Primate Thanatology and the Case for Human Exceptionalism

Primate Thanatology and the Case for Human Exceptionalism

I will deliver this people from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues?
Where, O grave, is your destruction?

Hosea 13:14

It was the first time someone I knew died. I was in seventh grade. My classmate’s younger brother and two younger sisters perished in a fire that burned his family’s home to the ground. We lived in a small rural town in West Virginia at the time. Everyone knew each other and the impact of that tragedy reverberated throughout the community.

I was asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral. To this day, I remember watching my friend’s father with a cast on one arm and another on one of his legs, hobble up to each of the little caskets to touch them one last time as he sobbed uncontrollably right before we lifted and carried the caskets to the waiting hearses.

Death is part of life and our reaction to death is part of what makes us human. But, are humans unique in this regard?

Funerary Practices

Human responses to death include funerary practices—ceremonies that play an integral role in the final disposition of the body of the deceased.

Anthropologists who study human cultures see funerals as providing important scientific insight into human nature. These scientists define funerals as cultural rituals designed to honor, remember, and celebrate the life of those who have died. Funerals provide an opportunity for people to express grief, mourn loss, offer sympathy, and support the bereaved. Also, funerals often serve a religious purpose that includes (depending on the faith tradition) praying for the person who has died, helping his or her soul transition to the afterlife (or reincarnate).

Funerary Practices and Human Exceptionalism

For many anthropologists, human funerary practices are an expression of our capacities for:

  • symbolism
  • open-ended generative manipulation of symbols
  • theory of mind
  • complex, hierarchical social interactions

Though the idea of human exceptionalism is controversial within anthropology today, a growing minority of anthropologists argue that the combination of these qualities sets us apart from other creatures. They make us unique and exceptional.

As a Christian, I view this set of qualities as scientific descriptors of the image of God. That being the case, then, from my vantage point, human funerary practices (along with language, music, and art) are part of the body of evidence that we can marshal to make the case that human beings uniquely bear God’s image.

What about Neanderthals?

But are human beings really unique and exceptional?

Didn’t Neanderthals bury their dead? Didn’t these hominins engage in funerary practices just like modern humans do?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then for some people it undermines the case for human uniqueness and exceptionalism and, along with it, the scientific case for the image of God. If Neanderthal funerary practices flow out of the capacity for symbolism, open-ended generative capacity, etc., then it means that Neanderthals must have been like us. They must have been exceptional, too, and humans don’t stand apart from all other creatures on Earth, as the Scriptures teach.

Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead?

But, could these notions about Neanderthal exceptionalism be premature? Although there is widespread belief that Neanderthals buried their dead in a ritualistic manner and even though this claim can be attested in the scientific literature, a growing body of archeological evidence challenges this view.

Many anthropologists question if Neanderthal burials were in fact ritualistic. (If they weren’t, then it most likely indicates that these hominins didn’t have a concept of the afterlife—a concept that requires symbolism and open-ended generative capacities.) Others go so far as to question if Neanderthals buried their dead at all. (For an in-depth discussion of the scientific challenges to Neanderthal burials, see the Resources section below.)

Were Neanderthal Burials an Evolutionary Precursor to Human Funerary Practices?

It is not unreasonable to think that these hominins may well have disposed of corpses and displayed some type of response when members of their group died. Over the centuries, keen observers (including primatologists, most recently) have documented nonhuman primates inspecting, protecting, retrieving, carrying, and dragging the dead bodies of members of their groups.1 In light of these observations, it makes sense to think that Neanderthals may have done something similar.

While it doesn’t appear that Neanderthals responded to death in the same way we do, it is tempting (within the context of the evolutionary paradigm) to view Neanderthal behavior as an evolutionary stepping-stone to the funerary practices of modern humans.

But, is this transitional view the best explanation for Neanderthal burials—assuming that these hominins did, indeed, dispose of group members’ corpses? Research in thanatology (the study of dying and death) among nonhuman primates holds the potential to shed light on this question.

The Nonhuman Primate Response to Death

Behavioral evolution researchers André Gonçalves and Susana Caravalho recently reviewed studies in primate thanatology—categorizing and interpreting the way these creatures respond to death. In the process, they sought to explain the role the death response plays among various primate groups.

Figure 1: Monkey Sitting over the Body of a Deceased Relative. Image credit: Shutterstock

When characterizing the death response of nonhuman primates, Gonçalves and Caravalho group the behaviors of these creatures into two categories: (1) responses to infant deaths and (2) responses to adult deaths.

In most primate taxa (classified groups), when an infant dies the mother will carry the dead baby for days before abandoning it, often grooming the corpse and swatting away flies. Eventually, she will abandon it. Depending on the taxon, in some instances young females will carry the infant’s remains for a few days after the mother abandons it. Most other members in the group ignore the corpse. At times, they will actively avoid both mother and corpse when the stench becomes overwhelming.

