Zelophehad’s Daughters

Who Are the Neanderthals?

Posted by Kiskilili


(This charming face is that of a reconstructed Neanderthal child based on recovered skull fragments.)

For a good portion of our species’ 100,000 years or so of history on this planet, we’ve shared our stomping grounds across Europe and the Near East with our close cousins the Neanderthals. Considerably stronger than our own ancestors, and possessing slightly larger brains (probably), Neanderthals were skilled hunters who made weapons, wore jewelry, cared for injured members of their communities, and buried their dead (sometimes with objects). Additionally they built shelters, controlled fire, and were apparently anatomically capable of vocal language. It’s unclear whether the two populations ever interbred, but the traditional model suggests that Neanderthals constitute an evolutionary dead end, perhaps eventually pushed out of their ecological niche by their lighter-boned relatives the Homo sapiens sapiens.

From a theological perspective, in your own opinion (since obviously all we have to go on is wild speculation), who are the Neanderthals, these eerily humanlike not-quite-humans, liminal figures hovering on the threshold between full-blown human civilization and the animal kingdom? Do they have “souls” or “spirits” in any meaningful sense? Will they be resurrected, and if so, what opportunities will be available (or denied) to them in the afterlife? Will they be residents in a celestial zoo adjoining displays of bears and warthogs in their respective native habitats, or will they play some role in polite society? Will we have opportunity to interact with Neanderthals again as our ancient relatives did?

46 Responses to “Who Are the Neanderthals?”

  1. 1.

    I love this question. I love Neanderthals. Great question.


    t’s unclear whether the two populations ever interbred

    Actually, DNA is pretty clear that although we had a common ancestor about 600,000 years ago, there is no genetic evidence of interbreding in the the last 200,000. The complete Neanderthal DNA has been almost sequenced will likely be published later this year. Their brains were larger on average it it looks like in regions that control their larger bodies. There is is nice assessment of their status in this month’s Scientific American.

    Your question may take on a lot of relevance because in the next 100 years we will be able to clone a Neanderthal. If we do that, and it can be taught language could one be baptized if it understood the gospel and desired it? It’s a huge ethical question if we should do it, but their are countries that will. Your grandchildren or great-grand children my know neanderthals.

  2. 2.

    Fascinating, Steve! Thanks for your expertise.

    Most of the (lay-oriented) books I’ve read favor the theory that humans and Neanderthals did not interbreed, although there seem to be holdouts claiming some Homo sapiens sapiens populations show evidence of Neanderthal traits, even if none of us is descended from them.

    That’s wild about cloning!

  3. 3.

    All creatures have souls and spirits in a meaningful sense within LDS theology, and all are unilaterally rewarded for “fufilling the measure of their creation”, so I don’t forsee any zoo, but like the idea of the lamb, the lion, the tyranosaurus, the neanderthal and the dodo all sitting about and chatting it up.

  4. 4.

    What a haunting picture, Kisilili.

    I think your excellent question gets right at the heart of what evolution means for our theological conceptions of what it means to be human. In the spirit of your earlier post, I wonder if our Mormon anthropomorphic god doesn’t pose us special challenges in light of what we might call “the problem of the Neanderthals.” If God is wholly disembodied, wholly spirit, then particular forms of embodiment have much less theological meaning. But we Mormons believe that our humanity consists of being physically created in God’s physical image. That makes a human body much more theologically significant, and the borderline cases, like Neanderthals, much more theologically problematic. The question seems to be, Are they human in a religious sense? Are they too created in God’s image?

    I’m absolutely fascinated that they cared for their sick and buried their dead with objects. It seems awfully hard to deny them human status. The idea of zoos, for example, is just horrifying.

  5. 5.

    It seems to me that the heart of the issue is about spirits. Is there a bright line distinction between “human” spirits and our earliest ancestors? If so when did the first human spirits inhabit bodies here and what tripped that wire? I don’t really have good answers to those questions.

    The related questions deal with animal spirits. Joseph Smith taught that human spirits have no beginning. But what of non-human spirits? Are they creatable and destroyable? Unfortunately God hasn’t told us any of that yet.

  6. 6.

    This is a very timely post for me, because just a couple of days ago someone asked me to list 20 books that I will always remember and have made an impact in my life. My list was mostly populated with fantasy novels (they’re my passion, and always have been), but one of the few exceptions was _Dance of the Tiger_ by Bjorn Kurten. It’s a novel that speculates on what might have happened when Neandertals and early Homo sapiens sapiens interacted. (I’m assuming Neandertals are still considered part of Homo sapiens, though I’ve been out of the field for a bit, and I know that changes.) It’s written by an evolutionary paleontologist, so all the speculation is based on real evidence from the fossil record. It’s a haunting and beautiful book.

