Homo neanderthalensis and the evolutionary origins of ritual in Homo sapiens

Michael A Nielsen, Michelle Langley, Ceri Shipton, Rohan Kapitany

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    There is a large, if disparate, body of archaeological literature discussing specific instantiations of symbolic material culture and the possibility of ritual practices in Neanderthal populations. Despite this attention, however, no single synthesis exists that draws upon cognitive, psychological and cultural evolutionary theories of ritual. Here, we review the evidence for ritual-practice among now-extinct Homo neanderthalensis, as well as the necessary cognitive pre-conditions for such behaviour, in order to explore the evolution of ritual in Homo sapiens. We suggest that the currently available archaeological evidence indicates that Neanderthals may have used 'ritualization' to increase the successful transmission of technical knowledge across generations - providing an explanation for the technological stability of the Middle Palaeolithic and attesting to a survival strategy differing from near-contemporary H. sapiens. This article is part of the theme issue 'Ritual renaissance: new insights into the most human of behaviours'.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-7
    JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B
    Issue number1805
    Publication statusPublished - 2020


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