An Anthropologist Asks …

neanderthalCourtesy of National Geographic

Were Neanderthals Religious?
 By: Barbara J. King
Anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary

Did Neanderthals engage in some way with the supernatural or the sacred?

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?

Anthropologist and Neanderthal expert John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin states: “I don’t think 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.”

The article author agrees and adds …

Religion is best understood across cultures and time periods as practice rather than only belief. Some religions, of course, feature sacred texts in which a set of beliefs is set forth. In these cases, what you believe about a god or other sacred forces may really matter. In many human societies past and present, though, no text exists, just everyday life — appeasing gods or spirits, honoring the ancestors — that is shot through with a sense of the sacred or the supernatural. (Emphasis mine)

What do you think?