Archaeologist looks at religion

February 19, 2004, vol.29, no.4
By Marianne Meadahl

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Historians and mythologists have
followed religion from its roots to the present day. Brian Hayden has studied religion's progression from a somewhat different vantage point - that of an archaeologist.

The veteran archaeology professor's studies and teachings on the origins of religion from an archaeologist's perspective have culminated in a new book, Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion, recently published by the Smithsonian Institute. Written for both students and lay readers, the book focuses on the prehistoric periods of religion's development - and why it developed at all.

“Religion formed strong emotional bonds between people, that helped them survive in times of starvation and other crises common in prehistoric times,” notes Hayden. Evidence is found in tracing the experiences of early hunters and gatherers, the development of kinship and the establishment and role of rituals.

Hayden argues religious behaviors have largely been shaped by our response to ecological factors, such as the environment, reproduction, survival and the use of energy sources, as well as “an innate emotional foundation in humans that distinguishes us from other animals.”

That emotional makeup includes the ability to enter into ecstatic states by such means as fasting, rhythmic breathing, sex and meditation. Ecstatic experiences are altered states of consciousness that include intense feelings of profound unity or understanding of the world. They result in the creation of binding relationships with other people, institutions or ideals associated with those states.

The book is the culmination of 15 years of research, including investigations carried out in prehistoric caves in France. Hayden has worked extensively in Southeast Asia and Polynesia as well as Europe.

His ventures into the French caves, some of them rarely accessed, have led him to begin new research on his theories that caves were once used for secret society initiations and special rituals.

He and a graduate student are examining the viewing areas associated with cave art, as well as its variable quality and the postures best suited for viewing the images.

He hopes these factors will reveal important information on the size of groups that viewed images of different qualities, and ultimately, the purposes behind the creation of different kinds of images.

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