The footprint of a Neanderthal
Snapshot
  • Recent discoveries indicate that Neanderthals may have had a rich inner life, including symbolic thought.

    Indeed, they may have been the progenitors of human religions.

The year was 1856, three years before the publishing of The Origin of Species of Charles Darwin. In Germany, in a cave in a valley east of the river Rhine, some quarry workers discovered piles of stones which resembled human bones. Most of them were thrown away, but a few reached the hands of naturalists. They found them to be ancient and had remarkable as well as consistent differences from human skeletons. The bones remained a mystery and a controversy. Respected scientists kept a safe distance from them. Rudolph Virchow, one of the greatest biologists of his time, considered them to be merely human bones deformed by rickets. Soon similar bones and fossils were found in different parts of Europe.

The remains now termed “Feldhofer fossil of Neander valley” were studied by the fiery evolutionist Thomas Huxley, though Darwin him-self maintained silence. Huxley decided that the fossils belonged to a “lower human species”. In 1863, William King, a professor of Geology at Queen’s University in Ireland, studied the fossils, though not the original fossils but the casts made of them. He decided that they belonged to altogether a new species—Homo neanderthelensis. A year later, he would think that it belonged to a lesser human ape species.

In popular perception, an image emerged from the Neanderthal debates in academic citadels. Neanderthals were viewed as a brutish, animal-like, not-so-intelligent group, either an evolutionary failure or a fleeting transition before the emergence of humans. They became part of jokes about cavemen and in popular usage a reference to the uncivilised.

In the early 20th century, an amateur archaeologist Emil Bachler was trying out his excavation abilities in a cave curiously named Drachenloch—Dragon’s cave—in the Swiss Alps. He excavated between 1917 and 1923, and uncovered many bear skulls and bones which appeared to have been placed in specific patterns. They seemed to have been placed in a cyst covered by a limestone slab. A thigh bone was inserted into the eye socket of the bear skull. Bachler published his results and set into motion a controversy that would continue to this day. He suggested that the cave occupants practised some kind of a “bear cult”.

Thus, Neanderthals were not beast-like creatures but beings that had a religious inner state which made them do cult rituals.

Meanwhile, excavations by archaeologists showed the Neanderthal spread as not limited to Europe alone. Neanderthal remains were discovered even in Iraq. In fact, the next discovery that would further revolutionise our views of Neanderthals would be at the Shanidar cave in the Zagros mountains of northeastern Iraq.

FLOWERS ON THE GRAVES

In the excavations done by archaeologist Ralph Solecki in 1953 and in 1960, nine Neanderthal skeletons were discovered. They belonged to the period almost 60,000 years before the present (BP). Of the 16,000 soil samples taken out during these excavations, Solecki marked three samples from a burial site named Shanidar IV specifically for pollen analysis. French palynologist Arlette Leroi-Gourhan discovered in them an astonishing amount of pollen—too highly concentrated to be brought in by wind. The concentration of pollen was higher particularly from the sample soil near the feet, shoulder and base of the spine. She identified the pollens as coming from eight flower species.

Indian botanist Hiralal Chakravarthy and his Iraqi colleague AlRawai had prepared the definitive compilation of botanically identified ethnic Iraqi plants. When Solecki compared the plant species discovered in the Neanderthal burial site with traditional Iraqi medicinal plants, he found that seven out of the eight plants were medicinal. “The deaths had occurred approximately 60,000 years ago,” Solecki wrote in his 1975 paper published in Science, “yet the evidence of flowers in the grave brings Neanderthals closer to us in spirit than we have ever before suspected.” He concluded that the Shanidar discovery of the “flower burial” suggested that for the Neanderthals, “although the body was archaic, the spirit was modern”.

How modern? At that time, as the flower power movement was spreading like wildfire among Western youth, Solecki subtitled his book on Neanderthals “the first flower people”—suggesting Neanderthal roots to the popular counterculture of his own age.

In 1995, Dr Ivan Turk, a paleontologist at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences, discovered a bone fragment at a Neanderthal site called Divje Babe I in northwestern Slovenia. The bone, 5 inches in length and 43,100 years BP, looked carved and it had holes in it. He speculated that it might be a musical instrument—a “Neanderthal flute”.

