Neanderthals might have believed in the spiritual world before Homo sapiens did

Illustration for article titled Neanderthals might have believed in the spiritual world before Homo sapiens did

A recently-uncovered Neanderthal burial site in Spain has provided intriguing evidence that these ancient hominids believed in an afterlife and were capable of complex symbolic thought, all possibly before early Homo sapiens demonstrated these abilities.

The 50,000-year-old site appears to be a burial ground for three Neanderthals. There's good evidence that their peers buried them intentionally, as all their hands were placed close to their heads. Other Neanderthals have been found buried in that particular position, perhaps indicating a broader cultural meaning for this practice. The three Neanderthals were found buried under piles of rocks.

Archaeologist Michael Walker explains what this all might mean:

"We cannot say much (about the skeletons) except that we surmise the site was regarded as somehow relevant in regard to the remains of deceased Neanderthals. Their tools and food remains, not to mention signs of fires having been lit, which we have excavated indicate they visited the site more than once. Such discoveries are extraordinarily uncommon.

"I think there is just enough evidence at Sima de las Palomas to think that three articulated skeletons are unlikely to have been the result of a single random accident to three cadavers that somehow escaped the ravages of hyenas and leopards, which were present at the site."


Ritual burial is our best insight into the belief systems of ancient hominids, but it also can be fiendishly difficult to interpret the evidence. First, there's the question of just what constitutes an intentional burial. Mass graves are good evidence of that, but do they reveal anything about that culture's thought processes or spiritual dimensions beyond simply wanting to place the dead out of the way?

Although the earliest undisputed human burial dates back 130,000 years, it's not clear if it shows evidence of a larger, symbolic belief in some sort of afterlife or larger spiritual existence. For that, the earliest unarguable evidence in humans only goes back roughly 30,000 years, although there are possible indications of it going back at least 50,000 years.

That means there's a real chance that, if the positioning of these Neanderthal remains really do indicate some larger spiritual significance, it wasn't humans that first believed in an afterlife, but rather our extinct cousins. Either way, it's just another indication that it's unwise to underestimate a Neanderthal's intelligence.

Via Discovery News.


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It's been long known that Neanderthal buried their dead. They also took care of the sick and elderly. I'm just not sure how any of the recent find signifies religion, spirituality or complex symbolic thought, as you state. Elephants mourn their dead as well; some apes go through elaborate machinations after a death. This doesn't mean they believe in an afterlife.