scilogs Biology of Religion

The Burials of Neanderthals - Religion evolved (at least) two times

from Michael Blume, 17. October 2009, 20:30

Among most scholars in the thriving field of evolutionary studies on religion, findings of burials are perceived as the first strong indicators of phenotypes evolving religiosity - that is: behavior towards supernatural agents (as ancestors, spirits or gods). Interestingly, these peculiar behaviors evolved not only in Homo sapiens, but also in Homo neanderthalensis.


Here, you are seeing a picture of the neanderthal grave in the Kebara Cave (Israel), which is dated to about 60.000 BC. Note the lack of the skull, which may hint to special rituals attributed to the head and secondary burials, as has been reported by many recent cultures of hunters and gatherers.

Although our scientific knowledge about the subject is still premature, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington is showing a wonderful panorama of a Neanderthal burial, based on contemporary interpretations of a rich site in Southern France.

Neanderthal burial, panorama from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington DC

From an evolutionary perspective, the parallel, biocultural emergence of a specific behavior is another indicator for an adaptive process.



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Comments

  1. Corneel copycats
    26.10.2009 | 15:39

    From an evolutionary perspective, the parallel, biocultural emergence of a specific behavior is another indicator for an adaptive process.

    I guess you are thinking about convergent evolution, but H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis coexisted for a long time. Isn't it possible that burial rites evolved once, and were subsequently copied by one of the species?
    Just a thought

  2. Michael Blume Biocultural
    26.10.2009 | 22:15

    Dear Corneel,

    although most neanderthal experts I know think this might be unlikely, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of cultural learning. But of course, it wouldn't change the evolutionary picture, as both branches would have had the ability to learn and pass on the respective, religious behavior throughout thousands of generations (cp. tool using - maybe one Hominid group imitated it from another, but then the biocultural evolution took place nevertheless).

    The next blog post will be about biocultural evolution in general, as promised! :-)

    Best wishes!

  3. Corneel Subject
    27.10.2009 | 09:53

    But of course, it wouldn't change the evolutionary picture, as both branches would have had the ability to learn and pass on the respective, religious behavior throughout thousands of generations

    It would change one important aspect, namely that the adaptation was present before the trait became expressed. That is, the behaviour arose as a side-effect of something else (complex social behaviour?). This is called cooption or exaptation.

    Looking forward to your next post :-)

  4. 27.10.2009 | 10:02

    the behaviour arose as a side-effect of something else (complex social behaviour?). This is called cooption or exaptation.

    Yes, I completely agree with that one! As assumed by Hume and Darwin, religious behavior seems to have started as an exaptation by bundling "normal" psychological and social abilities, which are pinpointed interdisciplinary by a range of colleagues at the moment. I think you'd love especially the respective articles of Rossano, Frey, Lahti, Schiefenhövel and others at "The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior"
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...ligious-mind-and-behavior

    Thanks for your insightful interest, best wishes!

  5. Basty Castellio Special rituals – why religious?
    01.11.2009 | 00:59
    Why do you know that „special rituals“ are to understand as *religious*? How do you explain it? Special rituals could also be – “natural” – cultural traditions like the rules of courteousness/respect or the rules of traffic. One could imagine: Early humans at first didn’t know: Is the deceased now dead or still alive? They give him some grave furniture (eatables) – maybe he is still alive, he needs it to convalesce. Afterward they ascertain, he is really dead – now we have to bury him again. And they give the first grave furnitures in a new, a *dead* form: only skulls – maybe skulls need skulls… It could be pure altruism/”automatic” altruism, which cannot clearly distinguish between the needs of dead and living persons. Another aspect of the grave furnitures: When a father dies and he has three sons, it’s better to give him the lance or the coat – and then the sons have not to battle for it. I see, you know it, that there are deep roots of religious behaviour, but I like to try at first to ask if there are also (or more) common, “natural”, explanations. Basty
  6. Michael Blume Special rituals - religious?
    01.11.2009 | 15:48

    Hi Basty,

    thanks for your good questions!

    Why do you know that „special rituals“ are to understand as *religious*? How do you explain it?

