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19 December 2016
Were Neanderthals religious?

Inside a cave in Spain, prehistoric people gather around the grave of a toddler, which is surrounded by fires, and 30 horns of animals including bison and red deer. A rhinoceros skull is nearby.
     Based on actual discoveries, archaeologist Enrique Baquedano and his colleagues speculate on a probable funeral ritual held 40,000 years ago by a group of Neanderthals.
     We see hints of ceremonial responses to the dead at Neanderthal sites other than the Spanish cave. In Uzbekistan, a Neanderthal child was buried and encircled by goat horns. In France, bear bones and a slab of rock topped by tools and another bear bone were placed at a Neanderthal body positioned at the bottom of a depression. Bear bones in an adjacent room suggest bear meat might have been consumed.
     Did Neanderthals engage in some way with the supernatural or the sacred? Bones and artefacts do not reveal the intentions of Neanderthal groups.
     Given their intelligence, it seems likely that Neanderthals contemplated, in some way, the mysteries of life. 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, USA shares his thoughts: "Religion, as many people recognise it, is built from highly detailed symbolic narratives. If we separate that out, though, and look only at the material manifestations that an archaeologist might find, there is really very little in most religious traditions that is different from what Neanderthals do."
     Religion is best understood across cultures and time periods as practice rather than only belief. It is within this context that the case for Neanderthal ritual practices is most convincingly made.

Edited from NPR (7 December 2016)

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