Skip

7,000 Years of Religious Ritual Is Traced in Mexico
December 21, 2004 8:24 AM   Subscribe

7,000 Years of Religious Ritual Is Traced in Mexico Archaeologists have traced the development of religion in one location over a 7,000-year period, reporting that as an early society changed from foraging to settlement to the formation of an archaic state, religion also evolved to match the changing social structure. This archaeological record, because of its length and completeness, sheds an unusually clear light on the origins of religion, a universal human behavior but one whose evolutionary and social roots are still not well understood.
posted by Postroad (33 comments total)

 
Please don't use tinyurl.com on metafilter posts.
posted by ursus_comiter at 8:29 AM on December 21, 2004


non-tinyURL link [NYT]
posted by sciurus at 8:30 AM on December 21, 2004


That is absolutely fascinating. Do the good doctors have any plans for a more mass-appeal description of their findings? I'd be very interested to read more on this subject.
posted by the theory of revolution at 8:35 AM on December 21, 2004


excellent link. it's amazing to think that after 7,000 years, these traditions still remain somewhat intact, no matter how fervently the church has tried historically to refute their rituals.
posted by moonbird at 8:41 AM on December 21, 2004


Gosh. .what a great gig. . .living in the Oaxaca valley doing a dig. . .I imagine the archeologists in question were staying in Oaxaca City and going out into the valley during the day on digs. . .

SUCH a nice region!
posted by Danf at 8:44 AM on December 21, 2004


Have you ever wondered how many ancient religious artifacts/rituals dug up are actually just some toys kids played with and left in some pattern?
posted by jim-of-oz at 8:47 AM on December 21, 2004


I don't know what they're going on about. It's perfectly clear where religion comes from: God. Duh.

Actually, this is some fascinating stuff. What the hell is up with that head-binding? Turns out a lot of Chinese girls were luckier than they knew.

And I love this:
    But when elites and kings emerged, they did not dispense with the religious systems that were the previous source of social authority. Instead they employed religion as another mechanism of social control and as a means of maintaining their privileged position.
Man, what a antiquated social structure, eh?
posted by soyjoy at 8:51 AM on December 21, 2004


This [pdf] fleshes out Roy A. Rappaport's stance a bit better, it is from an introduction to one of his books.

And you can get a tourist's history lesson of the Oaxaca valley here.

it's amazing to think that after 7,000 years, these traditions still remain somewhat intact, no matter how fervently the church has tried historically to refute their rituals.

To me it seems like the religious traditions go through some cross-pollination of a sorts. An article in November's National Geographic that talked about contemporary Mayan religious practices showed this admirably. Unfortunately the online excerpt doesn't mention that part.
posted by sciurus at 8:52 AM on December 21, 2004


jim-of-oz: Obligatory Motel of the Mysteries link.
posted by soyjoy at 8:52 AM on December 21, 2004


fascinating, but further to jim-of-oz's observation how do they know it was a religion?

concluding these were "religious" practices seems to relegate these people to the mefi status of ignorants, awed by nature and unable to explain or understand their surroundings and easily manipulated by evil men.

people smart enough to selectively cross-breed plants make a calender, and track the sun's path across the horizon, seem to deserve a little more credit.

maybe the "rituals" were simply elaborate parties, human "sacrifice" simply a dietary choice, or plain brutality.

isn't it a bit patronizing to always assume that the odd behaviour of the ancients always involves the worship of god/gods?

as soyjoy suggests these people weren't so different from us - and we not so superior to them - as these explanations tend to conclude.
posted by three blind mice at 8:57 AM on December 21, 2004


I find the "evolution of religion" to be strangely humorous.
posted by FormlessOne at 9:00 AM on December 21, 2004


Fascinating indeed:
The religion of the Oaxacan people became both more elaborate and more exclusionary as society evolved, the archaeologists conclude. The hunter-gatherers' ritual dances would have been open to all, the men's houses were open only to initiated members of the public, and by the state stage, religion had come under the control of a special priestly caste.
Thanks for the link, Postroad (though yeah, it shouldn't be tinyurl).

threeblindmice: Are you trolling, or simply being sophomoric?
posted by languagehat at 9:08 AM on December 21, 2004


threeblindmice: you are confusing religion's meaning with the narrow politically dividing definition given it in today's secular society, where a person who is religious is by definition ignorant.

As for Flannery and Rappaport, yeah they do good work, and they complement one another. By and large what they discovered supports what most archaeologists take as a given in the back of their minds (but never put in print unless they can prove it).

The archaeology of religion has always been fascinating to me, particularly in the use of technology and materials to support its structure. My own field was on Neolithic China, particularly in the Shanghai region, where my planned dissertation was on the technology of jade manufacturing and its integral part in the ritual and religion of that culture.
posted by linux at 9:29 AM on December 21, 2004




I find the "evolution of religion" to be strangely humorous.
posted by FormlessOne at 9:00 AM PST on December 21


I second that.

