It’s been a while since Coolidge and Wynn posted an entry. Now they’ve done one looking at whether Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead.
What did Neandertals do with dead people? And what does this tell us about Neandertal behavior? These questions are perennial favorites for undergraduates and lay persons interested in human evolution. Indeed, one of the ‘facts’ many people remember about Neandertals is that they buried their dead, which suggests to some that Neandertals also must have had a rich religious and symbolic life. Recently, a new study of the site of La Chapelle aux Saints (which literally means chapel of the saints, and it is about 320 miles south of Paris) has reignited interest in this long standing debate, so it is timely for us to introduce the topic of Neandertal mortuary practice.
They note the lack of evidence for any ritual practice associated with the burials, noting that there are simpler explanations than religion for the very few, simple, and shallow Neanderthal burials that have been found. For example, they might have simply wanted to remove the smell.
One question I had reading this is, how do Neanderthal burials compare with those of anatomically modern humans, particularly those older than 100,000 years? From what I understand, there isn’t any evidence of ritual burials before then. Of course, it’s possible that modern humans themselves didn’t have religion until after then, which would raise the interesting question of what triggered its development.
I’ve noted before that I think language is pretty ancient, probably developing gradually over hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions. Based on what I’ve read, I have a tendency to think the same thing for religion.
Although the religion of 100,000 years ago would almost certainly be better described as proto-religious, so a stickler might insist that it developed late. Given the wide variety of cultural systems we call ‘religion’, the dividing line may always be debatable.
Of course, this is all supposition since our evidence is scant. Nevertheless, I find it fascinating.