Neanderthals Turned to Faith When Confronting Death, New Evidence Suggests

We aren't sure whether they could speak, let alone intone liturgy over their dead in the light of controlled fires, but a child's burial site in Spain suggests they might well have, say archaeologists.

Recreation of a Neanderthal at home (Reuters)
Recreation of a Neanderthal at home: Could they speak, control fire and pray? Reuters

The recent discovery of possible elaborate funeral rites by Neanderthal cavemen has begged the question of whether these primitive cousins of Man had religion. Not to mention, whether they could control fire.

The latest discovery suggesting that Neanderthals were not beetle-browed brutes is the seemingly intentional burial of a child about 40,000 years ago, in a cave some 100 kilometers from Madrid. The burial site of the so-called Loyoza Child was surrounded by hearths, in each of which the archaeologists found bones, antlers and nearby, one rhino skull. The child itself had been two to three years old and seems to have had its body burned. The team feels the fires could have been ceremonial rather than functional.

The fire for the child's body and hearths could have been collected serendipitously, for instance, from bushfires created by lightning, as primitive hominins did for hundreds of thousands of years at least. (Where and when primitive man learned to control fire, as opposed to merely taking advantage of it, remains hotly contested.) The bones could be the remains of animals who had been cooked on the fires and eaten.  And, like today's teenagers, Neanderthals could have been the sort of slobs who leave the bones in the cave.

Or the cave dwellers may have had elaborate mortuary rites, which could indicate that they cherished their dead, which could in turn indicate spiritual depths.

While researchers disagree about Neanderthal use of fire in Europe, here in the Levant, researchers have long been convinced that Neanderthals used it regularly, Prof. Erella Hovers of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told Haaretz. "On this the archaeological evidence in Israel and Syria is categorical," she wrote by email.

They also believe that, like primitive humans, at least some of the Neanderthals buried their dead some of the time, with intentionality, an inference based on the positioning of bodies, seeming funerary offerings and more, Hovers adds. (She also points out that there's no suggestion that every Homo sapiens from the middle Paleolithic, between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago, was intentionally buried by mourning kinfolk). She also points out that the proof the child in question was in fact Neanderthal remains outstanding.

Not necessarily a sentimental bunch

Its Neanderthal identification being as it may, the Loyoza Child is not the only postulated Neanderthal funeral. In 2013, archaeologists reported on evidence of a Neanderthal burial in at the site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France. Whether the French Neanderthal was intentionally buried there is another question, but the archaeologists felt the evidence showed that he was. Another Neanderthal child was found in a cave in Roc de Marsal, Dordogne, from about 70,000 years ago, and was postulated to be a deliberate burial.

In Israel, in 1992 the articulated partial skeleton of a Neanderthal infant was excavated, in Amud Cave: based on its state of protection and preservation versus that of other faunal remains in the cave, the archaeologists concluded it had been purposefully buried.

"Assuming it was Neanderthal, I think I have to agree with [the researching archaeologist] Chris Stringer, that the discovery demonstrates much more complex behavior than had been documented until today in Neanderthal burials," Hovers sums up.

Remains of Neanderthal child, believed to be about 3 years old, found in Roc de Marsal, Dordogne, France.
Don Hitchcock 2014, Wikimedia Commons

If so, the Neanderthal had the capacity to recognize death and mark it, as opposed for instance to leaving the body where it lay for scavengers to eat. Or to eat themselves. At least some Neanderthals did not cavil at cannibalism, for example going by evidence found in Belgium. At yet other sites, there is evidence that Neanderthals unromantically used the bones of their dead to sharpen their stone tools.

Just how sophisticated were they, the Neanderthals?

In practice, we don't even know if they could speak. Recent excavations have discovered that the Neanderthals had hyoid (tongue) bones like humans.  "In my opinion, that hyoid bone isn't what will tell us if they spoke or not," cautions Prof. Yoel Rak of Tel Aviv University, expert on Neanderthal anatomy. "That is, the Neanderthal bone is very different from that of the chimp and very much like ours. But based on to similarity– they could speak."

Certainly, we know that the Neanderthal brain was as big as ours or even bigger, Rak adds. And crucially, Neanderthals had the right gene for speech, FOXp2, just like we do. Chimpanzees for instance have FOXp2 but it differs from the human version.

Intriguingly, Rak points out, humans born with "pathological" FOXp2 can't understand speech. "To cut to the chase, we and the Neanderthals have exactly the same gene without the pathology.  This could lead us to conclude that they could speak," he happily speculates.

Even if they didn't, they could have communicated in any number of ways, he points out. "We can also speak in sign language. Even Homo sapiens has for instance click languages where communication is effected but not through the voice box. Or there are whistles," Rak says.

Ergo, he sums up, the ability to communicate and to exchange thoughts is intellectual, not anatomic.

Another sign of sophistication could be art. But the general consensus over "Neanderthal art" is that there was none.

The one possible sign of Neanderthals being abstractly artistic is a 55,000-year old flute made out of a young cave bear's bone found in 1995 in Slovenia, says Rak. (He's not a great believer in the famous cross-hatched "Neanderthal engraving" in Gibraltar.)

Some believe it wasn't musically minded prehistoric men who made the holes in the flute, but hyenas. Yet others point out that the bone flute makes beautiful music, which hyenas don't care about.

A Neanderthal flute, or a hyena's chew toy?
Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of tools, another relevant argument in archaeological circles is who taught who to use lissoirs, tools still used today in leather working. Archaeologists thought Man invented the lissoir and that Neanderthals poached the idea shortly before going extinct. But in 2013, archaeologists working in Grosse Grotte, Germany discovered lissoirs in a Neanderthal context preceding the time when humans supplanted their thicker-bodied cousins. They are the oldest-known specialized bone tools in Europe and indicate that the Neanderthals invented them and we were the ones who borrowed the idea.

Spirituality on and in my mind

So maybe they could speak and play music; paintings are unknown; but did they have spirituality? Could they have believed in God? gods? The morrow, or even an afterlife?

When Homo sapiens began believing in deities is not known. Some think that a rock with carved bits looking very, very vaguely like a large snake, found in a Botswana cave, depicts a god worshipped by the predecessors of the Sana people 70,000 years ago.  Evidence of ritualistic behavior at the site includes spearheads that seem to have been deliberately burned or broken, which would be an odd thing to do without a ritualistic context.

The prehistoric Botswanans may well have been predisposed to believe in a python god or divine porcupine or whatever. So may Neanderthals. A predisposition to believe seems to be hard-wired into homo brains.

The neurological basis theory has been making the rounds since at least 2008, based on brain scans of praying people and the observation that social activity, like burning pagans together or going to synagogue, leads to the release of feel-good juice, a.k.a., serotonin. Worship, with or without ecstasy, is a relatively low-energy way to produce that serotonin that we crave. And, our brain biochemistry receives backing from none other than our egos: the world was created for us!

Faith might also arise from our brains resorting to illogic to find "order" in the dismaying chaos around us. We like order. Neanderthals may have too.

Some psychologists insist faith is pathological, in that it involves irrationality and even malignancy: just think of the mass murders in the name of religion. Who knows, maybe it's even how Neanderthals, some of them, some of the time, wound up eating their dead.

The Lozoya valley, seen from El Nevero peak: Neanderthals lived here some 40,000 years ago and may have ritualistically buried a child, aged 2 to 3, giving rise to speculation that they mourned their dead and may have had faith in an afterlife.
Miguel303, Wikimedia Commons