    Religious behavior is defined (in this perspective of evolutionary studies) as "behavior towards supernatural agents". For example, a ritual in order to court a mate doesn't qualify as religious. But if it is performed in order to communicate with persons not present in an empirically testable manner (such as the dead, the spirits, the gods etc.), then it's qualifying as a religious ritual.

    Special rituals could also be – “natural” – cultural traditions like the rules of courteousness/respect or the rules of traffic.

    Absolutely! As long as they are not including supernatural agents, we don't have to assume religiosity.

    One could imagine: Early humans at first didn’t know: Is the deceased now dead or still alive? They give him some grave furniture (eatables) – maybe he is still alive, he needs it to convalesce.

    These "early humans" about 120.000 yrs ago were fully intelligent members of our species with deep knowledge about hunting, scavenging and living in small groups. And they not only buried some of their dead (including children), but they also took their skulls, gave special offerings in graves of peoples whose bones had been worked with etc. If you are looking at the Kebara cave burial lacking the top of the skull, you might see that there was no danger to assume that this person (a neanderthal) was still alive. :-)

    Besides, contemporary humans are accompanying their dead ones with rituals, offerings and beliefs into afterlifes around the world! Although I agree that burials might have started as an epiphenomenon of other functions, the behavior clearly evolved forms and functions of its own!

    Afterward they ascertain, he is really dead – now we have to bury him again.

    So they would attribute needs to a person already deceased - which would qualify as behavior towards supernatural agents. No (other) animals is attributing needs and duties regarding to the dead.

    And they give the first grave furnitures in a new, a *dead* form: only skulls – maybe skulls need skulls… It could be pure altruism/”automatic” altruism, which cannot clearly distinguish between the needs of dead and living persons.

    Yes, Basty - and these "blurrings" assuming (or just deeming possible) agency beyond the living would constitute the foundations of the very behaviors which quickly became universal aspects of our natures and cultures as human beings!

    Another aspect of the grave furnitures: When a father dies and he has three sons, it’s better to give him the lance or the coat – and then the sons have not to battle for it.

    Yes, and by doing so, the sons would signal their loyalty to their (watching!?) father and their trustworthiness to their group (including the females pondering their qualities). To this day, we are shocked by people just disposing of their dead without "piety" (!). Therefore, to show behavior towards supernatural agents has been a powerful signal of trust-building for at least some tens of thousands of years! Just compare i.e. the contemporary studies of Sosis and Norenzayan, Sosis here:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...ue-s-of-religious-rituals

    and Norenzayan here:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...religiosity-and-religions

    I see, you know it, that there are deep roots of religious behaviour, but I like to try at first to ask if there are also (or more) common, “natural”, explanations. Basty

    Dear Basty, from the perspective of evolutionary studies, there is nothing "non-natural" about religiosity! It evolved from purely natural and cultural (biocultural) abilities, as did musicality, speech etc. You might want to see that one:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...-gene-culture-coevolution

    Thanks for your interest, best wishes!

  7. Jessica Turner rules
    02.06.2010 | 02:52

    Well what were they against what were their laws/rules?

  8. Michael Blume @ Jessica Turner
    03.06.2010 | 15:03

    According to recent knowledge, religiosity didn't evolve primarily as a way to foster confrontation, but (e.g. child-rearing) cooperation. See Sarah Hrdy:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...lving-religion-sarah-hrdy

    You can see that on case studies in "endogenous growth sects" as the Amish or Hutterites. They are spreading by high fertility, without ever having raised arms against other groups:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...y-in-evolutionary-studies

    Thus, religious cooperation "can" be used to form batte-groups, but its main and primary evolutionary function seems to be to foster survival and reproduction. See
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...he-reproductive-advantage

  9. Cris Burials = Religion?
    08.06.2010 | 01:14

    Why do you think that burial amounts to religion?

    There could be other reasons for burial; several such reasons are more parsimonious than interpreting burials as religious.

    Even if we accept that burials are related to belief in supernatural agents, you can believe in supernatural agents without having anything like "religion."

    I guess my ultimate question is this: How do you define "religion"?

