The migratory instinct to travel to thrive and survive is something humans share many other species, from butterflies to whales, birds to herds of wildebeest.
As far as we can tell, from the Neolithic period onwards, early pilgrimage rituals grew out of seasonal gatherings where through larger collective action, small bands of hunter gatherers were able to secure greater bounty than could be achieved by acting alone. ‘Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump’ in Alberta, Canada was in use at least 6,000 years ago when at certain times of the year, indigenous bands came together to drove these beasts over the edge of a 10 metre drop in order to kill them in significant numbers.
Gobekli Tepi, in Turkey dates back to 11,000 BCE and is the oldest known religious site in the world. Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist responsible for much of the site’s excavation, believed that this was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshippers from as far away as 90km. Created before before the advent of agriculture, some of the massive stone structures on the site would have required 500 people working together to erect them. But this was no dwelling place. In the words of Schmidt “First came the temple, then the city.” The question remains, why did our ancestors, who would have typically been living in small groups need to build such elaborate common pilgrimage sites? Was it a demonstration of common purpose or a monument to the power of one group over another?