What was the First Religion?

Ever wonder what the first known religion is? Well, wonder no more.

To begin with, according to anthropologists Hervey C. People and Frank W. Marlowe, religion can be broadly defined as “a set of beliefs and behaviors based on a shared worldview that separates the sacred, or supernatural, from the profane.”

With that broad interpretation in mind, possible, though not definitive, evidence of early religion, can be found dating back one hundred and fifty thousand years ago with the ancient Neanderthals who buried their dead — although since Neanderthals can be traced back nearly 500,000 years, it’s likely that burial practices existed long before anyone but Dr. Emmett Brown is currently aware of. These early prehistoric peoples also made markings on bones and buried trinkets with the bodies, like feathers, animal claws, shell beads, and pigments. Red ochre, a natural clay earth pigment, has also been commonly found on the bodies and in the graves of these ancient burial sites. Beyond giving a body a proper burial being a sign of respect for a once-living being after they are gone, as noted in archaeologist Paul Pettitt’s book “The palaeolithic origins of burial,” these burials and what we find in them are the earliest indication we have that our cousins, the Neanderthals, may have believed in an afterlife, or at least in some type of spirit that lives on in a person after they’re dead. However, although these findings may lay the groundwork for what would eventually become modern religion, not enough is known about these rituals and beliefs to give this religion or religions a proper name, and this can hardly be called a structured belief system of any kind. Or, at least, we can’t say it was based on the surviving data.

Jumping ahead a few tens of thousands of years, a team at the University of Cambridge, including the aforementioned Anthropologists Frank Marlowe, Hervey Peoples, as well as zoologist Pavel Duda, conducting research on cultural evolution in humankind, in their paper, Hunter-gatherers and the origins of religion, published by the National Library of Medicine in 2016, noted a high likelihood that all hunter-gatherer societies subscribed to animism, or the belief that plants, animals, or inanimate objects have souls or spiritual identities. They also found that roughly 80% of hunter-gatherer societies likely believed in the afterlife, while worshiping ancestors and belief in a supreme God of some form were found in roughly 60% of all hunter-gatherer societies. From animism emerged belief in the afterlife, and then shamanism and ancestor worship, which we will get into in a little bit.
As for more specifics about these first religions of a sort, the word ‘animism’ derives from the Latin ‘anima,’ which means “a current of air, wind, air, or breath, and the vital principle, life, or soul.” Followers of animism believed that spirits inhabited single objects like trees or rocks, or even entire places like a forest or cave. Many believed that these spirits could travel between objects and places, following an individual around if they moved to a new village or traveled long distances. These spirits may also be those of dead ancestors, spirit guides, or guardians.

Thus, in the broad sense of the word, “religion”, animism seemingly fits the bill, though still, not much like what many today think of in terms of a hard philosophical doctrine at the base of the beliefs. Or, at least, not one that’s survived to this day. So how did we get from that to the much more refined religions we have today? And what was the first of these modern forms of religion?

As to the former question, let’s move on to shamanism, the belief system that was born out of animism and was arguably the next stage in religious evolution.

Shamanism is founded in the belief that shamans, or people with spiritual connections to the otherworld, have the power to heal the sick and dying, transport souls into the afterlife, and communicate with spirits. It is also the first strong indication anthropologists have found of humans believing in the afterlife, which is a major foundation for many religions today. There is no globally agreed-upon definition for shamanism, but the belief system centers around the concept of a shaman, either male or female, in society who is recognized as an intercessor, healer, or general problem solver. Rituals and practices founded in shamanism draw from the spirits in nature to take the shaman to a heightened, altered state of reality. The term shamanism originated in Siberia, and many scholars actually assert that the beliefs practiced in Siberia are the only ones that can truly be classified as ‘shamanism.’ However, just like many other religions, shamanism has evolved throughout many countries and cultures, all of whom have adopted shamanism in various forms. In some cultures, shamans use hallucinogens and intoxicants, including mushrooms, peyote, Ayahuasca, or alcohol in order to transcend reality and connect with their divine healing powers. Although the specifics surrounding this belief system differ from culture to culture, the concept of a sacred or spiritual healer is one we’ve found throughout many different religions, even in the modern age as well.

