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Oldest known ritual: python worship, archaeologist says

Nov. 30, 2006
Courtesy Research Council of Norway
and World Science staff
Updated Dec. 1

An ar­chae­ol­o­gist claims to have found evi­dence of what may have been man­kind’s ear­li­est rit­u­als: wor­ship of the py­thon, 70,000 years ago in Af­rica.

Un­til now, schol­ars have large­ly held that the first ri­t­u­als oc­curred over 40,000 years ago in Eu­rope, ac­cord­ing to Shei­la Coul­son of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Os­lo in Nor­way.

Coul­son ar­gues that an­cient wor­ship­pers saw the like­ness of a py­thon in this rock, and pock­marked it to mim­ic snake skin. (Full image here. Pho­to: Shei­la Coul­son)  


Coul­son said she turned up ev­i­dence of the py­thon cer­e­mo­n­ies while stu­dy­ing the or­i­gin of the San peo­ple of Nga­mi­land, a sparse­ly in­hab­it­ed part of north­west­ern Bot­swa­na.

“Our find means that hu­mans were more or­ga­n­ised and had the ca­pac­i­ty for ab­s­tract think­ing” much ear­li­er than pre­vi­ously as­sumed, she said.

Coulson said she found the ev­i­dence while seek­ing Mid­dle Stone Age ar­ti­facts in the Ka­la­ha­ri De­s­ert’s Tso­di­lo Hills, an iso­lat­ed clus­ter of small peaks with the world’s larg­est con­cen­tra­tion of rock paint­ings. 

The hills are still sa­cred to the San, who call them the “Moun­tains of the Gods” and the “Rock that Whis­pers.” 

San mythology holds that man­kind de­scended from the py­thon. An­cient, ar­id stream­beds around the hills are said to have been made by the snake as it cir­cled, cease­less­ly seek­ing wa­ter. Coul­son said her find shows lo­cal peo­ple had a spe­cif­ic place for py­thon-re­lated rit­u­als: a small cave on the hills’ north­ern side, so se­clud­ed and hard-to-ac­cess that it was was un­known to ar­chae­ol­o­gy un­til the past de­cade. 

The spear­heads were de­scribed as par­ti­cu­lar­ly beau­ti­ful, and as brought to the site from hun­d­reds of kilo­me­ters away. (Pho­to: Shei­la Coul­son)


When she en­tered it this sum­mer with three mas­ter’s stu­dents, they no­ticed a rock re­sem­bling a huge py­thon’s head, she said. 

The six-meter-long by two-meter-tall (20 feet by 6.6 feet) stone bore more than 300 dents that she ar­gues are man-made.

“You could see the mouth and eyes of the snake. It looked like a real py­thon. The play of sun­light over the in­den­ta­tions gave them the ap­pear­ance of snake skin. At night, the fire­light gave one the feel­ing that the snake was ac­tu­al­ly mov­ing.”

There was no sign of re­cent work on the rock; its sur­face was heav­i­ly worn, she said. 

A photo supplied by Coul­son along­side a state­ment an­noun­cing the find this week seemed to show the ser­pent’s “snout” plant­ed in an extra­ne­ous stone. This, she wrote in an e­mail, might be be­cause it’s all a nat­u­ral for­ma­tion ex­cept for the dents. The snout might have been hard to reach to make mod­i­fi­ca­tions be­cause the floor was two me­ters low­er in an­cient times, she added. Al­so, snakes in late Stone Age paint­ings com­mon­ly “run in­to or out of cracks in the wall—or in­to wall faces,” she wrote.

She also argued that a wealth of sur­round­ing evi­dence backs her the­ory.

The re­search­ers dug a pit di­rect­ly be­fore the py­thon stone and found many stones, which they said were tools used to make the pock­marks. Some of these were dated as more than 70,000 years old. They also found a piece of the wall that had fall­en off dur­ing the work, and more than 13,000 ar­ti­facts, all spear­heads and items that could be linked to rit­u­al use, they said.

The stones used as spear­heads aren’t from the Tso­di­lo re­gion, Coul­son added, but seem to have come from hun­dreds of kilo­me­ters away. The spear­heads are bet­ter crafted and more co­lour­ful than oth­er spear­heads from the same time and ar­ea, she added, and on­ly red spear­heads had been burned.

“Stone age peo­ple took these colour­ful spear­heads, brought them to the ca­ve, and fin­ished carv­ing them there. On­ly the red spear­heads were burned. It was a rit­u­al de­struc­tion of ar­ti­facts. There was no sign of nor­mal hab­i­ta­tion. No or­di­nary tools were found at the site... All of the in­di­ca­tions sug­gest that Tsodilo has been known to man­kind for al­most 100,000 years as a very spe­cial place,” said Coul­son.

An apparent se­cret cham­ber lay be­hind the py­thon stone, she added, and parts of its en­trance were worn smooth, sug­gest­ing many peo­ple had passed through it over the years.

A sham­an, she said—still a key fi­gure in San cul­ture—could have hid­den in the cham­ber and had a good view of the cave in­ter­ior. When he spoke from his crevice, it could have seemed as though the snake were speak­ing. “The sham­an would have been able to con­trol ever­ything. It was per­fec­t,” she arg­ued, adding that the priest could al­so have “dis­ap­peared” by crawl­ing out on­to the hill­side through a small shaft.

While large cave and wall paint­ings abound through­out the Tso­di­lo Hills, this cave has on­ly two small paint­ings, she con­tin­ued: an el­e­phant and a gi­raffe, paint­ed, sur­pris­ing­ly, ex­act­ly where wa­ter trick­les down the wall. Coul­son thinks San my­thol­o­gy might ex­plain this. In one San sto­ry, the py­thon falls in­to wa­ter and can’t es­cape. A gi­raffe saves it. The el­e­phant, with its long trunk, of­ten serves as a met­a­phor for the py­thon.

