HomePrehistory and ArcheologyLanguage and Spiritual culture in Old stone age

Language and Spiritual culture in Old stone age



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A development of the human spirit, especially in the Middle Paleolithic, contributed to the emergence of speech and language, art, religion and technical skill. Speech over time went through the following development path: the first phase is characterized by general pantomime accompanied by additional stuttering, in the second stage paleolithic people started to communicate with precise gestures associated with corresponding voice symbols or words and at the end in the third phase pantomime and stuttering completely disappeared. People started to use systematic signs and words. At the beginning of the third stage appeared analytical thinking and concluding. Since that time, talking and thinking, recorded a constant rise..

Reconstraction of Neanderthal heads. Source: Flickr, User: Tom Evanson
Reconstruction of Neanderthal head at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Image credit: Flickr, User: Tom EvansonLicense: CC BY-SA 2.0

The speech, in the beginning, was unarticulated. Humans in old stone age used unrelated cries to express their joy, pain, sadness, happiness, hatred, fear, etc. Later, when they made sense to an every sound, man has passed on to so called articulated speech. Along with the speech and language paleolithic people evolved. Language has become a tool of thought. Its function was to establish communication between people in order to exchange their knowledge and experiences. When language appeared, it initiated the need of people to tell something to one another. Complex and diverse situation, over time, more and more enriched language. Thanks to the language all their knowledge passed on to their descendants. Language and speech greatly helped, and facilitated their engagement on the creation of better living conditions. Without it, people certainly would not have been able to achieve all that humanity has achieved today.

Closely associated with opinion, language has gone through a long development way from unarticulated – sound all the way to articulated gender and tribal languages. Later, with the appearance of class societies, tribal language was suppressed, and instead of it appeared languages of nationalities or nations. At the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Iron Age there have been established following linguistic groups:

  1. Indo-European, consisting of Indian, Iranian, Romanian, Slavic, Germanic and Celtic languages;
  2. Tartar-Mongolian, which includes languages of tribes and nationalities of Central Asia, Tatar and Mongolian;
  3. Chinese-Tibetan, which includes languages of an East Asia, China, Tibet, Vietnam and Burma;
  4. Hamito-Semitic, which includes languages of northern and central Africa and Arabia,
  5. Finnish-Hungarian includes Hungarians, Finns, Estonians and others less familiar.

In the Paleolithic era, an art was born as another important factor of social and spiritual knowledge of the paleolithic people. Development of the art was initiated by the man’s need to express its relationship with nature and economy, i.e. to present its daily life through images. Paleolithic people, which lived in Upper Paleolithic, by spending energy on food collecting and hunting and by fighting with raw nature simultaneously, began to develop, and raise art high above their modest possibilities. The initial manifestations of fine art, dates back from the Mousterian culture. First artistic work was found in the La Fère, in France and in the cave, in Georgia. Those were usually dents in the shape of a glass, perfectly arranged on the stone plate, then bone with parallel stripes, also ochre fingerprints and in the end pieces of stone carved with straight lines.

Example of Magdalenian art in cave
Example of Magdalenian art in cave

Most valuable works of art made paleolithic people of Aurignacian and Magdalenian culture. These people not only did they decorated small items but they decorated also walls of caves especially in southern France and northern Spain.

The most paleolithic artistic cases is so-called “Venus”, i.e. statuettes of women, usually naked with highly highlighted markings of the sex, while other parts of the body are completely ignored. This is explained with the important role of women in the society at the time. At the same time, in male statuettes, which are rarer than women, male characteristics are pointed out. Numerous statuettes have been found in the wider area of the Pyrenees Peninsula all the way to Lake Baikal. Among the most important sites are caves Brassempouy in France, settlement Willendorf in Austria, Grimaldi caves in Italy, the settlement Gagarino and Kostyonki in Russia and so on.

Paleolithic art

Painting of the Middle Paleolithic is more related to animals than to people, which is sufficient indication that hunter’s way of life was very much present at the time. Among other things, paleolithic people painted mammoth, rhinoceros, bear, bison, bull, deer, horses and other animals. This was usually done on cave walls in white, yellow and black colour and in the life-size. The human characters are mostly presented in statues that were made of tusk or mammoth bones, soft stones, and sometimes of ash mass, drawings were rare.

