After dismantling some recent attempts by scientists to explain the origins of religion, Russell Saltzman suggests a theory of his own:
The role of death in religious or spiritual awareness is an element not entirely overlooked, but it is never accorded a primary role in the development of religion, beyond cryptic acknowledgment that the practice of burial may suggest the spiritualization of death. When our ancestors understood the finality of death, something got knocked loose in the lower-Paleolithic mind, something requiring a ritualization of grief. . . .
The first intentional burial of anatomically modern humans was found at the gates of Europe, in Israel at the Skhul and Qafzeh caves on Mount Carmel, [having taken place] roughly 100,000 years ago. Fifty thousand years on, human burials become more elaborate with the use of red ocher. By 40,000 years ago . . . burials were marked by more ocher, grave goods, [and] Venus figurines, all matched by compellingly complex cave art and swift technological developments.
And there is this: burial marks a felt loss, a sad wistful yearning never satisfied, something that must be expressed spiritually and addressed. This is a human need that arose 40,000 years ago, to voice our heartache and sorrow. But to whom may we finally, ultimately address it? Is there a prehistorical analogue to Martin Buber’s I and Thou? God speaks to humans in wrenching natural events, like death, as senseless then as today. Perhaps it is there, in that hammering grief universally shared, that God created a meeting ground for conversation with an early humanity, a revelation disclosing the ultimate Thou giving solace to my devastated I.