“In the ca­ve, we find on­ly the San peo­ple’s three most im­por­tant an­i­mals: the py­thon, the el­e­phant, and the gi­raffe... many pieces of the puz­zle fit to­geth­er here,” Coul­son said.

She added that she plans to sub­mit a pa­per on the find­ings to a re­search jour­nal. Nor­mal­ly, she ac­knowl­edged, to sus­tain the cred­i­bil­i­ty of new find­ings, re­search­ers should wait to an­nounce re­sults pub­lic­ly un­til a re­search pa­per is ac­cept­ed for pub­li­ca­tion. But she made an ex­cep­tion, she said, be­cause these find­ings have al­ready been pub­li­cized wide­ly on Bot­swa­na TV and ra­dio, and she has has dis­cussed them in de­tail with col­leagues world­wide.

Torfinn Ør­men, a zo­ol­o­gist who lec­tures on hu­man evo­lu­tion at the uni­ver­si­ty and was not a mem­ber of the re­search team, told the school’s re­search mag­a­zine Apol­lon that “This is the old­est rit­u­al site that we know of and it was in use be­fore phys­i­cal­ly mod­ern man left Africa.” The San, al­so called Bush­men, be­long to the most an­cient race of huma­ns, he added. “Some re­search­ers be­lieve that mod­ern man de­scended from the San. What is cer­tain is that the San... have a very deep con­nec­tion to this ar­ea of Bot­s­wana.”


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An archaeologist claims to have discovered mankind’s earliest ritual: worship of the python in Africa, 70,000 years ago. Until now, scholars have largely held that the first rituals were carried out over 40,000 years ago in Europe, according to Sheila Coulson of the University of Oslo. Coulson said she discovered evidence of the python ceremonies while studying the origin of the San people of Ngamiland, a sparsely inhabited area of northwestern Botswana. She was seeking Middle Stone Age artifacts in the Tsodilo Hills, an isolated cluster of small peaks in the Kalahari Desert. They’re famed for having the world’s largest concentration of rock paintings and still a sacred place for the San, who call them the “Mountains of the Gods” and the “Rock that Whispers.” The python is one of the San’s most important animals. Their creation myth states mankind descended from the python. Ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been made by the snake as it circled, ceaselessly seeking water. Coulson said her find shows that people from the area had a specific ritual location associated with the python: a small cave on the hill’s’ northern side, so secluded and hard-to-access that it was was unknown to archaeologists until the 1990s. When she entered it this summer with three master’s students, they noticed a mysterious rock resembling a huge python’s head, she said. On the six-meter-long by two-meter-tall (20 feet by 6.6 feet) rock, they found three-to-four hundred indentations that she argues could only have been man-made. “You could see the mouth and eyes of the snake. It looked like a real python. The play of sunlight over the indentations gave them the appearance of snake skin. At night, the firelight gave one the feeling that the snake was actually moving.” There was no evidence that the rock had recently been worked on; its surface was heavily worn, she said. The researchers dug a pit directly before the python stone and found many stones, which they said were tools used to make the indentations. Along with these, some of which were more than 70,000 years old, they found a piece of the wall that had fallen off during the work. In the course of their digs, they found more than 13,000 artifacts, all spearheads and items that could be connected with ritual use, they said. The stones that the spearheads were made from are not from the Tsodilo region, Coulson added, but seem to have come from hundreds of kilometers away. The spearheads are better crafted and more colourful than other spearheads from the same time and area, she added, and surprisingly, only red spearheads had been burned. “Stone age people took these colourful spearheads, brought them to the cave, and finished carving them there. Only the red spearheads were burned. It was a ritual destruction of artifacts. There was no sign of normal habitation. No ordinary tools were found at the site. “Our find means that humans were more organised and had the capacity for abstract thinking at a much earlier point in history than we have previously assumed. All of the indications suggest that Tsodilo has been known to mankind for almost 100,000 years as a very special place in the pre-historic landscape,” said Coulson. She said she also noticed a secret chamber behind the python stone. Some areas of the entrance to this small chamber were worn smooth, indicating that many people had passed through it over the years, she argued. “The shaman, who is still a very important person in San culture, could have kept himself hidden in that secret chamber. He would have had a good view of the inside of the cave while remaining hidden himself. When he spoke from his hiding place, it could have seemed as if the voice came from the snake itself. The shaman would have been able to control everything. It was perfect.” The shaman could also have “disappeared” from the chamber by crawling out onto the hillside through a small shaft. While large cave and wall paintings abound throughout the Tsodilo Hills, this cave has only two small paintings, she continued: an elephant and a giraffe, painted, surprisingly, exactly where water runs down the wall. Coulson thinks San mythology might explain this. In one San story, the python falls into water and can’t get out. A giraffe pulls it out. The elephant, with its long trunk, is often used as a metaphor for the python. “In the cave, we find only the San people’s three most important animals: the python, the elephant, and the giraffe. That is unusual. This would appear to be a very special place. They did not burn the spearheads by chance. They brought them from hundreds of kilometers away and intentionally burned them. So many pieces of the puzzle fit together here,” Coulson argued. Coulson said she is preparing to submit a paper on the findings to a research journal such as The Journal of Human Evolution. Normally, she acknowledged, to bolster the credibility of new findings, researchers should wait to announce them publicly until a research paper is accepted for publication. But she made an exception in this case, she said, because the findings have already been publicized widely on Botswana television and radio.