What say you konolia?
posted by nofundy at 11:05 AM on December 21, 2004


Having just finished Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, these links (and discussion) are fascinating. Thanks everyone.
posted by hartsell at 11:09 AM on December 21, 2004


I liked how the interpretation of the Oaxaca archeology fits in with Jared Diamond's ideas on religious evolution depending upon group size.

Basically he says that for small groups such as tribes where everybody knew everybody, what could be called religion was basically supernatural explanation - a kind of bad science that mixed up with good science about things like when to plant, constructing calendars, and how to avoid being poisoned by what you ate.

It is only when groups became much larger that religion took on notions of morality and social control - that god(s) will punish you for killing people in your group you don't know or not respecting the god(s)'s human representatives.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:46 AM on December 21, 2004


Thanks y2karl, but my meager attempts must bow before the power of your google-fu. I've got some reading to do!
posted by sciurus at 11:57 AM on December 21, 2004


linuxyou are confusing religion's meaning with the narrow politically dividing definition given it in today's secular society, where a person who is religious is by definition ignorant.

fair enough. so what is your definition of religion - in an archaeological sense - and how does it apply in this context? ritual does not to me automatically mean religion and it seems to me sort of narrow-minded to equate one with the other.

you too languagehat.... or is it trolling to not accept as fact everything written in the NYT?
posted by three blind mice at 12:36 PM on December 21, 2004


What do you mean by "religion in an archaeological sense"? Are you asking what would make an artifact clearly religious, as opposed to non-religious? And if so, why don't you take a stab at answering it yourself?

I can certainly take my stab: Does the artifact have a utilitarian purpose? Would it have cost a lot (in time, effort, materials) to make? Does it bear similarities to religious artifacts or installations from historical times?

FWIW, I've known a few archaeologists, and they're not the credulous lot that people often suppose them to be. Many learned to read with Motel of the Mysteries and have been handed dogeared photocopies of "Life Among the Nacarema" more times than they can count.

A healthy skepticism is great. But too much skepticism leaves you unable to learn anything new.
posted by lodurr at 1:05 PM on December 21, 2004


Somehow, I've managed never to encounter Rappaport's views, before; this is interesting stuff. The gloss here leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but I can see generally directions I could go in to answer them. Thanks, Postroad & y2karl...
posted by lodurr at 1:20 PM on December 21, 2004


lodurr, learning that oaxacan people evolved different rituals over time is interesting. connecting this to developments in their society (such as the cross-breeding or selective breeding of grains) is fascinating, lumping it all under the rubric of "religion" doesn't really do much for me.

does it have a utilitarian purpose? answering that question from a modern perspective of utilitarian doesn't seem valid. i have a turkish "evil-eye" hanging in my hallway. is it a religious symbol? not to me. does it have any utility? none at all. is it simply a decoration reminding me of a visit to turkey? yes.

that some archaeologist might come by in a thousand years and conclude it was a part of a "religious" ritual or occult belief would be wrong.

this thread started with the title "7,000 Years of Religious Ritual Is Traced in Mexico"

to me it would more accurately be titled "7 000 years of ritual is traced in mexico"

i see absolutely nothing that says it is religious and it seem presumptious - if not misleading - to conclude that it was.
posted by three blind mice at 1:27 PM on December 21, 2004


.... lumping it all under the rubric of "religion" doesn't really do much for me. ....

i see absolutely nothing that says it is religious and it seem presumptious - if not misleading - to conclude that it was.


What would "do it for you"?

You seem to be arguing that there's never an archaeological reason to believe that some artifacts or installations can reveal anything about religious life.

BTW, I'm not sure why you see nothing that says the rituals that are conjectured are religious in nature. And BTW2, I'm also not sure why you want to assume large-scale rituals would not be religious. I think you must have a very different idea of what constitutes "religion" than I do, at least.
posted by lodurr at 1:37 PM on December 21, 2004


linux : definition given it in today's secular society, where a person who is religious is by definition ignorant

I beg to different, my favourite operating system. Part of the contemporary "secular" society consider themselves ignorant in the proper sense of the term (afaik ignorant is one that doesn't know, therefore if you don't know what's the name of your neighboor you're ignorant, by definition, of the name of your neighbor).

Even if they consider themselves ignorant (and curiously enough, usually the more one knows, the more one feels ignorant) they don't consider themselves as -gullible- as many others ; so they don't buy into concepts like "hell" or "mortal sin" or "paradise" and much less in the concept of other people telling them what some supreme unknowable superhuman entity wants from them , as they understand the "priest" of some religion are exploiting the fact

1. humans are gullible and
2. are expecially afraid of anything they think they can't control or understand and represent a factual or imaginary menace.
3. every human is born ignorant

As for religious archeology, what I would expect from archeology of religions to discover is a number of artifacts , but hopefully also some writings..something more complex then a mere pattern of objects ...