A study of the spacing of the holes by Canadian musicologist Bob Fink further suggested that those who used it could actually play on it “four notes corresponding with the third, fourth, fifth and sixth notes of a minor diatonic scale”. For conventional archaeology, the oldest evidence of seven-note diatonic scales, was the 4,000 years BP Sumerian cuneiform tablets. In 1997, Nigel Hawkes, science editor of The London Times wrote about the sensational new discovery. He titled it “Neanderthal Man Moves up the Evolutionary Scale”.

There was opposition. For example, that the bear cult was the result of sloppy deductions by an amateur archaeologist sensationalised by the media and romanticists. In 1995, American paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall published a critique of the notion of the Neanderthal bear cult. The bears had died in the caves, one of their natural habitats. Their bones were not “arranged”, but were in positions dictated by absolutely normal processes of sedimentation. Tattersall declared, “Today, archaeologists are unanimous that the Drachenloch cave filling can be accounted for by natural processes.” So “the ‘dry stone walls’ of apparently piled-up rock slabs, for example, probably originated as single large blocks that fell from the cave ceiling”. “The concentrations of bones most likely resulted from the activities of the cave bears themselves, generation after generation.”

The “flower burial” from Shanidar IV also came under sceptical scrutiny. In a paper published in 2015, Marta Fiacconi and Chris O. Hunt, scientists from the Liverpool John Moores University, studied in detail the pollen fossilisation “from a transect of surface samples within the cave and from comparative surface samples from outside the cave”, and found “reasonably close correspondence between assemblages” of the pollens “accumulating within and in the external environs of the cave”. This means that what Leroi-Gourhan found might well have been the result of natural processes like activities of bees or wind. Dr Cajus G Diedrich, a paleontologist with the University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany, published a paper in 2015. He asserted that the holes in the “Neanderthal flute” were “simply products of Ice Age spotted hyena scavenging activities on cave bear cubs”.

However, a series of discoveries seems to consistently point towards a rich inner life of Neanderthals which included symbolic thought and religious experience.

AN INNER LIFE

Patrick McNamara, an American neuroscientist and the founding editor of the journal Religion, Brain, and Behavior does not agree with Tattersall that the case for the bear cult of Neanderthal has been summarily dismissed by science. According to him, “despite the sophisticated criticism of the evidence for a bear cult among the Neanderthals, many specialists, still believe that the evidence for a Neanderthal bear cult is sound”. The source of such “sophisticated criticism” may be because many in the scientific community “appear to want to restrict religious consciousness to Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) populations alone,” says McNamara.

Brian Hayden, archaeologist with Simon Fraser University, Canada, is also baffled by the way some scientists are adamantly against attributing any religious dimension to Neanderthal life. “There is a large contingent of archaeologists who continue to view Neanderthals as incapable of symbolism, religion, and even language beyond the most rudimentary form,” he informed this writer. “It is a mystery to me as to why this is the case. I don’t understand it.”

For more than two decades, Hayden has been a passionate advocate for the Neanderthals’ religious experience and their ability to induce it through ritual behaviour. In 1993, he pointed out that Neanderthals have been portrayed “in a dehumanised, non-cultural fashion” in popular culture and argued that not only did Neanderthals showed elements of culture and symbolic behaviour including religious rituals but that these aspects “persist into or become even more elaborate in the Upper Paleolithic Age”.

Now this would mean that humans and Neanderthals interacted more intimately than was previously thought. Interestingly, new evidence points towards the fact that anatomically modern humans have in their genetic material an abiding Neanderthal presence. Already, genomic studies have been showing that almost all non-African human populations have interbred with Neanderthals. The Neanderthal genetic contribution in modern humans is just near two per cent. Yet it is distinctive enough to be studied in detail.

In 2013, a team of geneticists led by Jeffrey D Wall discovered that “Neanderthals contributed more DNA to modern East Asians than to modern Europeans”. In 2014, a systematic genomic study of 1,004 modern humans was made by Dr Sankararaman and his team from Harvard Medical School and Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology. He proposed that the reason might be that the Neanderthal genes in human genome were eliminated by natural selection faster in European populations than in Asian populations. While the Neanderthal genetic contribution could have helped humans out of Africa to adapt to non-African conditions, Sankararaman and his team also found “multiple Neanderthal-derived alleles that confer risk of disease”, from type-2 diabetes, Crohn’s dis-ease, lupus, biliary cirrhosis to even smoking behaviour. So was slower natural selection the reason Eastern Asians have higher Neanderthal genomic content?

