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.


  1. #1 Joseph Hertzlinger
    December 14, 2006

    It sounds like the worship of Monty.

  2. #2 Joshua
    December 14, 2006

    Doesn’t this open up another hypothesis, though?

    Perhaps some influential ruler cooked up a really great con back then that perpetuated down the ages. 😉

  3. #3 afarensis
    December 14, 2006

    I was going to post on it but Kambiz scooped me…

  4. #4 pwe
    December 14, 2006

    Seeing that Pythia was the priestess of Apollon in the Oracle of Delphi, I think that Orac’s simply trying to make us worship him (it?)

  5. #5 notmercury
    December 14, 2006

    Interesting. Since the largest Python in Botswana is the African Rock Python, it’s seems Linnaean taxonomy is older than we realized.

    And I thought Alice Cooper was the first performer to use Pythoninae rock show.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    December 14, 2006

    At least they didn’t worship perl.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    December 14, 2006

    The latter article to which Orac linked refers to the inhabitants of the region as the “San”. This is a tricky issue:

    The fashion of renaming the Bushmen of Southwestern Africa as the “San” exemplifies many of the problems with the name game. University of Utah anthropologist Henry Harpending, who has lived with the famous tongue-clicking hunter-gatherers said, “In the 1970s the name ‘San’ spread in Europe and America because it seemed to be politically correct, while ‘Bushmen’ sounded derogatory and sexist.”

    Unfortunately, the hunter-gatherers never actually had a collective name for themselves in any of their own languages. “San” was actually the insulting word that the herding Khoi people called the Bushmen. (“Khoi” is the term used by those who were labeled “Hottentots” by the Dutch. As you can probably guess by now, “Khoi” means “the real people.”)

    Harpending noted, “The problem was that in the Kalahari, ‘San’ has all the baggage that the ‘N-word’ has in America. Bushmen kids are graduating from school, reading the academic literature, and are outraged that we call them ‘San.'”

    “I knew very well,” he said, “That one did not call someone a San to his face. I continued to use Bushman, and I was publicly corrected several times by the righteous. It quickly became a badge among Western academics: If you say ‘San’ and I say ‘San,’ then we signal each other that we are on the fashionable side, politically. It had nothing to do with respect. I think most politically correct talk follows these dynamics.”

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    December 14, 2006

    Oops, forgot some HTML tags. That long quotation comes from here. Further discussion can be found here.

    The terms “San,” “Khwe,” “Bushmen,” and “Basarwa” have all been used to refer to peoples of hunting and gathering origin in southern Africa. It should be noted, however, that each of these terms has a complex and problematic history. The state of debate about the terms “San,” “Bushmen,” or “Basarwa” as possible appellations for the general group of small, click-speaking, yellow-skinned peoples in southern Africa can be illustrated by the case of two Ju/’hoan brothers, both active in national and local politics in Namibia. At a large community meeting in the Nyae Nyae region of northeastern Namibia in 1991, each of them argued differently about the word “Bushman.” One said that he never wanted to hear the term used again in post-Apartheid Namibia. The other argued that the term could be ennobled by the way in which they themselves now chose to use it. Thus, he argued, the term “Bushman” could be used in a positive way for all the people in southern Africa who shared similar ethnic backgrounds and customs.

    As for the term “San,” many people at the meeting had heard of it, but they knew it has a pejorative connotation in Nama, the language from which it comes. In the 1960s “San” was used by the Harvard Kalahari Research Group as a replacement for “Bushmen,” which was believed by researchers to have negative social connotations and to be sexist (Lee 1976:5). None of the people at the 1991 Namibia meeting advocated use of the term San, but they noted that they were familiar with no other over-arching term besides Bushmen.

  9. #9 Lucas McCarty
    December 14, 2006

    Not sure why it would be assumed that pythons were the oldest gods simply because of idols. Early on it could have just been that people were believing in something but just not making representations of it.

    I was worshipping chocolate long before I had any idea what a coco bean might look like.

    Why the hell would anyone worship a snake anyways? I would have thought the earliest god would have been of the Sun or weather-based.

  10. #10 HCN
    December 14, 2006

    Lucas McCarty said “Why the hell would anyone worship a snake anyways? I would have thought the earliest god would have been of the Sun or weather-based. ”

    Possibly due to the similarity of shape between a snake and a certain bit of male anatomy.