Have you ever wondered how many ancient religious artifacts/rituals dug up are actually just some toys kids played with and left in some pattern Jim of Oz wrote above...and it struck me that, indeed, if you watch kid playing some of them , they do organize toys in particular ordered patterns. Sometimes a duck is just a duck.
posted by elpapacito at 1:49 PM on December 21, 2004


Sometimes a rubber duck is just a rubber duck. But a large stone building takes a lot of time and effort to build. So it's not likely to be a child's bath toy -- even a very rich child's.

Articles like this are part of a much larger context of research that involves comparison with other cultures in the region, evaluation of the few texts that exist, comparison with modern cultures, and reference to writings by europeans from the contact period. It's easy to see a survey article in Science Times, and not have an idea of that background.

It seems to me that some folks here want to set a really high bar for these conjectures -- a higher bar than they'd set for something that wasn't "religion." That seems to me quite unreasonable. To roll back to a tabula rasa and assume that the artifacts have to teach us everything would be silly and far too restrictive; AFAIAC, it's quite reasonable to suppose that modern and near-modern attitudes toward religion can be instructive with regard to other cultures. It's also quite reasonable to suppose that you can extrapolate sideways and backward to make conjectures about other cultures. Without that basic assumption, in fact, you really can't pretend to know anything at all about anybody anywhere else. For example, how could we make any valid conjectures about the culture and religious observances of the predominantly protestant people of Buffalo, if we can't extrapolate knowledge we gain by observing the predominantly Catholic people of Rochester? Or, better analogy: Why should I suppose that I, raised a mainstream non-evangelical Methodist, could ever understand anything about the religious behaviors of evangelical southern Baptists?

I guess I'm really just not understanding the resistence to the idea that someone might be able to make some kind of meaningful conjectures about the religious life of a past civilization. What's the problem?
posted by lodurr at 2:10 PM on December 21, 2004


is it trolling to not accept as fact everything written in the NYT?

No, of course not. It's trolling to pretend that religion is some weird practice engaged in by subhumans and rarely seen in actual societies, so that:

concluding these were "religious" practices seems to relegate these people to the mefi status of ignorants, awed by nature and unable to explain or understand their surroundings and easily manipulated by evil men.

people smart enough to selectively cross-breed plants make a calender, and track the sun's path across the horizon, seem to deserve a little more credit.


This is ridiculous. The vast majority of the earth's population (including its philosophers, scientists, and inventors until very recently) have always, and do still, engage in religious practices; to find ritual objects and conclude they were used for religion is no more of a stretch than to find knives and forks and conclude they were used for food. If you don't think religion is a smart thing, congratulations, you're part of the MeFi Majority. But I'm sick and tired of people dropping into all threads having anything to do with religion and feeling compelled to interrupt an interesting ongoing discussion in order to make a useless comment putting down religion. You get points deducted for doing so at length, showing a complete failure to grasp a basic fact of human history, and being unable to use the caps key.
posted by languagehat at 2:34 PM on December 21, 2004


i have a turkish "evil-eye" hanging in my hallway. is it a religious symbol? not to me. does it have any utility? none at all. is it simply a decoration reminding me of a visit to turkey? yes.

How is this relevant at all to what we're talking about? Are you really suggesting there was, 7,000 years ago, widespread souvenir-collection of other, faraway cultures' sacred objects, kept simply as a decoration to remind the collector of a visit there?

If you are an archaeologist, and have some measured objection to the methods other archaeologist use to surmise the function of objects, please state it in some more lucid and sensical form. Otherwise the No Religion interpretation seems like a pointless thought-experiment.
posted by soyjoy at 2:48 PM on December 21, 2004


...The emergence of language having been taken for granted as a functional adaptation, a theoretician such as Roy Rappaport (Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge, 1999) proceeds to explain religion as operating to limit the disturbance that this adaptation poses to the social order, whether as a means for limiting the social effect of lying and more generally of speculative thinking, or as an application of language to a preexisting animal propensity to ritual behavior. It is surely a positive step to claim that religion finds a pragmatic use for symbolic thought independent of its function to model the phenomena of the natural world. But the burden of explaining the emergence of religion is thereby only rendered more difficult; if religion is not a mere byproduct of the emergence of symbolic thought, then even the most robust theory of language origin would be insufficient to explain how the early users of language, whose original function was helping us to make sense of the object world around us, ever came upon religious discourse as a tool of social pragmatism.