As for the next stage, sometime between roughly 10,000 B.C.E. and 5000 B.C.E, clearer distinctions began to be made in support of various beliefs and things definitely took a large leap forward on the religion evolution front directly after.

Most historians agree that the ancient Mesopotamian region of Sumer can be classified as one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and it is here that we find more structured beliefs beginning to form. The Sumerians lived in modern-day Iraq and parts of Iran, and they settled in the area sometime around 5000 B.C.E., forming what we now know as some of the oldest cities in the world. They primarily followed the belief that there were many gods who existed in human forms. This faith system is known as anthropomorphic polytheism. The key five gods were An who represented heaven, Enki who was a healer and friend to humans, Enlil who commanded earth, wind, and storms and whom all spirits must obey, Inanna who was the goddess of sex, love, political power, and divine law, Utu the sun god, and Sin the moon god. In general, these ancient people viewed the gods as being responsible for dividing day from night, earth from sky, and plants from animals; the gods were responsible for maintaining order in these divisions. Sumerians also built temples where priests ruled in a theocratic system, but despite that, the people of ancient Mesopotamia viewed their gods as people they lived in harmony and equality with rather than as superior beings in the sense that a modern person would say when thinking about their god and religion.

Jumping ahead a couple thousand more years, we reach the next wave of religious formation throughout the world. Around 3000 B.C.E., many cultures and communities had adopted a more formal system of faith and worship.

For example, in Africa, the dominant belief in most regions was the belief in one supreme being. Bantu mythology also sprung from animism, first appearing in the region now known as Nigeria in 3000 B.C.E. and spreading throughout the continent. Generally speaking, African peoples defined religion as the relationship between God and man; therefore, despite there being many key figures in Bantu mythology, most denominations of the Bantu religion believe in one all-powerful God, often associated with the rising sun. That being said, however, most in this context take issue with the term “religion,” because, as explained by Jacob Olupona, professor of indigenous African religions and African studies at Harvard Divinity School, a man’s relationship with God cannot be compartmentalized into only one facet of his life. Instead, his spiritual beliefs are a part of everything he is and does. In this sense, the Bantu faith is considered less a practice and more a way of being, and the same is true of many other African beliefs as well. It’s a fine line and arguing semantics but, as may become clear here, nailing down what exactly constitutes a religion is difficult and doesn’t always apply when thinking in the context of the way many of our more popular modern religions work, so to speak.

But moving on from there, another generally monotheistic faith of Africa that cropped up around 3000 B.C.E. was Dinka spirituality. The Dinka people began as a group of hunter gatherers who settled in the area now known as South Sudan which was the largest known swampland at the time. These people worshiped, and still worship, the creator Nhialic who is the creator of all things and controls the destiny of all living creatures. There are a few secondary gods and goddesses referred to in the Dinka faith, but these figures are seen in a more mythological sense and are not worshiped the same way Nhialic is. Unfortunately, since the civil war and political unrest in South Sudan that began in the 1980s, many of the Dinka people have been wiped out. Up until that time, however, the Dinka faith was still practiced by nearly a third of the indigenous population there.

Moving on from there to another candidate for the first religion in our modern sense of things, at the same time most of Africa was adopting more monotheistic religious practices in 3000 B.C.E. Asia and Europe were primarily centered around polytheistic belief systems. At the forefront and sort of crossroads of this, we have the transcontinental country we now know as Egypt, which has a rich and complex history with polytheism. Origins of the Egyptians have been traced as far back as 12,000 B.C.E., and with that, discoveries of temples and burial practices indicate that even the earliest Egyptians believed in an afterlife or some spiritual identity within every human being. Apart from the mortuary services they performed, however, little is known about what the earliest Egyptians might have believed. Therefore, the earliest indication of a belief system is dated to only around 3000 B.C.E. with complex views on truth, justice, and order, animism, the afterlife, and even magic. Early Egyptians worshiped the sun god Ra, and they viewed the sun as a powerful life force. Since Ra was the primary god-figure in the early era of religion in Egypt, it could be argued that monotheism was at the forefront of Egypt’s history, with polytheism following in the thousand or so years later.