  11. #11 David Rickel
    December 14, 2006

    “…just another snake cult.” Ok, I’ve seen too many Arnie films.

    At least one group of people worshipped snakes because they were thought to be immortal (shed your old worn-out skin and grow a fresh young replacement skin).

  12. #12 Graculus
    December 14, 2006

    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.

    And Berekat Ram, Tan-Tan and Bilzingsleben are, apparently, chopped liver.

  13. #13 Bill from Dover
    December 14, 2006

    I didn’t realize that the term snake oil had roots that far back.

  14. #14 Keith
    December 14, 2006

    From Wikipedia:

    Python was the earth-dragon of Delphi, always represented in the vase-paintings and by sculptors as a serpent. Pytho was the chthonic enemy of Apollo, who slew it and remade its former home his own oracle, the most famous in Greece. (But see also Dodona.)

  15. #15 Tina
    December 15, 2006

    Also, in Australian Aboriginal mythology, the ‘Rainbow Serpent’ is pretty much present in all tribes, quite remarkable when you consider there were over 200 Aboriginal languages. The Rainbow Serpent created the mountains and rivers, distributing water (very precious in desert communities). In other myths he creates also spirits, people and animals.

  16. #16 coracle
    December 15, 2006

    Hang on, beyond the burning, there’s not that much to suggest worship. There’s a model snake head with a lot of pits in it, and a bunch of spearheads. Might they not have just been training to hunt?

  17. #17 Joshua
    December 15, 2006

    Hunt… pythons? When there are beefier, less dangerous things around?

  18. #18 Samantha Vimes
    December 15, 2006

    I’m a bit of a mythology fan, and I can tell you serpents do show up a lot. The Milky Way has been interpreted as a cosmic snake. The horned god in Celtic mythology had snakes for legs. There are temples in India that harbor cobras. The Aztecs had their feathered serpents. It might come from an early religion, or just that snakes are widespread and interesting; they move without legs and shed their skin, traits that alarm or intrigue people.

  19. #19 Lucas McCarty
    December 15, 2006


    HCN said:

    “Possibly due to the similarity of shape between a snake and a certain bit of male anatomy”

    So it was a 50/50 chance of the first gods being snakes or giant willys?

  20. #20 Graculus
    December 15, 2006

    Why the hell would anyone worship a snake anyways? I would have thought the earliest god would have been of the Sun or weather-based.

    Or, as the earliest worked figures show (the aforementioned Tan-Tan and Berekahat Ram figures, which are both older than 300,000 years) … a woman. Unfortunately neither has associated reamins, so we don’t know if it was H sapiens of H erectus. Bilzingsleben is definitely erectus, but there is not “idol”, just a ritual area.

  21. #21 Lucas McCarty
    December 16, 2006

    I don’t know what the original source is, but I sometimes see in popular culture a scene with ape-like creatures that come across a tall obsidion monolith standing straight up out the ground and casting a square shadow across the ground, sometimes it’s in a crator. One time I saw it was in an episode of the Simpsons. It’s apparently some kind of symbol for the dawn of man, they see what is apparently an intelligently designed stone and ‘awaken’ to realisation of the extent they can manipulate the world and immediately make a fire or carve a wheel.

    I would have thought the first ‘god’ would have been something like that.

  22. #22 T.McCay
    December 17, 2006

    Snake dieties are not at all uncommon. Even the early Jewish writers had a snake god in Genesis. The “Shinning One”, the overly wise serpent of the old testament.

    Many cultures have imagined great wisdom behind the eyes of snakes. A dangerous force of nature that hides in the ‘under world’ when not out and about in the world.

    Various kinds of snake cults are not uncommon, even in the modern world, including some christian cults.

    I don’t find it at all surprising that the python, a very scarey and impressive looking critter would become a ritual object very early. Snake images and snake gods have been observed in primative moderns, as well.

    Re the idea that the arrow and spear heads were left by those practicing hunting skills, remember that the burned arrows associated with the snake were brought from far away and were different colours than local native rock.

    They were more important than other objects in the vicinity, based on the fact that they had been burned, as if in a sacrificial gift. And they would have been objects of value because of the colours and distance from which they were obtained.

    Odd coloured stones and objects made from them had trade value from one end of the meso American empires to the other.

    Such Incan and Aztec objects were found from southern Chile to what is now the south western US. Often playing a role in burials and ather ritual sacrificing of objects.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.