It’s widely believed that the first documented religious behaviour was that of Neanderthal, as archaeological evidence suggests they were the first hominid, and therefore creature of any kind, to bury their dead. The quasi, or perhaps proto-, religious mindset has been inferred from further evidence that the fallen had flowers placed ‘ceremoneously’ near the body.
What if this is a case of retro-projection of our own, far more advanced, mindset? Could there be a simpler explanation?
In exploring this question, I began with another question: what would earlier hominids have done with their dead? The answer seems clear cut. Probably nothing. Yet if one presumes that the hominid lifestyle around this time and somewhat previous to it was tending toward encampment vs continual wandering (hunt/gather, move on, repeat), the problem of the doing nothing with the dead would have presented itself as one to be solved.
We can look at this problem in at least two ways. The first is from an evolutionary point of view. The group’s elders die and lie where they fall, as do the children, the post-childbirth mothers, the sick, the wounded and the hungry. Mortality rates in these hominid groups was unimaginable and would have resulted in bodies everywhere around the camp or cave, in various stages of decomposition. One unfortunate trait among the dead is that they don’t move. It’s easy to imagine that having countless fetid corpses in the same area where the group eats and sleeps is a significant further health risk to an already dangerous existence. Not only is the spectre of disease an obvious threat, but so would be the ever present likelihood of unwanted carnivores encouraged by the intoxicating smell of death. One expects that after relatively short periods of homesteading, the group would be forced to move on, even if they were lucky enough to have found a perfect place to live. The dead would eventually and certainly have rendered even the most idyllic location unhealthy. Those who did not move, or at least move quickly enough, would have been less likely to survive, as would their offspring. This survival feature would clearly leave an evolutionary stamp.
The second point of view is somewhat more immediately pragmatic. Living among the rotting dead, especially for a social creature with strong feelings of kinship which hominids evidently possessed, would have been less than pleasant. First of all, there would be the smell. There’s little evidence and no reason to believe that the dying would have had the foresight or physical ability to drag themselves away from the fire or their sleeping spot to expire. Imagine how much worse this environment would have been for cave dwellers. The urge to move on would have been palpable.
It should be pointed out that this situation would only have occurred and presented a problem for a very particular type of creature: one which was social and lived in groups; one which had enough biomass for the average corpse to be inviting for bacteria and large carnivores; one which lived and slept on the ground (as opposed to, say, in trees); one which lived in an environment relatively free of heavy undergrowth and humidity which would quickly compost the offending relative (sub-Saharan Africa, say); one which required a relatively long and healthy life to reproduce, and, most importantly; one infused with a powerful sense of territorialism and which had developed the technology (fire, organized perimeter enforcement) to enforce it, thus both encouraging and enabling the encampment lifestyle. I would suggest hominids as the only group of species ever evolved which meet all of these criteria.
So there, briefly outlined, is what I call the Dead Hominid Problem. Dealing with the DHP by any other means than packing up one’s sticks and stones and setting out for new ‘digs’, for any but the most contemplative and inventive species would have been, quite literally, unthinkable and likely was for a very long time. For you or I, the solution is obvious. Two solutions actually. Bury ’em or burn ’em. Done deal, problem solved. Bacteria: dealt with. Smell: dealt with. Hungry carnivores: dealt with. As a bonus, one which would likely have had little value for our cognitively challenged ancestors but would be incredibly important for most of us, not having to watch day after day as the face of our loved one decomposes: priceless.
Enter Homo Neanderthalensis. Religious? Hard to say. But smart? No doubt. Smart enough to figure out that if you throw the ‘un-movers’ into a pit and cover them up, things get a lot more pleasant around the camp? Quite possibly. Of course, like all great discoveries, it may have been an accidental one. The discovery that relatives who die in a mud slide don’t smell as bad or attract as many predators might have gotten them to thinking. And since Neanderthals are believed to have had at least rudimentary language skills, an important discovery like this could easily have been communicated both laterally (to others, which would spread quickly) and linearly, through time. Once something of this magnitude and with this degree of general interest were to take hold, you could never go back. Those who somehow missed the news or were disinclined to utilize it, would have been supplanted through the miracle of natural selection. Adapt or die, in this case, would have been more than just a powerful metaphor.
Is there anything to suggest that burial of the dead had a religious component? Well, there is the flower issue.
But it may be worth noting that flowers smell good and the idea of covering up stinky (or soon to be stinky) things with good-smelling things is a pretty common and easily cognated behaviour, if a somewhat ineffective one in the case of a corpse. Nonetheless, it may have been a practice which had gone on for millennia as a weak solution to the DHP which would have left scant archaeological trace until combined with the practice of burial, which would have effectively entombed the practice with the body. In fact, an intermediary step on the road to the effective solution of putting corpses in holes would logically have been to leave the dead where they lie (or move them) and covering them up, with material like dirt, rocks… and foliage.
A different proto-religious impulse within the prototypical hominid mind might arguably be surmised by the adoption of kin burial by Neanderthals beyond something as ambiguous as flower arranging, however. It’s conceivable that a growing understanding of “as you go, so go I” which would seem an emergent step closely related, and necessarily subsequent, to “I am”, would have made decomposition and other indignities visited upon members of their own tribe less and less easy to bear. This, perhaps, was the beginning of the concept of a soul, or at least of a concrete belief that there is, indeed, someone “in there”, and that that “someone” could one day be me. And that, one could further surmise, could indeed be the first incarnation of a religious impulse.