Were Neanderthals Religious

Imagine this scene: Inside a cave in Spain, a group of people gather around the grave of a toddler. Hearths with lit fires, marked by 30 horns of animals including bison canada goose outlet shop and red deer, surround the grave. A rhinoceros skull is nearby.

At a conference this fall, archaeologist Enrique Baquedano and his colleagues described this scene as a probable funeral ritual held 40,000 years ago by Neanderthals.

canada goose uk outlet That announcement contains a mix of both hard data the child’s bones and the animal horns and skull and informed speculation suggesting that these data point to a community funeral ritual. canada goose uk outlet

The archaeologists’ scenario relates closely to questions I have been thinking about: Did the Neanderthals practice canada goose outlet store uk religion? How would we know it, if they did?

Let’s approach these questions by placing Neanderthals in evolutionary context. It’s canada goose outlet online now clear that Neanderthals are our cousins, not our direct ancestors or early members of our own species Homo sapiens. Known formally as Homo neandertalensis, Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia, overlapping in certain places at certain time periods with Homo sapiens and almost certainly interbreeding with them (with us!) on occasion.

Even though populations of Neanderthals vanished around 40,000 years ago, genes of Neanderthals do live on today, tucked into canada goose outlet online store the bodies of some of us and potentially affecting our health.

buy canada goose jacket cheap For much of the time since their initial discovery in the 19th century, Neanderthals have been cast as enduring symbols of dumb, brutish cave people. We know better now, though. buy canada goose jacket cheap

Neanderthals built complex structures, captured birds to ornament themselves with feathers, and successfully hunted mammoth and other formidable megafauna with tools.

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But does any of the evidence suggest that they were religious? canada goose outlet miami It’s notably tricky to infer religious behavior from material culture, as I’ve written about here https://www.canadagooseofficials.ca before regarding Gobekli Tepe, a possible 11,000 year old modern human temple.

canada goose coats on sale We do see hints of ceremonial responses to the dead at Neanderthal sites other than the Spanish cave. At Teshik Tash in Uzbekistan, a Neanderthal child was buried and encircled canada goose outlet nyc by goat horns. At Regourdou in France, bear bones, plus a slab of rock topped by tools and another bear bone, were placed at a Neanderthal body positioned at the bottom of a depression. Bear bones canada goose outlet uk in an adjacent room at Regourdou suggest to some archaeologists that bear meat might have been consumed there as a funeral rite. canada goose coats on sale

Skeptics like archaeologist Rob Gargett point out both formally and informally that natural (or taphonomic) explanations may suffice to explain some of these occurrences: In other words, it may not be Neanderthal agency that we’re seeing at all.

Canada Goose Jackets Looking at the evidence collectively, though, I think at least this conservative conclusion is warranted: Some Neanderthals buried their dead with purpose and care. Canada Goose Jackets

Next comes our central question: Did Neanderthals engage in some way with the supernatural or the sacred?

The Salt

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Canada Goose Outlet Caution is required here. The bones and artifacts, after all, don’t clue us in to the meaning making that went on in Neanderthal groups, and we can’t just overlay present customs onto the past. Canada Goose Outlet

Perhaps the Neanderthals simply wanted to bury their companions’ bodies in order to protect themselves from predators, or disease, or both.

But, then, why mark the burials as elaborately as the Neanderthals have done in some places?

Maybe the symbolic marking was the Neanderthals’ way of showing respect and care for people they had known and loved in canada goose outlet england their lives.

Either or both of these explanations may be wholly adequate to explain the evidence.

Yet, I wonder.

Given their intelligence, it seems to me likely that the Neanderthals contemplated, in some way, the mysteries of life. Wouldn’t they have wondered not only about unexpected and surprising weather events and sky events but also what happens when our lives comes to an end? If they thought about these questions, did they do so with awe, dread or reverence?

More relevantly for a scientific analysis is this question: Did they come together in groups to evoke gods, spirits or ancestors to help themselves make sense of the world?

I emailed anthropologist and Neanderthal expert John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin to ask for his thoughts about Neanderthals and religion.

canada goose His response, in part, was this: canada goose

“Religion, as many people recognize it, is built from highly detailed symbolic narratives. If canada goose outlet we separate that out, though, and look only at the material manifestations that an archaeologist might find, there is really very little in most religious traditions that is different from what Neanderthals do.

canada goose coats “So I don’t think canada goose outlet store new york it is at all improbable that the Neanderthals had a humanlike religious capacity. But to be honest, I think this is not what many Americans or Europeans would recognize as religion.” canada goose coats.