Did Neanderthals have religion?

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.

via Did Neandertals Bury Their Dead and Why? | Psychology Today.

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.

8 thoughts on “Did Neanderthals have religion?

    1. Interesting question. Definitely the further back you go the less organized and more primal it is. Modern hunter gatherer religion is fairly simple. But for Neanderthals I tend to think that, if they could speak, then there was almost certainly a social aspect to their spiritual beliefs. Would it rise to the point that we’d call it religion? I suspect it depends on how generous you want to be with that word.


  1. I agree that lacking substantive evidence I would think that contagion avoidance via disgust would have been a primary incentive for the burial of the dead. It also seems to me that language would have developed gradually, though likely with fits and starts here and there, and proto-religious(I like the term, saves from having to specifically define “religion”) thought/behavior along with it.


    ‘Cognitive biases explain religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in life’s purpose’, Willard/Norenzayan 2013

    Click to access Willard_Norenzayan_Cognitive_Biases.pdf

    … it’s proposed that mentalizing(theory of mind) is primary to religious thought/belief though I don’t see how agent detection can be left out of the picture. I’d say it’s assumed but W&N seem to conflate anthropomorphism and agent detection so I’m not sure. I’ll have to do some more reading/rereading.

    Finally, in case you’re having trouble deciding what to read next, your post brought to mind these 4 books from my ‘to be read someday’ list:

    ‘Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion’, King 2007
    ‘Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding’, Blaffer Hrdy 2009
    ‘The Prehistory of the Mind The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science’, Mithen 1999
    ‘The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body’, Mithen 2006

    Thanks 🙂


    1. Thank you. I would have thought that mentalizing and agency detection were about the same thing. Anthropomorphism seems like it’s in the same neighborhood, to where it’s often close enough to the same thing, but I can definitely see distinctions.


      1. The way I see and understand it is that agency detection comes first and foremost, ie it’s unconscious and we error on the safe side, going back evolutionarily to somewhere near the origins of neurons and sense organs. Once we’ve decided on the possibility of an unknown agent and potential threat, theory of mind(ToM, also most often unconscious) kicks in to make a determination as to the intentions of the agent. Anthropomorphism, to my thinking at least, doesn’t involve quite the same immediacy, though it generally occurs quite unconsciously as well, that agent detection does and ToM most often involve.

        I’ll have to go back and do some searching as I think I remember reading something about the Barrett/Boyer conception of agency detection being distinguished from Guthrie’s anthropomorphism.


        1. Hmmm. It seems like you’d need at least a crude ToM to have agency detection, but I might not have a rigorous definition of ToM in mind.

          Anthropomorphism, to me, implies thinking there is a mind like ours out there, and seems at play in how we often interpret what animals do, projecting higher order motivations they might not have, like thinking the dog pooped on your magazine in revenge for you scolding it yesterday.


          1. Agreed on the anthropomorphism, but I’ll have to do some more reading/thinking on the agency/ToM thing – doesn’t seem quite as clear cut now that you’ve got me thinking about it. I may be thinking too narrowly in my conception of ToM.

            Then again, maybe the scotch isn’t helping – nah, of course it is 🙂


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