  10. Michael Blume @ Cris
    09.06.2010 | 17:50

    Thanks for the good question! I perceive burials as a strong indicator of evolving (emerging) religiosity: We are observing motivations to honor and serve the deceased "believed to be there in some way", which is a big step towards "belief in supernatural beings", as Darwin defined religiosity. And in fact, the (ethically binding) ritual veneration of (some) dead is among the widest human universals, with e.g. special emphasizement even by many secular movements (cp. mausoleums/museums and rituals dedicated e.g. to soldiers, scientists, Lenin, Mao or Atatürk).

    A "religion" is a system of narratives (mythologies), behaviors and symbols related to supernatural agents - which makes ancestor worship a probably very old element of religiosity and religion(s).

  11. Preston Subject
    14.10.2010 | 02:32

    why is he tied up?!? (if you look real hard you will be able to see what looks like string waped around his body)

  12. Michael Blume @Preston
    14.10.2010 | 17:01

    In recent cultural-religious traditions, the deceased are not only venerated, but also feared. You might think of numerous legends about the walking dead, ghosts and vampires etc. Thus, many religious traditions evolved behaviors to ritually restrain the corpses. These are indications that the dead are thought to be potential (superempirical) agents even after the burial!

  13. Balanus Subject
    16.10.2010 | 00:31

    Two days ago (!) I have read the following in Stanley Rice's Encyclopediea of Evolution (1):

    Neandertals apparently did not have religion. The contrast between the religious artifacts of Homo sapiens and their absence in Homo neanderthalensis in their regions of overlap could hardly be greater. While Homo sapiens had intricate burials [...], Neandertals apparently dug the shallowest possible graves to keep the body from stinking.
    [...]
    Anthropologist David Lewis-Williams calls Neandertals "congenital atheists."

    As you know, some Neandertal genes survive in us ;-)

    ---
    Btw, Rice is a botanist who announces his Christianity in the introduction.

    (1) http://books.google.de/...amp;q=burial&f=false

  14. Balanus Sorry
    16.10.2010 | 01:21

    .
    Italic off?

  15. Michael Blume @Balanus
    17.10.2010 | 08:57

    Yes, there are even some voices indicating that the (maybe) less evolved religiosity of Homo neanderthalensis contributed to their decline in the face of the more-religious Homo sapiens. But as long as we don't have more and better findings and data on the subject, I would hesitate to jump on such conclusions.

  16. J. A. Le Fevre Neanderthal culture
    18.10.2010 | 03:18

    I do not think Michael is arguing that Neanderthals ‘had religion’, but rather that they show signs that they were developing culture in that direction. Others are suggesting that 90,000 - 100,000 years ago Neanderthals had flutes or whistles (search ‘phalange whistles’, etc.).
    Creating music is another cultural advance often associated with religious beliefs/rituals.
    Unfortunately, due to the degradations of time, it is likely we will never collect enough data to draw a lot of hard conclusions on events 10,000 and more years past.

    For a rather ‘creative’ view of Neanderthals contribution to modern Europe/Near East, try: http://www.rdos.net/eng/asperger.htm

  17. Brian you need more
    18.11.2010 | 14:49

    you need to write more about the burials and how they did them instead of where you found it!!!

  18. Michael Blume @Brian
    19.11.2010 | 20:56

    Yes, you are right. But I fear blog posts are not the right format for the task, especially concerning length and attention spans. But I will ponder the idea, thank you.

  19. Excision Interesting
    18.03.2011 | 00:36

    This is a very interesting read.

    It clearly shows how even the earliest humans were superstitious. The only question now is who did they worship?>

  20. Camila Cavero I went there als
    18.10.2011 | 03:36

    Hi my name is Camila and i just wanted to tell you that i went to Washington D.C. on my dad's Birthday and we went to that museum. and i also saw that picture.

  21. Michael Blume @Camila Cavero
    22.10.2011 | 12:26

    Thank you very much for the feedback! I am very happy that my blog is contributing to your appreciation of science(s) and good museums! :-) Best wishes to you and those dear to you.

  22. Ryan Crestley Subject
    31.10.2011 | 02:34

    I guess this is the part where Religion and Science intertwine.

  23. J. A. Le Fevre Ryan
    31.10.2011 | 16:43

    This is more of an alternate perspective to the relationship.

  24. mojim10 good
    13.05.2012 | 08:49

    very good

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