"Python Cave" Reveals Oldest Human Ritual, Scientists Suggest

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 22, 2006

A team of archaeologists has discovered what it says is evidence of humankind's oldest ritual.

Africa's San people may have used a remote cave for ceremonies of python worship as much as 70,000 years ago—30,000 years earlier than the oldest previously known human rites—the team says.

"The level of abstract thinking within the peoples of [this period] and the continuity of their cultural patterns is proving to be astonishing for such an early date," said Sheila Coulson, an archaeologist at Norway's University of Oslo.

Coulson and colleague Nick Walker base their findings on artifacts found in Rhino Cave, a cavern discovered in the 1990s in the remote Tsodilo Hills of Botswana.

The researchers found a large rock inside the cave that they say resembles a giant python, with natural features in the stone forming an eye and a mouth.

The 20-foot-by-6.5-foot (6-meter-by-2-meter) stone was also scarred by several hundred human-made grooves that may have been meant to resemble scales.

Beneath the python rock, scientists found a section of curved wall, which they believe may have collapsed during work on the "python." The researchers also discovered quartz flakes packed in some of the cave's crevices.

And the team unearthed spearheads identical to those found at another site in Botswana, which had been dated to 77,000 years ago.

The hundred-plus, brightly colored projectile points appear to have been brought to the cave unfinished, sometimes from great distances, and were finished at the site.

Some points were intentionally broken or burned in what Coulson believes was a ritual destruction of artifacts.

"They did not burn the spearheads by chance," Coulson said. "They brought them from hundreds of kilometers away and intentionally burned them."

But Coulson's findings have been received with skepticism from some scientists, who say that more research is needed to confirm the age and purpose of the site.

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