    On days when I try to reconcile my field of study with my religion I tend to lean toward Adam having come a long time ago (like 300,000 years ago, perhaps), and everyone after that having souls (we do believe that Homo sapiens sapiens and Neandertals are descended from a common ancestor, after all). But of course, that leads to problems about being in God’s image, and working in fields, and all sorts of other conundrums. So mostly I just don’t try to figure out when the first humans with “souls” were around, and trust that God knows, even if I don’t.

  7. 7.

    I think the Neanderthals were the Ten Lost Tribes, sent back in time with their bodies slightly altered. Also, at the Second Coming, they will be brought forward in time again.

    Great questions, Kiskilili! I have no real idea, although I like Eve’s summary of the crucial question.

  8. 8.

    The “obvious” answer is that Neanderthals were righteous enough in premortality to get bodies, but not righteous enough to be human. If we ever get Neanderthals back on earth, Patriarchs will have to do pre-baptismal pronunciations of spirit lineage and then post-baptismal declarations of covenant lineage.


    (insert all necessary disclaimers, emoticons, etc. here).

    “Obvious” answer 2: “human-ness” in the context of Earth is defined by a geneti-spiritual relationship with particular celestial parents. Neanderthals are spirit-children of another set of parents, possibly related to ours—but we deal with the great siblinghood of humanity, not the great cousinhood.

    (insert more emoticons.)

    Response 3 (no emoticons, unless there’s one for wild-eyed speculation): perhaps Neanderthals are “other sheep.” In the same way that the Bible and Book of Mormons deal with distinct covenant peoples and are written as if both are, respectively, the only ones that matter or even exist, perhaps our Adam and Eve family is not alone among families placed on this particular Iron/Nickel/Silicon Cadbury Egg.

    The continuity/discontinuity boundary befuddles my cogitations in many places. What’s the difference between the “best” person in the Terrestial Kingdom and the “worst” person in the Celestial Kingdom? the “best” spirit in pre-mortality that did not go on to receive a body and the “worst” that did? the most “advanced” animal and the least “advanced” human?

    My only potentially fruitful thought so far is that agency and covenants account for discontinuities. Two comparable souls prepare for a mission; the Righteousnessometer (RAI-chuhs-nuh-SAH-meh-tuhr) reports the same mediocre measurements for both.* Neither is particularly excited about or well-prepared for a mission, but one chooses to submit papers and the other doesn’t. Over time, the different choices will lead to differences in the souls, but [delta less than epsilon] seconds after the decision, the only differences are that one sent in an application and the church sent them back a ministerial certificate. I can imagine a similar scenario in pre-mortality separating Neanderthals from humans. Of course, this idea of premortal choice has been put to dastardly use before, which gives me pause.**

    *I stipulate that the experiment is well designed and the comparisons are valid. Since we humans never know the whole story, I’m assuming a Divine perspective.

    **We could say that the choice was not between higher and lower but between left and right, but that runs into the “His own image” issue. Do Nndtls fit into the range of body forms enclosed by “His image”?

    Confound it all I am long-winded.

  9. 9.

    If #8 doesn’t work, I vote for Ziff’s explanation in #7.

  10. 10.

    My knowledge of Neanderthals is limited to reading Jasper Fford novels, so I will say that, barring a test for measuring whether or not someone has a like-God spirit, it would depend upon the ability to make moral choices as an indication of the presence of free agency (or whatever we’re calling that nowadays).

  11. 11.

    Fascinating. I had my anthropology classes at the Univ of TN back in the early 90′s and have loved human origins ever since. At the same time, I’m one of those nutty fundamentalists.
    Yep, that’s a bit of a trick to reconcile.
    They many indeed be the lost tribes, or….there’s the view that the earth is made of 2 or 3 former creations…thus the fossil record.
    Whatever…it’s still cool to know that we are not the only species of “people”.
    It leads to all kinds of speculations:
    -Do we share the same “heavenly father”?
    -If not…are they made in their “heavenly father’s” image?

    Inquiring minds……….

  12. 12.

    Norbert, I thought we were calling it “captive agency” now.

  13. 13.

    Fun comments!