Older examples of cave paintings have been found in Western Europe in the territory of Spain, in the cave of Altamira, then in France, in the cave Lascaux and later in Russia, in a cave Kapovaya in the Urals.

Paleolithic "Venus" discovered 1908. in France
Paleolithic “Venus” discovered 1908. in France

Artists of Aurignacian culture, among other things, used ornamental elements showing the beginnings of stylization. That is how some of their “Venus” has already been stylized. The most common monuments of home arts are tiny drilled and carved profiles of animal heads that were probably worn as an amulet, also decorated lamps and palettes that look like fishes and things like that.

It is interesting that many of the most famous caves are very deep and caves passages are winding, so it is very hard to reach places where art of work was drawn, because of the dangerous abyss and waterfalls, and narrow passages and cracks in the rocks. Paleolithic artists first had to find a place to paint so-called gallery, then they had to force out the cave lion and bear, and when all this things were done artists could start their work. They performed work of art with very little light that torches could provide and lamps purged with grease or fat. They tireless and deliberately sought, and ultimately found a rock inside a cave which had to be far away from familiar outside world and life the rocky wall had to be far away from everything that was happening in the cave entrance.

Paleolithic artists were determined to paint animal images deep in the Earth’s womb. So many of them had to crawl to get to the place of painting, or they had to wriggle and climb through very narrow gaps between the rocks. The artists, who painted very high on the cave rocks, could only do so by standing on the shoulders of one of his companions. To reach, for example, the interior of the cave Montespan, i.e. the place where a bear figure was discovered, first they had to cross an underground river, which was followed by three hours walk and severe physical stress. All the way to the cave gallery leads a passage, about 720 meters long with walls that are quite handy for painting or carving, but these walls were not interesting for Paleolithic artists.

Reproduction of paleolithic art from Altamira cave. Location of reproducation: "Deutsches Museum" Munich
Reproduction of paleolithic art from Altamira cave. Location of reproducation: “Deutsches Museum” Munich

Paleolithic art is closely connected with religion. Particularly it was used so-called magic incantations, whose purpose was to ensure a successful hunt and to increase the power of life. In this regard, various magical means were made such as spear throwers with the carved figures of deer, mammoth and ibex, then pallets in the shape of fish or horse heads, etc. Paleolithic art, compared to, artistic creation of Mesolithic era is characterized by great realism.

Paleolithic songs and dances

An important feature of Paleolithic art was made up of songs and dances. It is even possible that people started to dance before the Upper Palaeolithic, but it is assumed that they knew to sing and recite. At that time there were so-called ritual dances and poetic art that formed the epic story, genealogy of ancestors and some other works. The original song was composed by rhythmic speech.

Dance was directly related to singing and playing instruments.

Religion in Old stone age

A very important form of social consciousness is religion. It reflects interpersonal relationships, variety of human activities as well as a set of opinions that were related with believing in the existence of supernatural forces. A religion occurs due to the man inability to explain the properties of some living things, objects and natural phenomena. It appeared a long time ago based on mysterious and naive people’s performances about their personal and external nature. In addition, religion appeared based on human inability to fight with nature, which is primarily driven by the low level of economic activity.

Death is an inexhaustible source from which religion is constantly drawing its incentives. Magic based all its work on death as well. The idea that the spirit of man could continue to live, but reborn in another body, has a very long history. At the same time, it was born an awareness of the afterlife. The curiosity of the human mind is expressed through man’s desire to explain the world. Man became more and more aware and that awareness has led him to learn many things about nature, society and culture. This knowledge paleolithic person put into their myths in which ghosts and devines of different shape and sizes played the most important role.

Paleolithic burial

Example of burial in Paleolithic period
Example of burial in Paleolithic period

The earliest religious shows are related to the Neanderthal men, for whom it is believed to have first started to bury their dead. Funerals were done inside the cave, where they lived. They placed dead man in small clumsily dug hollows in the pose of a man lying on his side, with his knees slightly bent. The body of the deceased was buried with dearth, stones or stone plates.

