The term “prehistoric peoples” may seem strange to some of you. It simply means people who existed before written history and are generally listed as either Homo neanderthalis, Homo erectus, or Homo sapiens. According to Ian Tattersall, homo sapiens is the species to which all modern human beings belong and is one of several species grouped under the genus Homo. But it is the only one that is not extinct. The name homo sapiens means “wise man,” and was created by Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern biological classification, in 1758 CE. The Latin noun homo means “human being” and sapiens is the Latin participle that means “discerning, wise, sensible.”
There is evidence that perhaps Homo neanderthalis and Homo sapiens existed at the same time briefly. Israel is one of the only places in the world where skeletons of both populations are found in adjacent sites—in several caves on Mt. Carmel and in the Galilee. Thus, a wide variety of studies regarding the origins of modern humans (our species) and the demise of the Neanderthals focus on remains in Israel. It is also no surprise that the cluster of prehistoric caves on Mt. Carmel was recently declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How Do We Learn About Prehistoric People?
Obviously, we are limited in our knowledge of prehistoric people because we have no written records to help us. Our information comes primarily through archaeology, but some information also comes from the field of anthropology. Both of these fields use scientific tools in making their discoveries.
Archaeology is basically the study of humanity and its past through the excavation of sites. Archaeologists study things that were created, used, or changed by humans. They do this by studying the material remains — the stuff we leave behind, such as tools, pottery, jewelry, stone walls, dwellings, and monuments. The goal of archaeology is to understand how and why human behavior has changed over time.
Some archaeologists were interested in the individuals, nations, and geographical places mentioned in the Bible. Consequently, the field of biblical archaeology was developed and the first biblical archaeologists set out to discover if the Bible was a reliable source of information. As a result, biblical archaeologists have verified many of the places, names, and events through archaeological digs. Though archaeology is the primary way to reconstruct a real-life context for the biblical world, archaeology can never prove any of the theological suppositions of the Bible. Archaeologists can often tell you what happened when and where and how and even why, but no archaeologist will tell anyone what it means. To do so would go beyond the purpose and method of archaeology.
Prehistoric People and the Bible
Some Christians may feel uncomfortable thinking about prehistoric people for whom we have no written records. Where do we find them in the Bible? Since the Book of Genesis is the flashpoint, we should approach the book as an ancient document, and use only the assumptions that would be appropriate for the ancient world to gain understanding.” God gave his authority to human authors to record his message and share it with the world,” writes Walton, “so we must consider what the human author intended to communicate if we want to understand God’s message. . . . We must understand how the ancients thought and what ideas underlay their communication.”
The ancients were concerned with questions about the mysteries of life, such as: Who made the world? How will it end? Where do we come from? Who was the first human? What happens when we die? Why does the sun travel across the sky each day? Why does the moon wax and wane? Why do we have annual agricultural cycles and seasonal changes? Who controls our world, and how can we influence those beings so our lives are easier? The first eleven chapters of Genesis are the answers of ancient people to those questions based upon their understanding of the Creator God and his purposes.
We ask the same questions today, but ancient people answered those questions differently than we do, and we have to interpret scripture according to the answers that they gave and recorded for us. We do a disservice to scripture when we impose a 21st century mindset upon these ancient thought forms. Because of God’s revelation in Jesus the Christ, Christ followers in the 21st century have a knowledge and understanding of God and his purposes and a knowledge of the universe that ancient people did not and could not have.
Christians who take the Bible seriously believe that God inspired the thoughts of the writers when they wrote the Bible, but the words used are tied to the writer’s world and his understanding of God and God’s purposes. The Bible was not written to us; but it was written for us. What message did the biblical writers send? What was the message the first readers received? When we understand that, we can discover what the message should be for us today. Since we are far removed from the original sacred writings, it is very possible that we could misunderstand the communication that is intended.
The authority of Scripture comes from what the Bible affirms, and its affirmation is that (1) God has wanted a people to call his own, (2) God took the initiative and continually seeks those who would be his, and (3) there are consequences when humans refuse to be God’s people. Some theologians refer to this as “salvation history,” and this affirmation of salvation is rooted in the culture and thought patterns of the world in which Old and New Testament writers lived. The Bible is a book of faith, so there should be nothing contrary to Christian belief and the authority of the Bible in studying ancient people and trying to understand how they thought and communicated.