    Good point, Vada–Neanderthals are a subspecies of Homo sapiens; I’ve corrected the original post. (And thanks for the book recommendation.)

    Part of what’s haunting and fascinating to me about Neanderthals is that I think our ethics relies on categorization. In different ways, both Neanderthals and (for example) fetuses question the category of “human,” because they’re smack on top of the bright line we’re trying to draw around the concept. Also, there’s a sense that humanity is not a quantifiable substance–it’s something ineffable and transcendent–so how then can it have apparent gradations?

    I’m also wondering about the question of assessing whether someone has a “soul” in a theological sense. I have no idea how to understand the issue, let alone what to conclude, but I do find it somewhat disturbing to suppose that humans are capable of advancing to God’s status but Neanderthals are stuck where they are. Just for heuristic purposes (these numbers are purely illustrative–they have no reference in the world), imagine humans are at about 50 when it comes to cognitive ability and moral reasoning. Let’s say Neanderthals are at 49.8, but that some humans due to genetic anomalies or brain damage are at more like 45. And let’s put God at 100 billion. If they’re righteous, humans–even those at 45 (in fact, they get a free pass regardless of behavior)–can progress astronomically up to God’s level. But the Neanderthals, whether they’re well-behaved or not, are stuck eternally at 49.8. It’s hard to know how to make sense of any of this.

  14. 14.

    Excellent way to frame the question that came up on the other thread.

    SteveP: Clone a neanderthal? Get real. The UN will pass a resolution banning such a disruptive experiment. Under such a rule, even if someone wanted to do it they wouldn’t be able to—like nuclear nonproliferation, that’s worked right?

    Ziff: the neanderthals were the giants mentioned in Genesis. :)

  15. 15.

    Fascinating questions. This reminds me of the Ed. Week speaker who proposed that we opted for different forms in this life based on the level of responsibility we wanted–someone who wanted a very low level, for example, might opt to be a plant; a higher level might be a cat; and the highest of all would be a human. (Admittedly, I heard this second-hand, but the report was definitely memorable. I also heard that the speaker was not invited to return.)

    It seems that one of the underlying questions here is whether humans are qualitatively different than all other creatures. Much Christian theology is based on that premise (humans, unlike everything else, are created imago dei), and arguably the notion is even stronger in LDS theology, what with humans being the literal children of God. But that gets a lot sticker when the boundaries of what constitutes a human aren’t all that clear.

    Someone in my program is actually writing a dissertation on a topic related to this, dealing with the theological status of animals. I was just looking at the paper he’s giving at an upcoming conference where we’re both presenting–it’s titled “Do Apes Pray? The Problem of Human Theological Uniqueness.” From his abstract, it looks like he’s using Rahnerian anthropology to make the case that self-conscious non-humans can also have a personal relationship with God. Fun stuff. It would be interesting to look at how LDS theology might complicate this question; off the top of my head, I’m guessing that a God who is qualitatively different from humans, as in traditional Christian theology, poses fewer challenges to expanding theological anthropology in this direction.

  16. 16.

    I know I should just let it slide, but I’m a Biology professor, and it’s one of my pet peeves. I just can’t hold it in any more.

    It’s Homo sapiens, not homo sapiens or Homo sapiens.

    Thanks for letting me get that out. Carry on.

  17. 17.

    If we ever clone them, and if some are willing to assent to baptism, we’ll baptize them. Baptismal numbers trump all, including this kind of theological speculation.

    And if we can interbreed with them, we’ll do that, too.

    And if we do those things, someone will devise a theology justifying them.

    In the here and now, I have no idea. Terrific questions!

  18. 18.

    Thanks for letting me get that out. Carry on.

    I feel better now, too, and I hadn’t even noticed. = )

    I think, perhaps, humanity and baptism should be decoupled, at least a bit. We routinely* evaluate baptismal candidates’ fitness for baptism—and when “we” decide that someone with with Down’s Syndrome is not accountable, we don’t claim that it’s because they aren’t “human.”

    Will Neanderthals be baptized in mortality? Probably, but only if they pass a baptismal interview—no DNA test required.

    But… none of our post facto explanations for the status of individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities resolve the issue of discontinuity or explain how a whole subspecies ended up in such a situation.

    *That is, have Handbook guidelines on…

  19. 19.

    Actually, the answer is dogs. It’s pretty to clear to anyone with life experience that, if there is any justice at all, it will be dogs who inherit celestial reward.

    I understand that Neanderthals were a whole lot nicer, on the whole, than Homo sapiens. So maybe they’ll get a slice of the pie, too.