Chronicles of Love and Resentment by Eric Gans is another link of interest, as is

René Girard has developed a bold synthesis, which relates sacrifice, the place of desire in human society, and the revelatory value of the Bible. His thesis has occasioned controversy on both sides of the Atlantic, and may constitute the most comprehensive analysis of religion and culture since the work of Sigmund Freud. Girard commences his analysis with a discussion of desire, which he understands to be flawed from the outset. The seed of destruction within desire is that it is "mimetic:" one imitates a model, whose passions can never be one's own, and therefore the model is at one and the same time a rival...

In Girard's analysis, mimetic desire is a threat to the very existence of human society, because its natural conclusion is the displacement (that is, the destruction) of the other who is both model and rival. The desire to have what the other has, a basic, human passion, is the root of violence: it is both ineluctable and incompatible with the existence of human culture.

Sacrifice is the symptom of communal violence and -- at the same time -- the means by which society attempts to conceal and avert violence. The violence of society is imputed to a person or animal who is the sacrificial victim. The ritual act of killing that victim both restrains and assuages the communal violence which is at its root.


An Analysis of Sacrifice: the Systematic Approach of René Girard

see also

For those who like to imagine the spiritual quest as floating above the Himalayas on a cloud, the central proclamation of Christianity comes as a shock. The Gospel claims that God is most fully revealed in the judicial murder of a man who was innocent of any wrongdoing. The murder was not just the deed of a small group of people acting in secret. The death sentence was passed as a result of pressure from a mob. It was Caiaphas who said that it was better for one man to die for the people, but it was the whole city of Jerusalem who ratified Caiaphas' recommendation by shouting for the crucifixion of Jesus. Then, after three days in the tomb, this same man rose from the dead with the wounds of violence still on his body.

The religiously motivated sacrificial death is not something that makes the Gospels unique as religious documents. The practice of sacrifice marks most religious observance in world history. Many animals have been butchered and burned on altars as offerings to the gods or to God. But it isn't just animals who have been sacrificed. The practice of human sacrifice surfaces in every known culture that developed any significant political and religious complexity. The Aztecs were unusual only for the quantity of sacrificial victims, not for the fact that they sacrificed their fellow humans. Contrary to the way violence is ordinarily understood, there seems to have been no malicious intent on the part of those making these sacrifices. They were not performed as an outlet for sadism, but out of a conviction of necessity. The sun wouldn't rise without the offering of human blood.


Christianity And Sacred Violence

Girard Among the Girardians

Link Collection on René Girard by Dietmar Regensburger

The Darwinian Trope in the Drama of the Commons: Variations on Some Themes by the Ostroms (pdf)
posted by y2karl at 4:04 PM on December 21, 2004


Religion, in archaeology, is a touchy issue. I have to see a roomful of archaeologists agree beyond agreeing to disagree. It's just about as hard to pin down as defining art in an ancient society.

That's why it isn't easily defined as something ignorant savages practiced, or as something where items are strictly non-utilitarian (Shang Dynasty bronze vessels were clearly used as part of ancestor worship feasts, but they most definitely were part of a form of worship and ritual, which can be categorized as a "religion" in an archaeological sense).

I know this doesn't help answer the question -- but to be honest, there is no clear, lucid answer to the question.

I suppose the best I can do is to say that religion in archaeology essentially means finding material evidence of ritualistic practices that take place in an area specifically designed for that practices. Holy areas, you might say -- like an alcove in a house or building or an entire place where absolutely no living quarters are found.

Finding such an area, and explaining why you think it fits that description, often makes for lively conversation.
posted by linux at 4:17 PM on December 21, 2004


I have [yet] to see a roomful of archaeologists agree beyond agreeing to disagree ....

About what -- whether religion exists? Whether it's generally possible to identify religious-ritual objects? It's a rare archaeologist who would answer "no" to either question.

Archaeologists will argue strenuously about specific interpretations. But in Mesoamerican archaeology, those arguments have been going on for a long, long time, and the last I knew no one who was taken seriously in the field was seriously considering the idea that the primary ritual driver of most mesoamerican cultures was anything other than religion.
posted by lodurr at 4:46 PM on December 21, 2004


wow, great thread... which of course makes me feel rather guilty for going so off-topic. I'll likely be in Oaxaca in a week or so - as a non-spanish-speaking traveller, what should I be planning on doing there?

Besides the obvious, of course, ie. human sacrifices and head binding and so on.
posted by jeffj at 6:03 PM on December 21, 2004


How can there have been religion in Mexico 7,000 years ago when the Earth is only 6,000 years old?
posted by caddis at 9:26 PM on December 21, 2004


lodurr, not whether religion exists, the arguments stem interpreting the data, as you noted.
posted by linux at 8:41 AM on December 22, 2004


« Older Things that make you spew fluids out your nose...   |   Bush - brought to you by Busch! Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post