In the tombs, next to a dead body it was discovered pieces of meat, flint and tools made of bones as well as red color, which symbolized blood, that is the source of new life. All these are evidences that it was present some form of belief in the afterlife or existence in the life after death.

At the end of Upper Paleolithic deceased were, when it comes to the body position, buried from one occasion to another. There was not some specific position characterized for that period. Some deceased were placed on their hip, while some deceased had their legs stretched in straight position, and some were lying on their back, and were often there were those who lay on their hips with their knees placed up to the chin.


Image of Hyenes made by paleolithic man found in French cave.
Image of Hyenes made by paleolithic man found in French cave.

For hunting peoples of the late Paleolithic period, the oldest form of religion is linked to these people. Among the first religions was totemism (totem – their gender) i.e. a belief in relationship between group of people and animals, plants and fishes. Paleolithic people believed that among animals and plants there are same relation as it was among people. They also believed that some animals have a common ancestor with members of a particular race. That animal or plant has become their totem, their protector. That is the reason why some tribes bear the name of their totem, which were for example: “dragon”, “wolf”, “hawk” and so on. Members of the tribe or gender could not kill an animal or damage a plant that they considered their totem, their ancestor and protector. This is so – called taboo system or prohibition, which, at the same, was related to the prohibition of marriage within the same totemic groups. The remains of totemism are present still today in the world, especially in Australia, Malaysia, and in North American Indians.

Animism in Paleolithic age

At the same time, with totemism came new – another form of religion known as animism (lat. animus – spirit, soul). It is a term for the belief that all living things, even things have a soul. The souls of the dead ancestors are settled in the living and non-living objects of the nature, as a non-corporeal spirits who possess supernatural powers. Over time, they created shows about an individual soul and its moving in to another world. According to this belief, death is only the cessation of physical, but not of spiritual life. The soul remains to live.

Paleolithic humans constantly encountered the unknown and unclear appearances. However, they contributed all of that to the power of spirits, because they wanted to live in peace, harmony and love with them. Paleolithic humans did not forget about their spirits not even when eating. They prepared food for spirit in special dishes, believing that their appetites are the same or similar to humans. Food that was left for the spirits humans called the victim, while sacrifice that was giving to spirits was called a sacrifice. In the beginning, people offered to spirits sacrifice in the form of everything what they had to eat. There were evil and good spirits to whom paleolithic people regularly prayed and kept away.

Humans did not equally treat all spirits. They were afraid of some spirits while for other spirits they believed to be good and friendly towards them. Animism was precursor of the belief in the afterlife and the cult of ancestors, i.e. a belief which was based on the understanding that the spirit of an ancestor continues to live after death. The body of the deceased was covered in shells, sprayed with red colour as a symbol of blood and fire. Cults of nature came to the scene with development of agriculture and livestock breeding.  People in Stone age felt a very strong fear of nature, and at the same time they felt an urge and desire to appease the nature. Due to this, people began to worship the sun, earth, fire, water and so on.


Later in relation to the totemism and animism came to the scene fetishism as another form of religious consciousness. Fetishism was based on a belief in the supernatural power of some objects. Primitive people worshiped various different objects or they carried those objects with themselves believing that it will save them of all evil and misfortune.

Paleolithic people, besides aforementioned religious understanding, also dealt with magic. They performed certain ceremonial actions with the goal of acting on supernatural powers, fulfilling their wishes. According to that, magic had a great impact on the entire life of humans in stone age. The best evidence for this are numerous drawings of animals pierced with spears, arrows, harpoons and the like, which all together, according to the belief of paleolithic people, should affect on more happier and successful hunt. Magical operations were performed for at least two reasons. The first reason was to achieve certain material or spiritual gain, and the other reason was done with the aim of harming opponents. In the religion of some primitive tribes and people, magic is present even today.

Later, during collapsing of gender society, a cult of water was developed which together with a cult of different natural disasters with time evolved into the cult of the gods.