Neolithic menhir in the exhibition ‘Humans. Carved in Stone’ at the National Museum Zurich.
Neolithic menhir in the exhibition ‘Humans. Carved in Stone’ at the National Museum Zurich. Swiss National Museum

Birth of the gods

5,000 years ago, people in Europe began erecting stone stelae in the shape of humans. These monuments were likenesses of ancestors that served to unify and nourish the village community through rituals, and legitimised land ownership.

Ina Wunn

Ina Wunn

Ina Wunn is Professor of Theology at Leibniz University Hannover.

Until fairly recently, representations of human forms on huge, menhir-like stones have defied any interpretation. Somewhat at a loss for firm ideas, people described them as ‘artistic objects’, ‘gods’ or ‘chieftains’. Gaining access to the meaning of the Neolithic stone depictions of humans is possible only by a circuitous route. Often, deciphering the Neolithic works of art seems to have the hallmarks of a criminal investigation. The first keyword has already been mentioned: work of art. We know from ethnology and art history that art as free design, as l’art pour l’art, is a relatively new phenomenon, especially in our European culture. By contrast, throughout human history art has almost always reflected the prevailing ideology or worldview, against the backdrop of which it has served a very specific purpose. However, ideologies and religions don’t simply arise spontaneously out of nothing; they evolve over many thousands of years, from simple beginnings. The same is true of our Stone Age monuments, which we must slot into their proper place in the long chain of ideology-related human representations to enable us to infer a clearer understanding of their meaning. In concrete terms, this means that the stelae must be classified somewhere between the Palaeolithic ‘Venus of Willendorf’ on the one hand, and medieval depictions of Christ and the Virgin Mary on the other.
The ‘Venus of Willendorf’ is 29,500 years old and comes from Lower Austria.
The ‘Venus of Willendorf’ is 29,500 years old and comes from Lower Austria. Wikimedia / Museum of Natural History Vienna
We know the significance of the Willendorf figure and her ilk: an exaggerated vulva, extremely large breasts and hips amalgamate menacing and placatory signals that were intended initially to offer protection against specific rivals, but very soon came to be used as a safeguard against evil itself. By contrast, representations of Christ and the Virgin Mary are symbols of one of the major monotheistic religions. Their predecessors are the representations of gods from the ancient world, and our ‘humans carved in stone’ must therefore, in turn, be their predecessors. However, the medieval worldview was very different from the worldview of antiquity, even though there were of course areas of overlap. While the world of the Middle Ages and the world of antiquity are accessible to us through written evidence, unfortunately there is no such elucidating source for the unwritten Stone Age.
The stele in the middle bears the name ‘Moncigoli I’; it comes from the Tuscan region of Italy and is approximately 5,000 years old. It has a head in the form of a crescent-shaped dagger pommel, arms held against the sides of the body and comparatively naturalistic breasts.
The stele in the middle bears the name ‘Moncigoli I’; it comes from the Tuscan region of Italy and is approximately 5,000 years old. It has a head in the form of a crescent-shaped dagger pommel, arms held against the sides of the body and comparatively naturalistic breasts. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze
However, we do have other tools at our disposal: cultural anthropology. Researchers have established that a people’s subsistence strategy and their social organisation were crucial determinants of their worldview. While monotheism, with its belief in a single god (the Christian God, but also the Indian Krishna, for instance), typified the feudal three-estates order that held sway in the Middle Ages, for the civil society of the ancient city states it was polytheism, which in turn had its origins in the personal protective deities of the individual cities. For unstratified societies of nomadic pastoralists and early farmers who had neither division of labour nor any form of higher authority, in contrast, the veneration of their ancestors all the way back to mythical, all-powerful forefathers is a characteristic feature. Such societies still exist today: among the Toraja people on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the deceased are buried in a long, three-stage ritual culminating in a wooden effigy of the departed being set up on a kind of balcony. Every year on the day of the dead, this figure, known as a tau-tau, is dressed, fed, groomed and feted. The expectation is that the deceased will then provide his/her descendants with the goods they need in this world, by ensuring the fertility of livestock and fields.
‘Tau-tau’ figures of the Toraja people on Sulawesi.
‘Tau-tau’ figures of the Toraja people on Sulawesi. Wikimedia / Michael Gunther
Our first question regarding the Neolithic stelae would thus be answered: in accordance with the social order and the subsistence strategy of the time, the figures on the stelae must be images of the dead, possibly even of ancestors. The question of what purpose they served still remains to be answered. Here too, findings from cultural anthropology and ethnology are an aid: in unstratified and therefore non-hierarchical societies, conflicts cannot be resolved by the arbitration of a ruler or judge. A society of equals must find its own appropriate means to resolve any issues, to enable its members to coexist peacefully. Rituals are one such measure.
Rituals, arising out of ritualised attitudes biologically rooted in our behavioural repertoire, are always used in situations where conflicting emotions would actually provoke opposing reactions. In the event of a dispute in a Neolithic village community, this would mean the desire to do harm to one’s adversary conflicts with the awareness that the village has to stand together in order to survive. A ritual, that is, a fixed sequence of signs and symbols (it could be gestures, songs, important objects, images or figures, etc.), ties and pledges the community to the collective principles of living together, i.e. to the shared values held by its members, values that are final and beyond dispute. In the abovementioned societies, however, nothing embodies such values better and more effectively than the ancestors – the community’s forefathers who originally created the order of being.
The stele in the foreground comes from southern France and is 4,400 to 5,200 years old. The arm position is usually interpreted as a gesture of veneration or reverence.
The stele in the foreground comes from southern France and is 4,400 to 5,200 years old. The arm position is usually interpreted as a gesture of veneration or reverence. Musée d’Histoire Naturelle Nîmes
A ritual in which the deceased was personified in a figurine might still have been adequate at the dawn of sedentarism, but things changed at the point when different villages or even population groups began to compete for resources. The deceased now also served to prove the legitimacy of land ownership. It was the founder of the village, the progenitor of the clan who had died many generations ago, who had taken up residence in the stele and functioned both to guarantee the legitimacy of the tribe’s entitlement to the land, and as an all-powerful guardian entity from the Other World. As competition increased, this meant that the bigger the stela, the more powerful the ancestor and the greater the protection it provided. A brief summary: we’ve been able to assign our ‘humans carved in stone’ their rightful place on the scale of all-powerful beings with a protective role. As precursors of the gods of antiquity, their importance cannot be overstated and they have had a greater impact on our culture, our worldview and the way we coexist than we have perhaps been aware of up to now.

Humans. Carved in Stone

17.09.2021 16.01.2022 / National Museum Zurich
6,000 years ago, people in Europe started erecting large stone sculptures. These sculptures were in the shape of women and men with faces and arms, hairstyles and even tattoos. They also carried or wore highly desirable items such as weapons, jewellery or clothing that depicted the innovations of their time. But the stelae were also symbols of power and status, and were used for ancestor worship and rituals. These likenesses were created in an age when people were increasingly engaging in agriculture and animal husbandry, coming together in village communities and beginning to use metal. The temporary exhibition in the National Museum Zurich’s extension wing brings together stelae from a number of European countries, including new finds from the cantons of Zurich and Valais, and offers a unique insight into the world of people in the Neolithic period.

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