Greek mythology can also be traced back as far as the Bronze Age, or 3000 B.C.E., and perhaps even earlier than that, with Roman mythology following sometime after this.
That said, as noted by the Metropolitan Museum, the “ancient Greeks had no single guiding work of scripture like the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Muslim Qu’ran. Nor did they have a strict priestly caste. The relationship between human beings and deities was based on the concept of exchange: gods and goddesses were expected to give gifts [in exchange for votive offerings.]” The Greeks would often worship in sanctuaries to whatever god best suited them, whether it was Zeus the sky god and father of the gods, Hades who reigned over the Underworld or Poseidon who reigned over the sea, Hera who was queen of the gods, or Athena the patron goddess of Athens; Apollo, the god of music and prophecy, or his twin sister Artemis, patroness of hunting; Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Dionysos, the god of wine and theater; Ares, the god of war; or even Hephaistos, the god of metalworking.

On all of this, many view Greek mythology as the birthplace of modern religion, but there has always been a debate on whether or not the mythology itself can, once again, even be called a religion. This is due in part to the lack of any living prophets, healers, or strict spiritual practices. Instead, Greek mythology is based on stories, or myths, which helped to guide the Greeks’ way of life. These stories were used to shape beliefs and explain the world around them rather than to honor sacred or holy practices or enrich a person’s spiritual life.

Of these religions which all seemed to develop globally in these more refined forms around the third millennium, it is impossible to determine precisely which one began first. Instead, they all seem to originate from more historical practices and beliefs, such as animism or polytheism, and developed naturally throughout every unique culture in the world at that time.

So now that we’ve laid the foundation for the birth of various religious beliefs around the world, let’s take a look at the modern religions you may be more familiar with, and we will attempt to clarify which of these can most accurately be regarded as ‘the first religion’ within this more strict and modern sense of the definition.

Demographers Conrad Hackett and David McClendon at the Pew Research Center note that of the mainstream religions we know today, the three most popular in the world are Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism respectively. But it’s nearly impossible to discuss the first two — Christianity and Islam — without first addressing Judaism. Further, from this, it’s obvious one of Judaism or Hinduism is arguably the oldest of the modern incarnations of the most popular religions. But which one was first?

Although traces of Judaism can be found going back to roughly 4,000 or 5,000 years ago, Israeli archeologist Yonatan Adler of Ariel University in the West Bank notes that the religion itself only precedes Christianity by about a century in the codified form we are familiar with. That said, some date the codification of the Hebrew Bible back a few centuries before, with no real consensus today on the exact time period, and of course as alluded to, oral traditions along this line existed for possibly as much as a few thousand years before this.

As you can imagine from this, there is a lot of uncertainty on dates here. For example, it isn’t fully clear how long ago the father of Judaism, Abraham, from the Hebrew Bible may or may not have lived- possibly as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE, or possibly one to two thousand years after. If going with the earliest broad date period, it’s possible, as noted by Shaye Cohen — Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University — that Abraham was the first specifically known figure in history to introduce monotheism to the world, with his interpretations from God and the legacy he left making up the foundation of the Hebrew Bible.

As we’ve discussed, Christianity follows very close behind a more codified Judaism, chronologically. And it is at this point that things become much better documented. Today just over 30% of the world follows Christianity in some form or on some level, and even if you aren’t included in that number, you probably know pieces of the story. The belief that Jesus, a Jew, was born of the Virgin Mary and died on the cross taking mankind’s sin upon himself so that sinners could live an eternal life in heaven in the presence of God.
And if you’re now wondering whether Jesus actually existed, please do go check out our recent video, Is There Any Actual Evidence Jesus Existed? But in any event, Christianity exploded shockingly rapidly after the first century and has diversified over time since.
For example, in the year 1054 AD, Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was excommunicated from the Christian church based in Rome. Up until that point, tensions had been rising for a long time between the Roman and the Byzantine sides of the Christian Church. When Cerularius was excommunicated, the two sides split, with the Byzantine Church being renamed the “Eastern Orthodox Church” and the Roman Church taking on the title of the “Western Roman Catholic Church.” The Church’s split between these two sides of Europe is known as the Great Schism, also known as the “East-West Schism” or the “Schism of 1054.” And things haven’t exactly simplified since then.
Unsurprisingly, for Christians, there has been a long-standing debate on what the first true Christian religion was — many assert that Catholicism is the original Christian denomination, but as we’ve learned from the story of the Great Schism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox seem to share that title equally.

