A short while ago astonishing research may be upending our understanding of perhaps our oldest relatives, what they were able to do, and very likely believe, in particular about the possibility of an afterlife.
What is extraordinary about this finding is that it concerns Homo naledi, far older than the first “historic” human, and with very different physical features, including a much smaller brain.
Who is Homo naledi
34,000 years ago, two boys and a middle-aged man were buried wearing over 13,000 mammoth ivory beads, hundreds of perforated fox canine teeth and other adornments. Discovered in the 1960s, at the site of Sungir, Russia, the burials also contained spears, figurines and the hollowed-out shaft of a woman’s femur.
Elements in monotheistic Judaism make the case that death is not the end of human existence, but a spiritual afterlife in the “World to Come”. Some scholars consider the “afterlife” idea as developing late in Jewish history.
However, the Torah speaks of the righteous reunited with their loved ones after death, while the wicked will be excluded from this reunion. Many modern scholars consider the completed Torah as a product of the time of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (probably 450–350 BCE).
The Greeks preceded these written scrolls with their own notions of the afterlife; for example, as mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey (750–700 bc), it is described as a journey over water.
In a memorable art exhibition titled Underworld, organized four years ago by the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, this point is made in their documentation:
“Some of the richest evidence for ancient beliefs about the afterlife comes from southern Italy, particularly indigenous sites in Apulia and the Greek settlement of Taras (present-day Taranto). Monumental funerary vessels are painted with elaborate depictions of Hades’s realm, and rare gold plaques that were buried with the dead bear directions for where to go in the Underworld. These works, alongside funerary offerings, grave monuments, and representations of everlasting banquets, convey some of the ways in which the hereafter was imagined in the fifth and fourth centuries bc.”
Christianity has long included Heaven and Hell, and the notion that man was created in the image of God.
A highly respected theologian is Brother Simon Francis Gaine, who teaches at the Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome and appointed by Pope Francis to the International Theological Commission. Gaine offered a remarkable idea during his Thomistic Institute’s annual lecture in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Gaine took on the controversial idea as to whether a very recent hominid, the Neanderthals, is to be regarded as part of Biblical man from a Thomistic viewpoint and in light of existing scientific evidence.
He observed that the various finds of Neanderthal bones are dated from 430,000 years old to 40,000 years old. Homo sapiens first appears in Africa so for “thousands of years, Neanderthals and sapiens lived in proximity to one another.” How they related to one another is not decided, nor is there scientific consensus about the mental capacities of Neanderthals.
Homo Naledi was discovered in South Africa in the Rising Star cave system, which is situated in the Bloubank River valley, in what is known as the Cradle of Humankind in 2013.
The Naledis had human-like hands and feet but a brain roughly one-third of the size of humans – a characteristic that, in principle, indicates far less intelligence than its Homo Sapien relatives. Scientists have now gone deeper into the Rising Star cave and discovered that this species, the Naledis who lived about 335,000 to 236,000 years ago buried its dead and marked the graves.
In other words, they not only dug graves but indicated that those graves contained individuals the living wished to remember. This is fully 100,000 years before any human did.
This remarkable pattern of behavior evidently was practiced by the first non-human species in history known to do so, as noted by Dr. Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist who is a National Geographic Explorer in Residence.
Initially, many experts were skeptical that a small-brained hominin could engage in such human-like behavior, suggesting instead that the remains washed into the cave or were carried inside by predators. But bone fragment analysis of the cave environment and sediments ruled out water deposition.
Other skeptics suggested that modern humans, who likely overlapped with Homo naledi in southern Africa for at least 50,000 years, may have carried the bodies in through some cave passage that has since collapsed. But the Rising Star team found no signs of modern humans and no evidence of a secondary entrance.
Excavations in 2018 and in July 2022 further found skeletal remains of Homo naledi and carvings on the wall above them to mark those laid to rest. Symbols included triangles, squares as well as cross-hatching equal signs. Nevertheless, it is unclear what these carvings meant or whether the Naledis used the same symbols as humans — or even if the Naledis and humans had some sort of shared ancestry.
Can this help explain some rationale for modern religious beliefs?
Certainly, these findings will be discussed and studied, especially from the vantage point of human evolution and on multiple levels.
What may not be determined by investigating paleontologists is the meaning of those various symbols – the reason behind those shared symbols. Could there have been an element of spirituality in their burial rites, in the remnants of their kindred who perished? If not, why are there varied symbols near the burial sites?
It is thus far a mystery, one perhaps unlikely to be solved any time soon. But it would not be much of an interpretive leap to suggest the early Naledis buried their dead with special symbols because they did not see death on earth as the endpoint.
The Homo naledi discovery suggests they ‘possibly’ held beliefs in some form of the afterlife, and by extension, that such acts and processes were perhaps among the earliest embers of religious faith.
If we accept this connective notion, it will mean that the basic underpinnings for what evolved over the millennia as religion is more basic, perhaps inherent in man, and that early ancestors felt a deeper need for anchoring their brief existence to a mystical possibility.
At a minimum, it meant Homo naledi was willing to expend energy and time in burials and carvings, neither of which were relevant to basic survival at the time they existed.
This astonishing discovery may become fertile ground for today’s theologians as well as scientists. Very likely some will embrace the findings as indications that faith and belief in an afterlife are not exclusive to modern humans. Like the Naledis, it was all there before us.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Facial reconstruction of Homo naledi Source: Cicero Moraes (Arc-Team) et alii, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.