In 2006, University of Oslo archaeologist Sheila Coulson gave an open lecture about her work at a small cave in the Tsodilo Hills of northern Botswana. Although her lecture focused on Middle Stone Age tools recovered from the cave and an unusual rock formation that looked to her like a snake or python, she also discussed the San or Bushmen who have inhabited the area for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years.
A reporter from the Norwegian Research Council covered Coulson’s lecture and then issued a sensational press release with these headlines: World’s Oldest Ritual Discovered — Worshipped the Python 70,000 Years Ago. It made for fantastic copy:
While scholars have largely held that man’s first rituals were carried out over 40,000 years ago in Europe, it now appears that they were wrong about both the time and place.
Professor Sheila Coulson can now show that modern humans, Homo sapiens, have performed advanced rituals in Africa for 70,000 years. She has, in other words, discovered mankind’s oldest known ritual.
When Coulson entered the cave this summer with her students, it struck them that the mysterious rock resembled the head of a huge python. On the six meter long by two meter tall rock, they found three-to-four hundred indentations that could only have been man-made.
At the bottom of the pit, they found many stones that had been used to make the indentations. Together with these tools, some of which were more than 70,000 years old, they found a piece of the wall that had fallen off during the work.
The story, which also appeared in the University of Oslo’s magazine, stated that the tools had been “sacrificed to the python” because several were burnt and broken. There was also mention of a hidden chamber that shamans would have used to make the python “speak” to awed spectators.
In short order the mainstream press picked up the story and ran wild with it. It appeared without alteration in newspapers, magazines, and blogs around the world. Someone even used the story and images to produce a slick video:
Another enthusiast grabbed some nice pictures of the hills and grainy footage of rock art to produce this:
It seems that only National Geographic investigated the story before reporting it. In its interview with Coulson, she appears to confirm the story at least in broad outline:
“It is the whole package of…behavior traits from our excavations that has led us to conclude that the only plausible explanation is that this site was used for ritual purposes,” she said.
“The intentional stuffing of quartz flakes into a crack in the wall beneath the snake, the exceptional treatment of all the points recovered, [these] are behavioral patterns that do not fit any patterns we know of from the many other sites [from this era].”
But not everyone was convinced, including several archaeologists who previously had worked at the cave and published on it. One of them, Michigan State anthropologist Larry Robbins, demurred: “I’m not convinced that the rock is an intentional snake at all, or that all those depressions and grooves belong together in terms of their age.”
Another, Stanley Ambrose from the University of Illinois, doubted that various aspects of the site and artifacts could be accurately dated. The founder of Botswana’s National Museum, Alec Campbell, had similar reservations and doubted whether the site was “religious.”
Motivated by their justifiable concern that the “Oldest Ritual-Religion in the World” story had gone viral and was being reported as accepted fact, Robbins and others published an article expressing concern that these sensational claims had been aired in the media but had not been published in any peer-reviewed journal. They were skeptical:
The interpretations featured in most, if not all, of the Internet news released by Coulson is that the depressions [or cupules] collectively represent the image of a python. This interpretation is highly subjective and is speculative at best.
The evidence supporting that the depressions (or snake scales) date to a single period does not exist, and as far as we are aware, there is no dating method available that is capable of confirming this assumption. Our published radiocarbon and TL dates for the MSA of Rhino Cave are about 15,000 years old and they are too recent for the Middle Stone Age.
They also quite clearly provide no support of 70,000-year-old rituals.
Robbins and colleagues were especially perturbed about Coulson’s use of modern San beliefs-rituals to interpret ostensibly ancient artifacts:
In archaeology there is a long, critical history of the use of ethnographic analogy in archaeological interpretation. Most workers in the field today would strongly object to the projection of modern beliefs directly back into the past to 70,000 years ago.
[Coulson's] interpretation of the paintings in relation to San mythology is subsequently projected uncritically into the remote past to support the claims about the world’s oldest ritual site. We stress that the oldest of the paintings at Tsodilo are probably no older than ca. AD 600.
Making a composite story out of this “evidence” that ignores the different histories and meanings of this art so that it fits an interpretation that is based on a supposed snake that is not dated is a real stretch of the information. It is flat out, misleading.
In the scientific community, these count as strong words. Because Robbins and colleagues published their broadside in an obscure journal (Nyame Akuma) and there was no accompanying press release, it went largely unnoticed. The “Python Cave” story (or myth) has therefore remained in circulation, accepted by many as “the world’s oldest ritual-religion.”
One person who noticed was Sheila Coulson. She responded with considerable dismay and explained what happened:
When I returned [from Africa] to my home institution, the University of Oslo, I was requested to give a[n]open lecture, which was covered by a journalist from the Norwegian Research Council. His article contained the usual sound bites gleaned from a talk that covered the full history of use of the cave: this included recent usage, as well as evidence from the contents of the Later and Middle Stone Age deposits. Aspects of modern San mythology, the painted panel and the carved wall were all mentioned within the context of our recent findings.
The journalist’s news article was translated to English and placed on a local Web page. The combined effects of Net reports from these two lectures unleashed the media frenzy that followed.
If any of this material had actually been written by me, I would, of course, have entertained these considerable criticisms. However, the material criticized appears in media notorious for the inaccuracy and incompleteness of their reporting, and over which I have no control.
The authors have consumed a great deal of space, time and energy in refuting statements attributed to me in Internet sites. I would have expected that any consumer of such sources of information, especially those in the academic community, would have long ago developed an appropriate sense of scepticism in regard to the reliability of their reporting, not least in scientific areas.
The “Python Cave” story was first reported in 2006. The foregoing exchange between Robbins and Coulson was published in 2007. At the end of her 2007 response, Coulson stated that her findings and opinions would be fully aired in a forthcoming article.
The good news is that Coulson’s article (open access) was finally published this year in PaleoAnthropology. The bad news is that for the past five years, many people have been led to believe that the cave (which is actually known as Rhino Cave) provides evidence for the world’s oldest ritual-religion.
Does it? That will be the subject of my next post.
Robbins, Lawrence, Campbell, Alec, Brook, George, & Murphy, Michael (2007). World’s Oldest Ritual Site? The “Python Cave” at Tsodilo Hills World Heritage Site, Botswana. Nyame Akuma, 67 (June), 2-6
Coulson, Sheila (2007). Response to “World’s Oldest Ritual Site? The ‘Python Cave’ at Tsodilo Hills World Heritage Site, Botswana” by Lawrence H. Robbins, Alec C. Campbell, George A. Brook and Michael L. Murphy. Nyame Akuma, 68 (December), 2-3