Death is difficult—even for chimpanzees, as new research attests. A team of psychologists from the University of Sterling in Great Britain and an international team of collaborators studied chimpanzees in captivity and the wild, respectively. Results from both studies suggest chimps respond to death in much the same way that humans do,1 leading the researchers to conclude that the biological and behavioral distinctions between humans and chimpanzees are blurred. This new insight (and other recent advances) seems to support the emergence of human behavior via evolutionary processes.
As I described last week, even though these observations of chimp behavior appear—on the surface at least—to support the evolutionary paradigm, this work readily fits within a biblical framework. This week I would like to explain how this new understanding provides added support for RTB’s creation model for the origin of humanity.
Chimpanzee Awareness of Death
It is evident chimpanzees grieve the loss of community members and experience some fear of dying. This behavior could be viewed from a biblical standpoint as reflecting their “soulish” nature. According to the RTB model, birds and mammals are “soulish” creatures, meaning that though they do not bear the image of God, they do possess some emotional and intellectual capacities. Hence, God presumably endowed these creatures with soulishness.
In this context the response chimpanzees exhibit toward death reflects their soulishness, not a deep evolutionary connection to human beings. It is interesting to note that chimpanzees’ response to death didn’t involve any sort of ritualistic behavior or religious response, which I would maintain reflects God’s image.
Neanderthals Awareness of Death
The chimpanzee response to death helps provide a context for understanding the Neanderthal response to death, which we learn about from the archeological record.
Neanderthals were hominids that appeared in the fossil record around 150,000 years ago and went extinct about 30,000 years ago. These creatures lived in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.
RTB’s biblical creation model views hominids such as Neanderthals as soulish animals created by God’s direct intervention. These creatures existed for a time and then went extinct. RTB’s model considers hominids remarkable creatures that walked erect and possessed limited intelligence and emotional capacity. This capacity allowed these animals to employ crude tools and even adopt some level of “culture.” The RTB model posits that the hominids were created by God’s divine fiat, yet they were not endowed with His image. RTB’s model reserves that status of “spiritual beings” exclusively for modern humans.
The model treats hominids as analogous to, but distinct from, the great apes. Because of this, the RTB model predicts that anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and genetic similarities will exist among hominids and modern humans to varying degrees. But since hominids were not made in God’s image, they are expected to be clearly distinct from modern humans, particularly in their cognitive capacity, behavior, “technology,” and “culture.”
Some Neanderthals appear to have been buried intentionally at the time of death. Consequently, some people have interpreted this action to mean these hominids exhibited behaviors considered to be uniquely human; and, thus, RTB’s model can’t be correct. As noted in my book Who Was Adam? some Neanderthal remains have indeed been uncovered in close association with tools and other artifacts or in an exaggerated fetal position that seems to have been deliberately arranged at the time of burial. Yet not all paleoanthropologists are so quick to conclude that Neanderthal burials were ritualistic. Natural causes could easily account for many of the features of Neanderthal ‘graves.’ Since all of these burial sites are located in caves, it is possible a collapsed roof on live occupants or abandoned bodies could account for the conditions of the site and remains. (For more in-depth discussion on this topic, see Who Was Adam?)
The Neanderthal burials were relatively simple. The graves they apparently dug were shallow and contained little if any artifacts. The complex burials conducted by modern humans, even in ancient times, stand in sharp contrast to those of hominids. Human grave sites frequently contained multiple burials and in some cases appeared to comprise an entire graveyard or cemetery of sorts. In some cases, the graves were covered with large rocks. These coverings reflect ritual behavior and also a desire to protect and preserve the buried human remains.
The burials of the earliest modern humans included a plethora of grave goods, special items, and body ornaments. The inclusion of these items in the graves provides strong evidence that these burials were ritualistic and suggests these people had some sense of an afterlife.
Based on the data, it is not outlandish to conclude that Neanderthals buried their dead, at least occasionally. On the other hand, to interpret these ‘burials’ as ritualistic appears to be unwarranted and unsubstantiated. Neanderthal burials likely reflect the fact that these hominids possessed limited emotional capacity, but were not spiritual beings.
This is where the new insights about the chimpanzee awareness of death help shed light on Neanderthal behavior. Apes experience a sense of loss when a member of their community dies. They have been observed in captivity to provide pre-death care, to perform all-night vigils by the body after death has occurred, and avoid the area where the death took place. This behavior is only a few small steps away from the non-ritualistic burial practices of Neanderthals, but as with the Neanderthals it falls short of the ceremonial and religious experiences of human funerals and burials.
For additional articles comparing the behavior of chimpanzees to the hominids, see “Chimpanzee Behavior Supports RTB’s Model for Humanity’s Origin," "The Latest on Human-Chimpanzee Genetic Comparisons, Part 1 of 2," and Part 2 of 2.