Moving on from Christianity, slightly more modern is the religion Islam, which began with the prophet Muhammad in the year 610. The belief goes that he began to receive messages from the archangel Gabriel for over twenty years, which he documented in scriptures that would come to form the Qu’ran. Although Islam is too modern to be considered a first religion, it’s still worth mentioning in the context of evolution of religion due to its widespread popularity and cultural impact, as well as its ties to early Judaism and Christianity.

As alluded to, the third most popular religion in the world is Hinduism, followed by roughly 15% of the world’s population. But where did it come from, and how old is it?

To begin with, as noted by Professor Gavin Flood of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Hinduism embraces many traditions and focuses on beliefs, spirituality, and stories rather than on imposing ritualistic practices and adhering to specific rules. Its roots trace back to the Neolithic and Vedic periods, or around the year 2000 B.C.E. During this time, common practices included making sacrifices into a sacred fire in order to please the gods, of which there were several. More succinctly, in an essay published by the Hindu Association of the Northern Territory, Hinduism is described as a faith with, to quote, “numerous schools of thought… no founder, no organisational hierarchy or structure, and no central administration but the concept of duty or dharma, the social and ethical system by which an individual organises his or her life.” In general, a person typically identifies as Hindu by being born and raised in a Hindu family and practicing the faith. A person can also declare themselves Hindu, and no official conversion needs to be made. Additionally, Hinduism shares monotheistic and polytheistic elements, with the Supreme Being Brahman in constant connection with other deities: the Creator “Brahma,” the Sustainer “Vishnu” and the Destroyer “Shiva.”

Alongside Hinduism was the rise of Jainism, whose roots might in fact precede Hinduism. Jainism began among the same civilizations that Hinduism was born in, and likely in the same time period. Unlike Hinduism, however, Jainism is grounded in the belief that humans are reborn after they die, and the goal in the faith is to break free from this cycle. To be liberated, one must live a pure, peaceful life and not harm other lives, which means that most Jains are vegetarian. Hinduism and Jainism obviously have quite a few differences, but one major thing they have in common is the belief in karma, or ‘what goes around, comes around.’

Jainism may share the title with Hinduism for the first of our latest surviving popular religions, but since not enough hard evidence has been found about its origins, it’s impossible to say for certain.

So what was the first true religion we have surviving evidence of? Well, if your definition is extremely loose, forms of animism, though we don’t have a lot of data to draw from there on specifics. And based on the evolution of religion from there, it may or may not be what many would call a true religion in our modern sense of things. Moving on from there, around the same time, relatively speaking in human history, numerous cultures seemed to have all in concert leveled up on the religious front, creating slightly more complex ideas about spirituality and gods and men, like the Ancient Greeks. But, still, you may or may not consider any of these a true religion, given lack of firm codification of beliefs and practices, and that the relationship between gods and men and worshiping practices still were somewhat distinct from our modern popular religions. And, finally we have the next stage of religious evolution, seemingly spearheaded by the likes of Judaism and its sequent, Christianity. Which, given the context of all the above, you can start to see why Judaism in its relatively modern form caused the Ancient Romans such issues, given how different it was in many ways from so many other religions of a sort that the Romans so easily and seamlessly integrated with no issue whatsoever in most cases. You can also see from this why Christianity caused them even more problems, and was seen as such a bizarre cult by these Romans and others. And why it was so revolutionary.

That said, going back to the whole “Who was first?” among the most popular modern religions thing, as noted, Hinduism, while a slightly different style of religion than Judaism and Christianity, is still flourishing today in various forms and may pre-date Judaism’s earliest forms.

In the end, given the ambiguity in definition here, as well as uncertainty of exact dates in much of the above, this is a rare case where although we hope we’ve done a good job of covering the major elements of the potential first religions, saying definitively X or Y was first is still somewhat up for grabs.

So what do you think? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Expand for References

National Library of Medicine:

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:


Overseas Missionary Fellowship:


Pew Research Center:

The Met:

Smithsonian Mag:


Harvard Gazette:

The spirituality of Africa

Every Culture:

New World Encyclopedia:

Lumen Learning:

The Sumerians

World History:

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