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Discoveries Give New Clues To Possible Neanderthal Religious Practices


And now it's time for a new segment. About once a month, we plan to visit with one of the scientists who contribute to NPR's science and culture blog. The blog is called 13.7. It's named for the age of the universe, 13.7 billion years. Since December is a big month for religious celebrations in the United States, we're going to ask if a related species, the Neanderthals, also practiced religion. Barbara J. King has been thinking and writing about this. She is a retired professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, and she's with us now from member station WHRO's studios in Williamsburg, Va. Professor King, thanks so much for speaking with us for the very first of our chats.

BARBARA J KING, BYLINE: Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So first of all, can you give us a short refresher on the Neanderthals? They are extinct. They are understood to be relatives of the human species. But isn't there some debate about just how closely related they are to modern humans?

KING: Yes. Well, paleoanthropologists have been clarifying these questions for us. We now know that Neanderthals are a separate species. So they are not primitive examples of Homo sapiens, but their own species. And it's true that populations of Neanderthals went extinct at about 40,000 years ago. At the same time, genes of Neanderthals live on in many modern human bodies now today.

MARTIN: So why are we asking this question about whether Neanderthals practiced religion? What gave rise to this question?

KING: Quite recently, a group of archaeologists found in a fascinating site some examples of what they think might represent a human funerary ritual by Neanderthals.

MARTIN: Tell me more about that. Where was it, and what exactly did they find? I understand it was actually rather dramatic.

KING: Yes. This was in a cave in Spain. And the archaeologists uncovered a grave of a toddler. And around the bones of this young child were many examples of animal horns, a rhinoceros skull. So the archaeologists began to wonder - what kind of ceremony might have gone on at such a location? Plus, we have many other examples from sites across Europe and Asia with similarly marked graves that show both intentional burial of Neanderthal bodies and some kind of symbolism surrounding that burial.

MARTIN: What are some of the theories that you're considering around what was found?

KING: One is that the Neanderthals, who we know were very cognitively advanced with big brains, were the first to figure out that if you bury bodies, both predators and disease are more likely to be avoided. Secondly, perhaps these graves are marked and even lovingly cared for because Neanderthals felt emotions and they wanted to respect and give tribute to companions and loved ones. So their ancestors could perhaps be venerated, but not in a religious context. The most fascinating hypothesis is that the Neanderthals had some notion of an afterlife and wanted to send off their dead companions in some kind of ceremony.

MARTIN: Does this discovery amplify our understanding of either the Neanderthals or when the habit of religious practice came into being?

KING: So it's not entirely the new discovery that is at the heart of my query. It's looking at the cross-cultural information taken together from sites in France, in Uzbekistan, in Spain. And altogether, they do raise this very interesting question of whether there's a deep evolution or at least evolutionary roots to religiosity. It's very much time to jettison that old stereotype of Neanderthals as stupid, brutish and shambling, you know, quote unquote, "cavemen."

We know that they hunted very intelligently, that they pursued raptors so they could use feathers to decorate their own bodies. And we know they buried their dead. So whether or not they had religion, we know that there was a lot of cognition and emotion and sociality going on at this time in our evolutionary history. And that tells us something about our own place in the world that I think is a great thing to know and to contemplate.

MARTIN: That's Barbara J. King. She's a contributor to NPR's science and culture blog called 13.7, which is the age of the universe. She's a retired professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, and she joined us from Williamsburg, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 10, 2016 at 9:00 PM PST
An earlier version of this story said the age of the Earth is 13.7 billion years. In fact, that is the age of the universe, not the Earth.
Barbara J. King
is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.
Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.