Were Neandertals religious? Earlier this month, Barbara King published a provocative essay on an NPR blog. Reporting on recent discoveries made at a 40,000 year old site in Spain, she set out the latest evidence that at least
some Neandertals showed care in burying their dead. Was there such a thing as “Neandertal religion”?
As King puts it, “Looking at the evidence collectively, though, I think at least this conservative conclusion is warranted: Some Neanderthals buried their dead with purpose and care.”
King does a great job of summarizing the findings. Unfortunately, we do not yet have a technical report in the form of a peer-reviewed journal article, and so the best we can do here is to entertain the possibilities. Add to this the simple fact that religion leaves very few physical traces. What is left behind at the Neandertal burial site in Spain suggests that the people who lived there may have been religious. The more we learn about Neandertals, the more we see how complex their cultures were and how they showed clear signs of symbolic thought. But “Neandertal religion”?
Does the new evidence suggest a burial ritual? Perhaps. But what meaning, if any, might the Neandertals have associated with the ritual? For that matter, what meaning do those attending a funeral today attach to our rituals? Perhaps at moments–whether for us today or for our ancient predecessors–a sense of wonder or mystery can overtake us. At least that is what King seems to think:
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?
I would like to agree. Why? Partly because I think we need to stop underestimating the Neandertals. But more than that, I would like to agree because I tend to think the human awakening to the spiritual meaning that surrounds us is a long, slow process. For most of us, it comes only in flashes, if at all. And for humanity as a whole, the dawn of spiritual awareness is only now beginning.