The models developed by Joshua M Akey, a geneticist at the University of Washington to test Sankararaman’s hypothesis did not match with the data. Instead of natural selection eliminating Neanderthal genes in European populations faster, simulations “involving multiple pulses of Neanderthal admixture” seemed to explain the phenomenon of East Asians having higher Neanderthal genetic admixture. Two separate studies seem to point to the same conclusion. Sanakararaman also agrees that the studies point “to the two-pulse model” for the spread of Neanderthal genes in Asians.

In fact, apart from the simulation models, the studies of human genome also reveal that negative selection and hence elimination of Neanderthal genetic legacy may not be the complete story, according to recent research by a team led by geneticist Aaron J Sams. His theory is that positive selection has preserved Neanderthal genetic legacy in our species. There is a family of enzymes, OAS (oligoadenylate synthetase) which are involved in innate anti-viral immune response. The genetic region that codes for OAS “harbours high amounts of Neanderthal ancestry in non-African populations”. So the love story of crossing borders between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens is part of, if not perhaps even central to, the larger epic of what the human species is today.

After the European and Asian populations diverged, there seems to have been a second admixture of Neanderthals with Asians. This gets the conventional history of Neanderthals into another problem. According to the agreed upon narrative, Neanderthals disappeared 40,000 years BP. However, the divergence of Asian and European populations happened much later. Evolutionist Carl Zimmer suggests that it is possible that the extinction of the Neanderthals happened later in Asia.

Meanwhile a series of archaeological discoveries is making us reassess the richness of the inner realms of the Neanderthals.

• In 2012, an analysis of 50,000-year-old Neanderthal teeth from the El Sidrón site in northern Spain suggested that Neanderthals cooked and consumed plants not for taste but for medicinal values.

• In 2013, a group of European archaeologists discovered that almost 40,000 years ago, when in conventional history they were about to be replaced by humans, Neanderthals had developed “the use of specialised bone tools, body ornaments, and small blades”. The authors were not certain if these were “a demonstration of independent invention by Neanderthals or an indication that modern humans started influencing European Neanderthals much earlier than previously believed”.

• In 2014, at the famous Gorham’s cave in Gibraltar, an international group of archaeologists and paleontologists studied an engraving on the cave wall. They made a thorough analysis of the period of the engraving and found that it definitely belonged to the Neanderthal context, prior to human. The simple abstract design had been engraved by “repeatedly and carefully passing a pointed lithic tool into the grooves”. They concluded that the study proved “the capacity of the Neanderthals for abstract thought and expression through the use of geometric forms”.

• In 2015, a paleontological team studying 130,000-year-old talons from a white-tailed eagle reported that Neanderthals “acquired and curated eagle talons for some kind of symbolic purpose”, probably as “jewellery”. Clearly, the archaeological data has been moving consistently in one direction: that Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thought. Then what about religion and culture?

THE CAVE WORLDS

In his 2003 paper, Hayden argued that “Neanderthals were exploring deep caves, presumably for the purpose of inducing ecstasy or altered states at least 50,000 years ago, if not many thousands of years earlier”. In June 2016, Nature published a discovery by an international team of anthropologists led by Jacques Jaubert at the University of Bordeaux. Deep inside the Bruniquel cave in southwest France, they reported the discovery of “annular constructions made of broken stalagmites”.

The arrangement of the broken stalagmites in circles with the presence of burnt bones showed “the anthropogenic origin of these constructions”. So did humans do it? The uranium dating of the formations have revealed that these formations are 1,76,000 years BP.

It is well known that it was only 50,000 years BP that AMH or modern humans started appearing in this part of the planet. One lakh years before the arrival of humans, the “anthropogenic” species there was the Neanderthals. And they had conducted some group activity deep inside the caves — and it is almost certain that they were conducting some rituals. Fourteen years down the line, Hayden stands vindicated. He had predicted the Bruniquel cave discovery with uncanny accuracy. He says that the cave discovery “constitutes clinching evidence for the existence of religion and ritual among Neanderthals”. Actually Hayden had mentioned the cave in his 2012 paper in which he had argued that the Neanderthals had developed social distinctions. The existence in Neanderthal archaeological context of “difficult-to-access ritual areas with space for only a few people” indicated a “special status”. And Bruniquel cave provided “the best example”.

