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Let me begin this answer by defining two words. The definition of these two words might not be the definition used by scholars, but they are the definitions that I would like to use for the purposes of this answer

  • Religion: "a set of beliefs that explain a peoples culture, nature, etc."
  • Recorded: by recorded I mean we have documentation, i.e., cave wall drawings, tomes, inscriptions on bone, etc.

My question is: what is the earliest recorded example of religion among humans.

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    As far as historic records, the wikipedia article you've linked to provides a pretty good answer: Sumeria and Early Dynastic Egypt. Cave paintings would generally be regarded as decidedly prehistoric, though, so that example is somewhat at odds with your linked resource. – femtoRgon Jan 14 '16 at 16:41
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    @randomblink - You linked to a page on a topic with a different meaning than what you wanted. You only need to read two more sentences to get: "Recorded history begins ... around the 4th millennium BC," Cave wall drawings exist as far back as 35,000 - 40,000 years ago, I believe. – femtoRgon Jan 16 '16 at 0:35
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    This question has now been opened by community consensus, in part after Hamlet's extensive edits. I'm still not sure whether or not it was the right move, even though I cast the 5th reopen vote, in part because religion does not necessarily lead to mythology, and vice versa. However, in many ancient examples, the two were intertwined, and so it would appear to be on-topic. – HDE 226868 Jan 16 '16 at 19:53
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    Randomblink, while I appreciate your attempts to clarify at times, it would be good if (A) you don't use parts if edits rant about your question being closed and say that we don't know how to run the site, because your definition of "mythology" absolutely needed to be clarified, and (B) add more information in the original question in the future. When in doubt, assume that readers need to know a bit more about what you're saying; make sure that everything is defined correctly. This should only be a problem in a few cases, like this one. – HDE 226868 Jan 16 '16 at 19:55
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    @randomblink Well, this is in part because the scope of Mythology is changing constantly. We've had many discussions on topics like whether to include things like Scientological stories, or just what kind of questions regarding religion are acceptable. I would assume that some of the close votes may have originated because you didn't state what the limits of your "mythology" are. I understand how frustrating this is, and how thick some of us must seem. But the scope of the question needed to be clarified a bit more, and so it was put on hold while you edited it to - prevent incorrect answers. – HDE 226868 Jan 16 '16 at 22:58
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UPDATE: in the question text mythology was defined as a "system of beliefs." That's not a definition of mythology that I've seen anybody use (if you would like to read accepted definitions of mythology you should take a look at my blog post on the subject); a better word for "system of beliefs" would be "religion. So I'm going to assume that this question asks "what is the oldest recorded religion?"

There is considerable debate over whether Paleolithic Cave Art is religious in nature. But assuming it is religious, then it would quality as the oldest "recorded" evidence of religion.

enter image description here

(image taken from wikipedia)


If by recorded you mean written down, and if by "mythology" you mean sacred narrative, then one of these two texts would probably fit the bill:

The "Instructions of Suruppak" and the Kesh temple hymn still represent unique cases, but there is no reason to assume that archaic fragments of other Sumerian compositions known from the Old Babylonian period will not one day be found.

(Source)

You might also consider Paleolithic Cave Art, although there is considerable debate as to the function of the art (to put it another way, we don't know if the art was religious or decorative or etc. etc.). That might effect whether you would consider the art "mythology". We also don't know whether the art is the recording of a story, which might also effect whether you would consider it "mythology"/sacred narrative.

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  • My problem is I don't regard there to be a difference between religion and mythology except time. The pagan priests that used to sacrifice to Thor believed their stories just as fervently as a current Catholic Priest believes in his communion ritual. In a thousand years tho, Thor and Jesus will hold the same position... a story that was believed by many. – randomblink Jan 15 '16 at 18:38
  • @randomblink First of all, I think that your question should be reopened (i have cast a reopen vote). Second, I would like to apologize for making a big deal about the fact that definitions you gave for mythology and recorded were different from the webpages you linked to: the important thing is that you gave definitions, and I should have paid more attention to that. – user62 Jan 15 '16 at 18:46
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    I would also like to thank you: I've just made several edits to the blog post that I think should make the definitions that I've provided much more clearer – user62 Jan 15 '16 at 18:48
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    @randomblink Regarding the difference between religion and mythology: I disagree, although you raise an important point: people belittle stories like the Norse myths by calling them mythology while stories like the bible are called religion. To simplify things, I would draw a distinction between the religion christianity and the mythology of the story of the bible, the same way I would distinguish between the Norse religion and the Norse mythology. – user62 Jan 15 '16 at 18:51
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    @randomblink Finally, I agree with you that this site should have a clear definition of mythology -- it's why I wrote the blog post that attempts to define mythology in the first place! – user62 Jan 15 '16 at 18:53

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