Our Small Brained Pre-Human Cousins Buried Their Dead – OpEd


The new species of pre-human relative was discovered by a team led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand deep inside a cave located outside Johannesburg where they uncovered fossils from at least 15 individuals who lived about 300,000 years ago. In research released on June 5, 2023, scientists claim they have  found evidence that the ancient pre-human cousin buried its dead, and carved symbols into cave walls, actions previously tied only to bigger-brained species

The bones were found in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa in 2014, where fossil elements belonging to Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, were discovered. This ancient pre-human cousin may have buried its dead and carved symbols into cave walls, surprising findings for a creature with such a small brain. 

The researchers say they’ve found evidence that the species was capable of complex funeral behavior that so far has only been seen in species with bigger brains. 

“We are facing a remarkable discovery here” for a species with brains one-third the size of humans, said anthropologist Lee Berger, who led the research funded by the National Geographic Society. Their research has not been peer-reviewed yet and some outside scientists think more evidence is needed to challenge what we know about how humans evolved their complex thinking.

These creatures had some traits in common with modern humans, like legs made for walking upright and hands that could work with objects, but other features looked more ancient, including their small brains.

One of the new studies describes what researchers say were intentional burial sites. The team uncovered fossil remains of adults and children in shallow holes in the ground, their bodies in a fetal position. Another study describes a series of marks carved into the cave walls, including geometric patterns and cross-hatched lines. All of this behavior would be surprising for a creature whose brain was closer in size to an ape’s than a human’s, experts said.

The reason it is so hard for many academics to understand Homo naledi’s burial behavior is because academics have always identified burials with abstract religious thinking (theology) rather than emotional ritual behavior which offers emotional healing and communal comfort.

We know next to nothing about the God concepts of prehistoric humans. 

While beliefs about God are of great concern to Monotheists, most other religions focus much more attention on myths about the interactions between the Gods, magic and anti-magic rituals, dietary self-discipline, public and private life cycle rituals, standards of social and personal behavior, healing sickness and sin, and community ceremonies and celebrations. 

Formal creeds and religious beliefs (theology) are a small and recent development within the much larger domain of feelings of trust and group loyalty that have been evolving among primates for hundreds of thousands of years. 
Recent brain studies have shown how biologically organic trust and sharing are to human minds. Activities that build group loyalty and interpersonal trust enhance individual survival and promote individual spirituality much more than cognitive beliefs and ideologies.

Spirituality among Homo Sapiens has been evolving for at least 120-160,000 years. Religion is as deeply, if not more deeply rooted, in the Homo Sapiens brain as art or music. Recent studies, especially those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person’s general religiousness which is encapsulated in the Islamic belief that all individual Humans and Jinn are born with an innate inclination towards submission to the one God.

The idea that reason, socialism or modern science would replace spiritual and religious thinking has turned out to be a wish fulfillment fantasy of some people, many of whom bear a grudge against religion and spirituality. Religious rituals and ideas are ubiquitous among Homo Sapiens  and continue to evolve as the creative intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens encounter changes in their environment. This will most likely continue as long as Homo Sapiens have creative intelligent minds. 

“Big brains are still important,” Fuentes said. “They just don’t explain what we thought they explained.”

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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