A story in Discover back in December discusses cave drawings from Indonesia. Dating back almost 40,000 years before the creation of the world, these cave paintings represent the oldest yet discovered. The interesting thing about such cave art is the representation of figures—both human and animal—that are instantly recognizable. Scientists studying the art are able to identify likely species, but, as John Morehead pointed out on his Theofantastique Facebook post, there are also fantastical beasts. We might call them monsters. It’s interesting to see how scientific writers shift from their awe at life-like illustration to a nearly palpable embarrassment when the creatures become mythical. Indeed, the article itself suggests such figures point to a very early sense of either fiction or spirituality. The monstrous and religion have long trod parallel paths and we are only now beginning to explore the implications.
Monsters are beings over which we have no control. They don’t abide by human rules and often the only recourse against them is religious. When monsters come knocking, it’s often wise to drop to your knees. Or at least reach for your crucifix. Many rationalists like to claim that human civilization developed without religion. The discoveries at sites such as Göbekli Tepe gainsay that assessment, indicating that humans first gathered for religious reasons and agriculture and all the rest followed from that. Perhaps they came together for fear of monsters? That’s only a guess, but I recall the defensive tower of Jericho. The archaeologist lecturing us as we stood by this neolithic structure asked “What were they afraid of?” He never answered that question.
Bringing monsters into the discussion isn’t an attempt to make light of these significant discoveries. Rather, we need to learn to appreciate the fact that monsters are serious business. Religion, whether or not literally true, is important. Civilization has been running the opposite direction for some time now. When surveys emerge demonstrating that the vast majority of the world’s population is still religious, analysts frown. It does make me wonder, however, if nature itself programs us this way. To other sentient creatures who experience us as predators, humans must look monstrous. We come in a variety of colors and textures (clothing), we smell of deodorant, shampoo, soap, aftershave, or none of the above. We emit strange sounds (our music). Are we not the monsters of the natural world? And should animals develop religion, would we not be one of the causes? It’s just a guess, but I need to sit in my cave and think about it for a while.