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Two Caves, Two Rituals, Two Species

Two caves highlight the difference between Homo sapiens and Neanderthal rituals.

Bruniquel cave in southwestern France is remarkable in that it preserves the remains of what may be Neanderthal “cave bear cult” rituals. The ritual site is about 200 meters deep into the cave and getting to it requires an extremely tight crawl through a dark, narrow passage. The site itself is small, only about a 14 square meter enclosed floor space. But the remains are provocative. Stalagmites and stalactites have been intentionally broken off and formed into two circles on the cave floor. Evidence of a fire is present in the larger of the two circles. No hominin bones have been found at the site. Thus, one cannot be absolutely certain who is responsible for the remains; but since it has been dated to around 50,000 years ago – long before Homo sapiens arrived in southern France – the reasonable presumption is that it was Neanderthals. Archaeologist Brian Hayden has argued that the site was a meeting place for a small, elite group of Neanderthals who performed religious rituals centered on powerful animal spirits, such as the cave bear.

Rhino Cave is located in the Tsodilo Hills in Botswana, southern Africa. Though the cave is not particularly deep, it is well guarded by large boulders and high walls, effectively blocking out direct sunlight. This is important because in the cave there is a natural outcropping with a very serpent-like appearance. The outcropping has been intentionally modified to enhance its snake-like properties and when illuminated by flickering torch-light it gives the impression of undulating movement. The “snake-rock” is not the only peculiar thing about Rhino Cave. It also contains an inordinate amount of burnt, broken tools made from colorful raw materials, not found in the local region. Apparently, visitors to the cave brought with them colorful, “exotic,” and purposely unfinished stone tools, which they fashioned to completion in the cave and then proceeded to break and burn, leaving them forever in the dark of Rhino Cave. Odd behavior indeed, especially for tools made from materials procured with such effort from so far away. What a waste!

According to archaeologist Sheila Coulson, the best explanation for such strange behavior is religious ritual. The remains of Rhino Cave have been tentatively dated to around 70,000 years ago, which unquestionably makes those strange-behaving visitors us – Homo sapiens.

Paleoanthropologists have long debated the ritual capacities of Neanderthals. Ritual, it was long thought, was uniquely human and represented one of the ways in which Homo sapiens were intellectually more sophisticated than Neanderthals. Bruniquel Cave is one of a small but growing body of evidence suggesting otherwise. But a close comparison of Bruniquel and Rhino Caves points to a more subtle but no less significant difference. The ritual at Rhino Cave is more costly. At Bruniquel, Neanderthals used what was present in the cave (stalagmites and stalactites) for what – in material terms at least – appears to be a fairly straightforward ceremony. They gathered, created hearth areas, set a fire and did the ritual. By contrast, Rhino Cave is more enigmatic: an undulating snake-rock, “imported” tools fashioned and finished then burned, broken and abandoned. Time, effort, and seemingly valuable material resources all expended unproductively, inexplicably.

It was anthropologist Roy Rappaport who observed that costly rituals were essential to the building of trusting human communities. Spoken language, he claimed, could too easily be used for self-serving, manipulative purposes. To know if someone was really dedicated to the group, we needed more than just his or her word. We needed ritual assurance. The Mandan Indians used to initiate new warriors by embedding hooks in their pectoral muscles and then suspending them from the top beam of a ceremonial tent. They might swing there for hours as the chanting and dancing went on below. Yeah – now we’re sure that when the tribe needs you to fight, you won’t run and hide!

Rituals that impose costs provide a reasonably clear assessment of someone’s values and priorities. We don’t have to destroy all our valuable possessions or embed skewers in our pecs to demonstrate what’s important to us. But we do have to demonstrate it, not just talk about it. Saying the family is important, for example, is nice. Actually showing up regularly for dinner makes it credible.