Thanks for the A2A. Of course we don't really know the answer to your question...we just have some modern projection onto selective archeological evidence. Ruud Schmitz's answer is a very good example of just this kind of projection, and although much of what he says is not widely accepted among cultural anthropologists today, it has been popular among feminist archeologists and some neopagan groups. In contrast, here are some more widely accepted views:
Paleolithic - There are lots of drawings of animals on the walls where humans lived. That's pretty much all we know. Humans also began burying each other, including some grave goods with the body. Again, that's all we know. There have been plentiful assumptions about these practices (animal cults, totem worship, belief in afterlife, etc.) but THEY ARE ALL PROJECTIONS of our modern culture onto prehistoric archeological evidence. There are many, many other possible explanations (for example, instead of concern about an afterlife, perhaps humans buried each other and each others' stuff to protect themselves from whatever ended the dead person's existence...a ritual resulting from a simple fear of death.)
Neolithic - Here we start seeing structures that were clearly built with lunar and solar movements in mind (megaliths), but again, we have NO IDEA what these were used for. We also find more animal drawings and figurines. And we also find some figurines of the female form. We have NO IDEA what any of these were used for. We also find burial mounds with lots of grave goods. Again...NO IDEA what these burial practices actually meant. There is also some evidence of human sacrifice at some sites. Why were humans sacrificed? No idea. Lots and lots and lots of modern projections onto those primitive cultures, but no real idea at all because there is no written record from these periods of the whys and wherefores. Was there totem worship? Possibly. Was there worship that involved the sun, moon and the annual cycles of the heavens? Possibly. Was there goddess worship (or, perhaps more likely, fertility worship)? Possibly. If you believe all of the fiction and stories created in modern times about this period (and the Bronze Age in particular), you might well assume that these possibilities are fact. But they are not. They are inventions of the modern mind as it tries to explain the past.
In more recent history, we have mainly polytheistic religions (Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, India and so on). These are really the only religions for which we have sufficient historical evidence to support a clear understanding of early beliefs and practices. Of these, Hinduism is the only one still widely practiced today.
Regarding Çatalhöyük, which was utilized from 6500-5500 BC (not 17,000 years ago!), there are hundreds of stone and clay figurines - many of the female form, but also many of animals, and I believe even some men with erect penises, etc. We have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what these figurines were used for. None. Nada. More recent examinations have suggested many non-religious uses for these items, and point out that all of them were recovered from the utilitarian rooms at the site, not the areas presumed to be shrines. I only bring this up to highlight how popular lay interpretations of partial archeological data may have little correlation with other data or more thoughtful assumptions.
My 2 cents.
Comment by Ruud Schmitz: Hello Mr. Collins. Thank you for your 2 cents. I suppose your are an historian and there for your two cents are a lot more valuable than mine in this case. The information I gave I got from a recent documentary. Where the number of 17000 years was given in relation to the earliest findings of the woman like statues and a temple like building in the region, in the deepest players of an excavation site. Not the excavation of the old village, that dates back from 6500 BC. The remarkable thing about this temple like structure actually was that it was NOT located in a developed area. I remember the narrator saying something like 'society did not create religion, but religion created society' .
I think you may be referring to Göbekli Tepe, an 11,500 year-old site in Southeastern Turkey. Çatalhöyük is in Southwestern Turkey, about 700km away. Yes, Göbekli Tepe is an extremely interesting place that raises many questions, but I do not believe there were any female figurines or statues discovered there, just animal carvings in the stones of the megaliths.
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