Prehistoric People and Religion
Since Neanderthals are our nearest human cousins, according to geneticists, we shall start our journey with them. One of the hottest topics in scientific research right now involves determining just how intelligent Neanderthals were. For years, the prevailing view was that Neanderthals were primitive, poorly developed brutes when compared to modern humans, only capable of expressing themselves in grunts and groans. Discoveries in the last few years have really brought this assumption into question.
Though extinct, the Neanderthal species of human beings is closely related to modern humans. Recent genetic studies show the DNA of Neanderthals differs from that of modern humans by just 0.12%. There are some anatomical differences between Neanderthals and modern humans, and changes in climate, diet, and disease control could account for these differences.
However, archaeologists have discovered evidence of a Neanderthal culture, and if archaeologists are correct, people were worshipping 50,000 years ago. Archaeologists have unearthed Neanderthal graves containing weapons, tools and the bones of a sacrificed animal. All of these suggest some kind of belief in a future world that would require these tools.
An approach combining a global field recovery and the reexamination of the previously discovered Neanderthal remains has been undertaken in the site of La Chapelle-Aux-Saints (France), where the hypothesis of a Neanderthal burial was raised for the first time. This project has concluded that the Neanderthal of La Chapelle-Aux-Saints was deposited in a pit dug by other members of its group and protected by a rapid covering from any disturbance. These discoveries attest to the existence of West European Neanderthal burial and of the Neanderthal cognitive capacity to produce it.
The Neanderthal graves show that when these early people became conscious of their mortality they created some sort of explanation that enabled them to come to terms with death and dying. The animal bones indicate that the burial was accompanied by a sacrifice. In the Neanderthal graves, the corpse has sometimes been placed in a fetal position, the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action in this world or the next. Some 50,000 years ago, someone took great care to dig a grave for this unknown person and to protect his body from scavengers. all of which suggest some kind of belief in a future world that was similar to their own. The Neanderthals may have told each other stories about the life that their dead companion now enjoyed. They were certainly reflecting about death in a way that their fellow-creatures did not. Animals watch each other die but, as far as we know, they give the matter no further consideration. The Neanderthal graves show that when these early people became conscious of their mortality, they created some sort of counter-narrative that enabled them to come to terms with it. The Neanderthals who buried their companions with such care seem to have imagined that the visible, material world was not the only reality. From a very early date, therefore, it appears that human beings were distinguished by their ability to have ideas that went beyond their everyday experience.
Excavations at Raqefet Cave on Mt. Carmel have revealed a number of fascinating insights in prehistoric Israel. Archaeological investigations show that the Natufians—hunter-gatherers living 15,000–11,600 years ago in the Levant—held feasts at the burial sites of the deceased and decorated the graves with flowers. Excavations at ancient sites all over prehistoric Israel have yielded, among other things, stone tools, butchered animals, and evidence for the control of fire.
As Barbara J. King has noted, religion is best understood both as practice and belief. In more advanced cultures, practice and belief may also include sacred texts that prescribe a set of beliefs. When texts are involved, what a person believes about a god or sacred forces really matters. In many human societies, past and present, though, there is no text. Everyday life involves appeasing gods or spirits, honoring the ancestors, and a sense of the sacred and/or the supernatural. “It’s within this context,” writes King, “that the case for Neanderthal religion — for ritual practices steeped in connecting to the sacred world — is most convincingly made.”
To support the possibility of Neanderthal religion, King refers to the Gobekli Tepe, a massive hilltop site in Turkey. After carving limestone pillars with all sorts of animal images, they hauled the 16-ton stones into multiple huge rings without the help of wheeled vehicles or domesticated animals. The Gobekli Tepe people carried out symbolic and sacred activities on a hilltop they adorned with massive architecture — 5,000 years before Stonehenge. What forms those religious practices took are unknown at this point.
John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009): 15.
Barbara J. King, “Were the Neanderthals Religious?” Cosmos and Culture 13, no. 7, December 16 (2016). https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/12/07/504650215/were-neanderthals-religious.