In the last few week two news stories stand out in the field of truly ancient faith.
The first involves an 11,000 year old Siberian Idol. Which, thanks to the microbial miracles that are peat bogs, has been preserved in amazing condition. Resent, possibly illegal, testing indicates that it is easily the oldest wooden carving in the world. What the figure represents, of course, is a matter of speculation. The idol is very similar to the kinds of totem poles we see in stone age cultures through out the world, many still in use by their descendants today. While the article linked tries to explain the patterns found on the Shigir Idol all such explanations are pure speculation and, while plausible, cannot be confirmed. This is the case with lots of artifacts from pre-literate societies. They did not tell us what it meant to them so we are left with guesses. We can compare these works with others we may understand better, and with some basics of human iconography to get hints at the intent. One of the things we need to be wary of, especially from analysts with a cultural or professional stake in the matter, is the kinds of grand claims like the idea that the creators "lived in total harmony with the world, had advanced intellectual development, and a complicated spiritual world" made by Professor Mikhail Zhilin, leading researcher of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Archaeology. Maybe so. Maybe not.
The next is in many ways more monumental. The newly dubbed Homo Naledi are not only some of the best preserved samples of early hominids, but their is evidence they practiced ritual burial. The linked article is clear that by "ritual" they do not mean "relgious ritual" but simply repeated deliberate behavior. However, I think that is worth some consideration.
No other species beside human being makes a concerted effort to bury their dead. The whole "elephant's graveyard" is a myth. Only people have funerals.
Placement in a cave cannot be accidental. This is an area that is almost totally inaccessible. The chamber suggests, at the very least, that predation was a concern. But why be worried about what happens to a body if you do not attach some larger value to it? Lots of animals have been seen to mourn the passing of companions, but even those who might be capable of disposing of the bodies do not do so. Interment is inherently the act of a creature who sees value beyond the mere physicality of the body.
We might further speculate, and yes I did just warn against rampant speculation but this is just for discussions sake, that the placement in a large underground chamber, accessible only via a tiny space, is deliberate in the images it conjures. We have a pretty clear womb analog. Did they believe that by returning their dead to the womb of the earth they would be reborn?
There does not appear to be a material culture associated with these bodies. No pots, spears, knives, or other items that would almost guarantee ritual burial and the existence of a faith system. I hope further efforts are made not just in that cave but in the area to find out more about these people.
We may have evidence of the oldest religious act on the planet and the only one that would be associated with a non-human.