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Were Neanderthals Religious?

Archaeological evidence for Neanderthal proto-religiosity continues to mount.

Key points

  • The Darwinian admonition for patience with regard to archaeology is wise.
  • Increasing evidence suggests Neanderthals had richer symbolic lives than researchers had imagined.
  • A species that buries its dead and conducts collective rituals might have religious proclivities.

Charles Darwin was not the only person in his time to advocate for evolution. Since the final decade of the 18th century, evolutionary thinking about the transformation of species had gained a solid foothold in the intellectual life of Western Europe.

Consequently, long before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859, detractors had already developed a list of stock objections to evolutionary proposals. They included complaints concerning the fossil record. Nowhere among the fossils were to be found any of the transitional forms that evolutionary theories require.

Darwin and his allies had multiple responses to this criticism, from stressing how rarely the necessary conditions for producing any fossils are satisfied to admonishing critics simply to be patient. The discovery in Germany of the fossil for the transitional species, archaeopteryx, a dinosaur with both reptilian and avian traits, one year later in 1860, demonstrated the prudence informing that admonition.

Religiosity and Burial of the Dead

The 21st century has witnessed a plethora of archaeological findings and the development of means for recovering analyzable DNA from fossils. Together, these discoveries have disclosed three new species in our genus, Homo, and compelling evidence that our ancestors interbred with one of them, viz., Homo denisova, as well as with Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).

This raises the question of whether the species with whom our ancestors were so intimate and who, at least in the case of Neanderthals, buried some of their dead, might plausibly be supposed to have had proto-religious proclivities.

That query brings to mind long-standing questions about how religions and religiosity are usefully characterized in the first place. Is, for example, burial of the dead sufficient evidence for either or both? What sort of mind treats dead conspecifics in such a way? As Rebecca Sykes notes, ”Neanderthals neither ignored corpses nor treated them like rubbish.”

Still, some scholars have expressed reservations about Neanderthal burials. After all, Neanderthals only buried a small fraction of their dead, and Neanderthal burials were long thought to lack any grave goods (items, presumably, for use in an afterlife).

In response to those reservations about Neanderthal burials, some comparative observations about Neanderthals’ activities and those of our own ancestors 50,000 years ago seem apt. First, it’s worth noting that the earliest uncontroversial burial unearthed so far was a Neanderthal burial. Second, it does not appear that contemporaneous Homo sapiens buried many of their dead either. Nor did their burials at this point in time, as opposed to 30,000 years later, include substantial amounts or kinds of grave goods.

This question of grave goods suggests again the prudence of the 19th-century Darwinians’ admonition. Thirty-five years ago, archaeologists had yet to find any convincing evidence for Neanderthal grave goods.

In the years since, though, archaeologists have turned up numerous items of cultural significance in Neanderthal burials. They include such things as goat horns, horses’ hooves, panthers’ claws, eagles’ talons, feathers, and perhaps most significantly, in a few cases, lithics, i.e., stone tools.

Symbols and Rituals

Recent archaeological findings offer various forms of evidence for richer symbolic lives among Neanderthals than earlier researchers had imagined. For example, archaeologists no longer question whether Neanderthals employed bodily decoration. They used pigments, feathers, birds’ claws, and shells. A detailed account of Neanderthal cave art in Gibraltar appeared ten years ago that showed that the engraving in question was both thousands of years older than the famous cave paintings in southern France and produced before modern Homo sapiens had populated this part of the Iberian peninsula.

Since religions are routinely associated with collective rituals, the discovery of a Neanderthal site in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France may be the most telling evidence for Neanderthal proto-religiosity. In a chamber about 300 meters from its entrance, the cave contains a site constructed from the straight center sections of most of the more than 400 stalagmites that were broken off and arranged in low barriers around two circles on the cave floor. A few were employed in small structures within the larger circle, on which researchers found traces of burned bones. Nearly 100 of the stalagmites around the circles also show evidence of exposure to fire.

How much these arrangements resemble familiar ritual sites today is striking. What is even more startling, though, is that the Bruniquel site was constructed, and the fires burned roughly 175,000 years ago—more than 100,000 years before Homo sapiens entered Europe!


Nielsen, Mark, Langley, Michelle C., Shipton, Ceri, and Kapitány, R. (2020). Homo neanderthalensis and the evolutionary origins of ritual in Homo sapiens. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 375: 20190424.

Rodriguez-Vidal, Joaquin et al. (2014). A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (13), 13301-13306. (doi:10.1073/pnas.1411529111)

Skykes, Rebecca Wragg. (2020). Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art. London: Bloomsbury Sigma.

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