and colleagues), from those who are more likely to cheat. Agriculture makes possible a society not based on close kinship, which makes religion the solution to that dilemma only after societies of that kind arise.
Sounds good to me. So I am telling my friend Pamela Lyon about this and she says “Oh, well how do you explain this place – Göbekli Tepe?” It’s the earliest dedicated ritual site in the world, around 11.5ky old, well before the evolution (or rather, coevolution) of agriculture. Damn, I say, and wander off muttering darkly about the insistence for evidence by scientists (Pam is a scientist, no matter what she may say).
Now I have the killer rebuttal, and it is interesting for more reasons than reviving Wilkins’ theory of religion…
A paper by Zeder forthcoming in PNAS argues that there is evidence for domestication of a number of animal species – goats, sheep and pigs, much earlier than the traditional dates based on derived morphology. Zeder places this gradual event of the transition from hunter-gatherer (or as we prefer to call it now that we recognise that hunting never played that great a role in ordinary food production, forager) societies to sedentary agrarian societies much earlier than the standard view. He finds direct evidence for the domestication of sheep in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) where Göbekli-Tepe and Nevali-Corbi arose, after around 12,000 ybp, probably completed around 10,200 ybp. As the earliest date for the ritual sites is 11,500 ybp, and the dates given in the article linked to above is around 10kybp based on radio-dating, there is sufficient time for agriculture to arise before religion did. Dates for goats and pigs are even earlier.
Zeder makes a distinction between “managed herds” of these animals, and actual domestication, which is useful, and that very vagueness indicates something I think is vital here: the agricultural revolution was not, strictly speaking, a revolution at all. It probably occurred in these areas over several thousand years. It is a co-evolution. So, too, will the social institutions and behaviors be co-evolutionary. As population sizes rise with the introduction of managed herds, in a semi-nomadic lifestyle as herds are taken to seasonal food sources, interactions between non-kin will rise. Where territories are shared, a way to resolve disputes and increase cooperation is needed. Shared rituals are always how humans do this, no matter whether it is football or sacrifice to the gods (if, indeed, there is a difference). So not only is Göbekli-Tepe not a counterexample, it is a necessary outcome of the gradual rise of what we would now think of as agriculture.
Evolution is a gradual process that occurs at varying degrees of gradualness. Some of this gradualness permits us to mark a more or less definite border, but depending on the scale chosen, there is always something that comes before and goes on after any line we may draw. I would expect religion to evolve as societies exceed kin groupings, and that to occur in various ways in various places. But we must always be careful not to mistake our lines for facts, no matter how well accepted they may be, when we are dealing with history.
Zeder, M.A. (2008). Domestication and early agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin: Origins, diffusion, and impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0801317105