The bear rituals, stalagmite circles and fire use in rituals, possible use of medicinal flowers in burial, and above all the evidence of Neanderthal genetic material in almost all humanity in varying degrees—all these make one ask the next question, “So how much of our own religions is Neanderthal?” McNamara cautiously responds by saying that it is “nearly impossible to say what, if any, contribution Neanderthals made to religion today”. But the Bruniquel cave discovery seems to change all that. The discoveries, he informed this writer, “suggest something like a bear cult among Neanderthals of great antiquity with the belief that the bear is master of the animals that Neanderthals de-pended upon for life and that the bear dies (hibernates) each winter and then is resurrected each spring and so forth”.

And what is more, “these sorts of themes survive in Shamanic aspects of most axial age religions into the present”. McNamara states that beyond such “very speculative conjectures”, nothing much could be said about Neanderthal religion except that “Neanderthals are very likely the originators of what we now call Shamanic religious experiences”.

Hayden was originally as sceptical as all mainstream archaeologists about the Neanderthal capacity for religion. He wrote in his response to the query from this writer: “Pre-historians generally assume that Neanderthals did not make much of a contribution to contemporary cultures, largely because they became extinct and because the Upper Paleolithic cultures that replaced them appear to have had superior hunting technology, storage technology, and larger social units. I have always assumed that this was the case.”

However, a series of discoveries changed this scepticism. By 2003, he was convinced that Neanderthals had “some kind of bear-centred animal cult some 60,000 to 70,000 years ago”. And these bear cults would play an important role in later religious history where the bear becomes “a symbol of death and resurrection...making it an apt focus for funeral rituals”. He also points to some myths where “the bear as the master of the entire animal kingdom was sent to earth by his father to understand the problems of humans and to find solutions for them”. The bear “sacrifices himself for humanity; afterward there is a communion in which the participants eat the body and drink the blood of the bear”. Then the bear resurrects! Hayden then notes the widespread identification of “the North star and Big Dipper with bears”.

Now the cave itself may be significant. He writes in response to the query on the presence of Neanderthal elements in present religion: “It is worth wondering if the pattern of enter-ing deep caves for ritual and ecstatic purposes might not have been adopted by Upper Paleo-lithic peoples from their contacts (and inter-breeding) with Neanderthals. Secret societies today still use darkness in their initiations and rituals, and it is just possible that these practices are ultimately derived from Neanderthals.”

THE INDIAN CONNECTION

Are there Neanderthal connections in Indian religion also? Most probably the bear cults could have reached our own religions through our Paleolithic ancestors. Not only genes but also religious memes in the form of mythologies and rituals may be there in us as our Neanderthal legacy. The sanctums of the ancient temples in India have intentionally been shaped as caves. The entire psyche — identified with the heart — was symbolised as cave in Hindu tradition. And in the symbolism, consciousness becomes the flame growing in the dark cave — a metaphor that would be used again and again through millennia in Indian religion. Skanda, the warrior god of Light and Gnosis, the symbol of consciousness, is also Guha — the Fire that grows in the cave.

In Hindu astronomy, the northern constellation is called the Sapta Rishi Mandala. However Vedic scholar David Frawley (Vamadeva Sastri) points out that in Rig Vedic hymn 1.24.10, the stars that appear in the night sky are called bears — Rikshas. Later, the prominent constellation would be called the seven seers—Rishis. Hindu-phobic Harvard Sanskritist Michael Witzel speculates that the substitution of seers in the place of bears might be because of Mesopotamian influence. But the transition may actually reveal the Neanderthal-Shaman continuity and transition.

Though the Ramayana’s core events have been dated by veteran archaeologists like B B Lal to circa 700 BCE, there is a possibility that at least some peripheral aspects of the epic might point to an even more ancient past. One such is the character Jambavan—the head of the bear clan, who was part of the mythical grand hominid alliance. Though his role in the epic itself was limited, in the popular accounts to this day, a person of extraordinary talent in any field is called “Jambavan” in India. Interestingly, Jambavan also makes an appearance in the Krishna legend. Here too, the consolidated mythology belongs to a very later century. Yet, the description of Jambavan as a cave-living bear, whose daughter was married by Krishna, and the son through this marriage being related to sun worship—all seem to suggest an interesting mystery. Did the cave-dwelling Jambavan and his daughter’s marriage to Krishna come to us from a very forgotten ancient memory of Neanderthal-human interbreeding?

Carl Zimmer, in his essay on the two-pulse theory of Neanderthal admixture in Asia, has suggested that “there might yet be more recent Neanderthal fossils waiting to be discovered” in Asia. If the mythological memories of India do come from a time deeper than the upper Paleolithic, then India might indeed be a good candidate for searching for Neanderthal fossils and perhaps even their contribution to our present humanity.

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