  20. 20.

    I showed my son the picture and asked him, “who is that?” He replied, brightly, “Atti!”
    This goes a long way toward explaining why the kid can’t sit through a simple 1 hour Sunstone panel on Celestial Sexuality; the kid’s a total neanderthal!

  21. 21.

    Duly noted, Left Field! Thanks for correcting me; I’ve updated the post again. (It would be fun if there were a form Puella sapiens neanderthalensis, but I suppose one can’t have everything; I appreciate at least that you’ve consistently used the term “human” and not “man” in English. :) Fortunately since we’re communicating in writing we can leave aside the issue of whether “Neanderthal” should be pronounced with an interdental, as an English, or a hard /t/, as the original German currently has it, and nobody need be bugged either way.)

    That explains a lot, CWC!

    I like the idea of apes praying, Lynnette. Though Mormon theology does seem to present unique problems for those who would expand our theological anthropology in that direction.

  22. 22.

    For a long time I’ve tried to find a loophole in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature that would make humans Gorilla sapiens. But sadly, the genus name Homo has priority over Gorilla, so even if the two species are considered congeneric, they would be called Homo gorilla and Homo sapiens.

  23. 23.

    Is anyone else thinking “ramen or varelse?”

    Or am I the only Ender fan here?

  24. 24.

    Chet Raymo describes knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. We can expand the shoreline of the island, but the sea remains. We’re best as humans, he says, when we walk with one foot on land and one in the water, meaning one foot in the sea of faith, the other the dry land of certainty. I’m waiting for those Mormon literalists who always walk in certainty to tell us all about the Neanderthals based on their cherry-picking of obscure General Authority quotes. For the record, I, too, vote for dogs as the true inheritors of celestial glory.

  25. 25.

    Is anyone else thinking “ramen or varelse?”


    In those terms, perhaps the question we’re grappling with here is–is there a point where the “ramen” and “varelse” distinction breaks down?

  26. 26.

    The atonement of Christ is infinite. I see no reason why the plan of salvation cannot apply to Neanderthals. I am sorry I got into this conversation late, but I see that SteveP has taken good care of commentary.

    It is interesting that in these latter-days we are the only member of the genus Homo walking around. I wonder if there is any theological meaning in that.

    Good news: I get to teach all about Neanderthals this semester, but don’t worry. I won’t be inserting theological speculations into the class. Just science.

  27. 27.

    Lynnette: one problem I see with the ramen/varelse distinction is that both, by definition, are “strangers from a another species” and it’s not even clear whether Neanderthal was a different species. Even if it was, since “species” is a somewhat arbitrary classification, it may make little theological difference whether we call them Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo neanderthalensis. Either way, this isn’t quite the same as deciding whether or not to baptize the Piggies.

  28. 28.

    I met some neanderthals in the army.

  29. 29.

    Baptism is so easy, even a caveman could do it…

  30. 30.

    SteveP – do you really think we’ll be able to make synthetic chromosomes in the next 100 years? I think that technology would be necessary to be able to clone an extinct species. It seems to me that we are a long way from being able to synthesize DNA that is many megabases long. But I’m usually surprised by technological advances.

    I’ve always thought the idea that all the animals have spirits and will be resurrected is ridiculous. Can someone remind me where that idea comes from? Why not the plants and bacteria, too? Are fish worthy of resurrection, or just mammals? And if the earth is going to become the Celestial kingdom, where are 4 billion years worth of dead bodies going to fit?

  31. 31.

    Baptism is so easy, even a caveman could do it…

    And so the question becomes–what about a cavewoman? In the spirit of our blog, I must ask whether Neanderthal men preside over Neanderthal women.

  32. 32.

    Brian–I agree that it’s a somewhat different problem than that posed by the piggies. Neanderthals don’t seem to fit neatly into any of the categories in the hierarchy of exclusion. (Oh wow, am I a nerd.) Which I think illustrates the challenge they pose, in that they call existing categories into question.

    Re #26,

    The atonement of Christ is infinite. I see no reason why the plan of salvation cannot apply to Neanderthals.

    But I don’t see that as the central question here. If they have souls, clearly the atonement can apply. But do they have souls? In LDS terms, are they spirit children of God, capable of becoming like him?

    Good news: I get to teach all about Neanderthals this semester, but don’t worry. I won’t be inserting theological speculations into the class. Just science.

    Awww–what fun is science with the theological speculation removed? ;)

  33. 33.

