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?


19 thoughts on “An Anthropologist Asks …

  1. Beliefs in the supernatural – I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I have no reason to think that they were any less subject to patternicity, agenticity, and confirmation bias than we are. If they had a theory of mind, and could jump to a conclusion of “who did that?” instead of “what did that?” for natural events then I’d expect to see supernatural beliefs emerge. We’ve seen that they buried their dead with flowers, that’s another clue.

    Gathering in groups for religious purposes? We’d first need evidence that Neanderthals gathered in groups for any reason, and I don’t know that we have that. Maybe they did, and maybe we’ll find traces of that someday.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Even if there was no concept of “spiritual” things, it’s conceivable that adorning graves was simply ‘ceremony.’ As the article said, this wouldn’t be what we would call religion, but I imagine that if nothing else, it was a rudimentary form of what eventually evolved into religion.

    What I find interesting is that this shows both the evolution of mankind and the evolution of religion–neither of which fundagelicals will accept.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I must echo John Zande’s comment — innocent ignorance (lack of persistent scrutinizing curious exploration) is fertile ground for superstitions which eventually evolved into further complex religions (as a result of said exploration and learning), which develops into multiple fragments (denominations & other religious offshoots, e.g. Abrahamic religions & their thousands of sects in all three… from Zoroastrianism)… to the point where one is (always?) right and everyone else is wrong! Ad nauseum. 😛

    So, look at the source: man’s remarkable ability to create ficticious coping mechanisms when he is too scared to go exploring and get the factual observations and evidence! LOL 😉

    Btw Nan, I LOVED that issue of National Geographic magazine! This month’s issue has an exceptional article about placebos and the POWER of expectation (belief, faith, etc.)!!! In other words, the power and capacity is NOT in some mythological ficticious proxy, but with each individual mind, heart, and spirit. Empowered human beings are salvation, not the garbage of totally depraved disempowered robots/followers in the pews in need of a proxy force-fed to them by the literate few! See how that rhymes? 😀

    Anyway, I highly recommend this months issue as well about what “faith” really consists of.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. If I was living in a cave and if the thunder was as loud and the quick lightning bolts as frightening as the other night here, I would truly have thought someone up in the sky was angry. Today the sun shines and makes me a happy little cave man and of course this must be the happy loving side of this powerful god so I will worship and offer sacrifices to this god so that I may be saved.

    This was the basic version but not far of the same deal offered today, do not make the Christian God angry and worship him and he may save your butt in this life and maybe for eternity.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The problem boils down to how you define religion. Within anthropology and other social science fields, there is a lot of debate about the nature and definition of religion. (See for example this paper). Many “religions” are more about rituals, practices, and values than they are about beliefs per se.


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