Did Neanderthals Have Souls?

A newly unearthed hominid revives some difficult questions for Christians.

Themba Hadebe / AP

Earlier this month, scientists working in South Africa made an exciting announcement: They had discovered a new species of human ancestor. The species, which they named Homo naledi, may be among the first of the genus Homo, what the project’s lead scientist, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, described as a “bridge” between more primitive species and humans. National Geographic called it “one of the greatest fossil discoveries of the past half century.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the naledi discovery was that the skeletons appear to have been deposited in a burial chamber, suggesting the species engaged in rituals and even symbolic thought. That raises a whole host of scientific and anthropological questions: When did Homo naledi live, for example, and why did it die out?

But the discovery of a relatively advanced human ancestor also raises theological questions, particularly for Christians who believe that a person must believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ in order to receive eternal life in Heaven. It may sound silly to apply that standard to primitive species hovering millions of years ago between animal and human, but it’s an important question if you believe in the eternal soul.

The broader issue is what happens to the soul of anyone born before Jesus Christ. Surely Moses and Abraham, for example, made it to Heaven. But how? The short answer, according to many theologians, is they trusted in God’s promises about the coming of a savior. They wouldn’t have known the specifics about Jesus Christ of Nazareth, but they could have had a general faith that a Messiah was on his way.

A related question is what happens to modern people who never had the chance to hear the message of Jesus Christ. Again, most Christian theologians allow for salvation on the basis of a kind of orientation toward God. Here’s how the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council addressed the problem in 1964, for example:

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.

Young Earth Creationists, who deny evolutionary theory and argue that God created the universe in the span of six days no more than 10,000 years ago, are not known for their comfort with ambiguity. For them, the most pressing problem each time scientists discover a new hominid is whether the species is ape or human. The former are mere animals; the latter have an eternal soul. The creationist organization Answers in Genesis, which operates the Creation Museum in Kentucky, calls Neanderthals “fully human,” for example, while the 3-million-year-old “Lucy” was clearly an ape. Reasons to Believe, another creationist group, classifies Neanderthals, Homo erectus, and others as animals. Others have speculated that Neanderthals are the people who died in the devastating flood described in the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. (My cousin, a Christian biologist, recently explored these issues in a fascinating entry on his blog.)

Creationists are already arguing over the naledi discovery. Kurt Wise, the director of the Center for Creation Research at Truett-McConnell College, told the evangelical World magazine that the fossils do represent a fully human species. Answers in Genesis disagrees. Regular contributor Elizabeth Mitchell dismissed the evidence that the naledi buried their own dead, and reiterated that all human species are descendants of Adam and Eve:

These fossils, like so many others before them, may reshuffle the “family tree” that evolutionists are constantly drawing and re-drawing in their efforts to create for us a history apart from God. But they will not re-shuffle the truth about human history or what it means to be human. We know that God created man and land animals the same day without evolution. We seriously doubt the original owners of the Dinaledi bones were among the descendants of Adam and Eve, as the preponderance of the evidence suggests they were animals, one of the variations that developed among apes. They most certainly were not any sort of evolutionary intermediate.

Even the many Christians who accept that the world is much older than 10,000 years find that the problem can still provoke. But it’s not necessarily cause for despair over the fate of the naledi soul. British pastor Mark Woods, a contributor to the online publication Christian Today, wrote recently that the naledi burial site raises intriguing suggestions for Christians about the existence of the soul. If this primitive group went to such lengths to bury their dead, he argues, it “shows they knew that death was not an absolute ending, and that those who had died were still, in some way, present.”

That’s a theological way of saying what scientists have been arguing all along. As Lee Berger, who led the discovery in South Africa, put it, “We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human.” For some, it’s a matter of eternal life and death.