    I think it’s pretty clear that Neanderthal women presided over Neanderthal men. That’s why God killed them all off. :)

  34. 34.

    Ziff beat me to it.

  35. 35.

    I’ve wondered about this too–so *if* Adam and Eve were the first humans with human souls, how were they born? If they were born like the rest of us, were their parents not *quite* human, i.e., not accountable (then there’s the question of whether they and all their predecessors were forever alive since Adam and Eve brought death to the world)? I’ve wondered just how literally to take Genesis in its account of human creation.

  36. 36.

    My opinion on it: Neanderthals are pre-Flood humanity. The human body does not cease changing in adulthood. Stretch that adulthood out 400, 500, 600 years, and the skeletal changes are going to be fairly distinct.

  37. 37.

    LizC: Even if that worked for the adult skeletons, it doesn’t address the child Neanderthal skeletons.

  38. 38.

    I like it, Liz! It’s a creative and charming way of reconciling different pieces of information.

    Archaeologists, however, currently seem to be of the opinion that Neanderthals matured more quickly than we do and had fairly short lifespans. (And Brian’s point about children is of course another good one.)

    Now if we trusted the Sumerian King List rather than the Bible, our antediluvian ancestors would have lived not hundreds, but tens of thousands of years. Forget Methuselah; I’d like to see the skeletons of legendary Sumerian geezers like En-sipad-zid-ana (reportedly reigned some 28,800 years).

  39. 39.

    didn’t Neanderthals have pointed skulls and a different jawbone.

  40. 40.

    That’s what happens when you live to be 800. Either that or you start looking like Yoda–who was, as we all know from very reliable rumors, modeled on Spencer W. Kimball. For example, Methuselah’s ears and nose should have continued to grow throughout his life; we could hardly expect him to look human from our standards when he gave up the ghost. (We won’t even go into the warped details of what became of En-Sipad-zid-ana’s once youthful countenance.)

  41. 41.

    Interesting paper relevant to cloning Neanderthal showed up in EMBO today. An excerpt:

    In the case of hominins, that is modern humans and their close relatives such as Cro-Magnons, Neandertals, and Homo floresiensis (Brown et al, 2004), the issue of authenticity [of a DNA sequence] is particularly acute because they can be expected to be identical to current humans for much or almost all of their genome. For example, although morphologically distinct, Neandertals were so closely related to people living today that most Neandertal DNA fragments retrieved from a fossil are expected to carry no sequence differences to the corresponding human sequences (Pääbo, 1999). As human DNA is a very common contaminant in fossils and laboratory experiments, this makes it particularly challenging to ascertain the authenticity of Neandertal DNA sequences. Indeed, for Cro-Magnons and other modern humans, the problems are so severe that over the past 15 years we have been pessimistic over the prospects of ever reliably determining such DNA sequences (Pääbo et al, 2004).

    In other words: we might clone a Neanderthal that turns out to not be Neanderthal at all.

  42. 42.

    In the vein of Ziff’s theory of the lost tribes– maybe they’re just descendants of Cain.. aka Sasquatch.

    I love this post as I had recently watched a fascinating show about the Neanderthals and have been contemplating the implications of their existence ever since, so this post is apropos for me.

    Long time reader, never commented since I’m too much of a Neaderthal.

  43. 43.

    Ooops I meant Esau not Cain. Its that Neanderthal thing– I can’t be blamed. Or held accountable, or whatever it is.

  44. 44.

    Oops I meant Esau not Cain. Its that Neanderthal thing again– I can’t be blamed, or held accountable, or whatever it is.

  45. 45.

    moksha, thanks for coming out of lurkdom! We always welcome comments from members of all species. For example, I myself am a Bozous maximus, or Big Bozo (at least according to my kids).

  46. 46.

    (edit. I made some significant typos. Can my previous comment be deleted)
    I realize this is a pretty old entry, but reading the new discovery that non-african’s and Neanderthals had sex reminded me of this entry. Who are the neanderthals? In one sense, it is us.(well, those of us without pure African ancestry)
    Theologically, this throws an interesting light on the subject. If humans have souls, and humans and neanderthals were able to mate, surely their offspring would have souls. If their offspring have souls, shouldn’t both parents have one as well? Would this human neanderthal hybrid have half a soul?(joke)
    What does this say about eternal families? Wouldn’t that half neanderthal half homo sapien sapien child get the opportunity to spend eternity with both parents? Does this mean their are Neanderthals in the Celestial Kingdom?

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