Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead with Flowers?

Were Neanderthals like us? The answer to this question has profound implications for our understanding of human origins, and for the RTB creation model. In seeking to answer it, there is yet another question to consider: Did Neanderthals bury their dead with flowers?

Ritualistic burials reflect both the capacities for symbolism and religion—features that define modern humans. Yet some anthropologists think ritualistic burials aren’t unique to humans and argue that Neanderthals, too, performed ritualistic burials.

Some of the most important pieces of evidence for ritualistic burials among Neanderthals come from the Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq. This site contains a number of layers replete with Neanderthal and modern human fossils and archeological artifacts. Dating older than 46,000 years in age, the layer harboring Neanderthal remains and artifacts includes a partial adult skeleton that was unearthed in what appears to be a grave. The skeleton had a clump of pollen grains from flowering plants on top of it. A number of anthropologists believe that this find indicates Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers—possible evidence for ritualistic burial practices.

Questioning Assumptions

If Neanderthals performed ritualistic burials, this practice would be a serious challenge to human uniqueness and, hence, the RTB creation model. Yet, some anthropologists have recently raised questions about whether Neanderthals even buried their dead.1 And if Neanderthals did bury their dead, new work by researchers from the United Kingdom now challenges the long-held view that their burials were ritualistic.2

These researchers collected and analyzed pollen samples from the exterior and interior of the Shanidar Cave. They determined that pollen from the exterior was carried into the cave by air flow, animals, and insects. Because the mouth of the cave is so wide, the distribution and relative concentrations of pollen grains on the surface layers inside the cave were the same as on the outside. They also found that the distribution and concentration of pollen in the layer housing the Neanderthal remains were the same as the surface layer. This indicates that the pollen grains associated with the Neanderthal remains most likely weren’t from flowers deliberately laid upon the body before burial. They reason that the clumps of flower pollen associated with the Neanderthal remains were probably deposited there by bees.

Humans Alone Bear God’s Image

Instead of viewing hominids as evolutionary intermediates, our biblically based human origins model—described in detail in Who Was Adam?—regards hominids, such as Neanderthals, as animals made by God with limited emotional and intellectual capabilities, like the great apes.3 Neanderthals and other hominids lacked the image of God and, therefore, were not spiritual beings. The biological similarities between humans and hominids are a manifestation of common design, not common descent.4 Modern humans—who bear God’s image—uniquely possess the capacity for symbolism and, consequently, the capacity for language, art, and music. Furthermore, modern humans are the only creatures that engage in religious practices.

It has become commonplace for some anthropologists to claim that Neanderthals were just like us in possessing the capacity for symbolism. They point to finds such as those at the Shanidar Cave to support this view. Yet as this recent study illustrates, claims that Neanderthals expressed symbolism don’t withstand scrutiny and should be taken with a grain of pollen.5

Endnotes

  1. Fazale Rana, “Neanderthal Burials ‘Deep-Sixed,’” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, November 1, 2012, http://www.reasons.org/articles/neanderthal-burials-deep-sixed.
  2. Marta Fiacconi and Chris Hunt, “Pollen Taphonomy at Shanidar Cave (Kurdish Iraq): An Initial Evaluation,” Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 223 (December 2015): 87–93, doi:10.1016/j.revpalbo.2015.09.003.
  3. For a discussion on the similarity of hominid and great ape behavior, see: “Chimpanzee Behavior Supports RTB’s Model for Humanity’s Origin.”
  4. Fazale Rana, “Bible and Brains Explain Human-Chimp Similarities,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, April 1, 2007, http://www.reasons.org/articles/bible-and-brains-explain-human-chimp-similarities.
  5. For another instance in which high-profile claims of Neanderthal symbolism fail to withstand careful examination, see: “Did Neanderthals Make Art?
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