Figure 2: Baboon Mother with a Child. Image credit: Shutterstock

The death of an adult member of the group tends to elicit a much more pervasive response than does the death of an infant. The specific nature of the response depends upon the taxon and also on other factors such as: (1) the bond between individual members of the group and the deceased; (2) the social status of the deceased; and (3) the group structure of the particular taxon. Typically, the closer the bond between the deceased and the group member the longer the duration of the death response. The same is true if the deceased is a high-ranking member of the group.

Often the death response includes vocalizations that connote alarm and distress. Depending on the taxon, survivors may hit and pull at the corpse, as if trying to rouse it. Other times, it appears that survivors hit the corpse out of frustration. Sometimes groups members will sniff at the corpse or peer at it. In some taxa, survivors will groom the corpse or stroke it gently, while swatting away flies. In other taxa, survivors will stand vigil over the corpse, guarding it from scavengers.

In some instances, survivors return to the corpse and visit it for days. After the corpse is disposed, group members may continue to visit the site for quite some time. In other taxa, group members may avoid the death site. Both behaviors indicate that group members understand that an event of great importance to the group took place at the site where a member died.

Are Humans and Nonhuman Primates Different in Degree? Or Kind?

It is clear that nonhuman primates have an awareness of death and, for some primate taxa, it seems as if members of the group experience grief. Some anthropologists and primatologists see this behavior as humanlike. It’s easy to see why. We are moved by the anguish and confusion these creatures seem to experience when one of their group members dies.

For the most part, these scientists would agree that the human response to death is more complex and sophisticated. Yet, they see human behavior as differing only in degree rather than kind when compared to other primates. Accordingly, they interpret primate death awareness as an evolutionary antecedent to the sophisticated funerary practices of modern humans, with Neanderthal behavior part of the trajectory. And for this reason, they maintain that human beings really aren’t unique or exceptional.

The Trouble with Anthropomorphism

One problem with this conclusion (even within an evolutionary framework) is that it fails to account for the human tendency toward anthropomorphism. As part of our human nature, we possess theory of mind. We recognize that other human beings have minds like ours. And because of this capability, we know what other people are thinking and feeling. But, we don’t know how to turn this feature on and off. As a result, we also apply theory of mind to animals and inanimate objects, attributing humanlike behaviors and motivations to them, though they don’t actually possess these qualities.

British ethnologist Marian Stamp Dawkins argues in her book Why Animals Matter that scientists studying animal behavior fall victim to the tendency to anthropomorphize just as easily as the rest of us. Too often, researchers interpret experimental results from animal behavioral studies and from observations of animal behavior in captivity and the wild in terms of human behavior. When they do, these researchers ascribe human mental experiences—thoughts and feelings—to animals. Dawkins points out that when investigators operate this way, it leads to untestable hypotheses because we can never truly know what occurs in animal minds. Moreover, Dawkins argues that we tend to prefer anthropomorphic interpretations to other explanations. She states, “Anthropomorphism tends to make people go for the most human-like explanation and ignore the other less exciting ones.”2

A lack of awareness of our tendency toward anthropomorphism raises questions about the all-too-common view that the death response of nonhuman primates—and Neanderthals—is humanlike and an evolutionary antecedent to modern human funerary practices. This is especially true in light of the explanation offered by Gonçalves and Caravalho for the death response in primates.

The two investigators argue that the response of mothers to the death of their infants is actually maladaptive (from an evolutionary perspective). Carrying around dead infants and caring for them is energetically costly and hinders their locomotion. Both consequences render them vulnerable to predators. The pair explain this behavior by arguing that the mother’s response to the death of her infant falls on the continuum of care-taking behavior and can be seen as a trade-off. In other words, nonhuman primate mothers who have a strong instinct to care for their offspring will ensure the survival of their infant. But if the infant dies, the instinct is so strong that they will continue to care for it after its death.

Gonçalves and Caravalho also point out that the death response toward adult members of the group plays a role in reestablishing new group dynamics. Depending on the primate taxon, the death of members shifts the group’s hierarchical structure. This being the case, it seems reasonable to think that the death response helps group members adjust to the new group structure as survivors take on new positions in the hierarchy.

Finally, as Dawkins argues, we can’t know what takes place in the minds of animals. Therefore, we can’t legitimately attribute human mental experiences to animals. So, while it may seem to us as if some nonhuman primates experience grief as part of the death response, how do we know that this is actually the case? Evidence for grief often consists of loss of appetite and increased vocalizations. However, though these changes occur in response to the death of a group member, there may be other explanations for these behaviors that have nothing to do with grief at all.

Death Response in Nonhuman Primates and Neanderthals

Study of primate thanatology also helps us to put Neanderthal burial practices (assuming that these hominins buried dead group members) into context. Often, when anthropologists interpret Neanderthal burials (from an evolutionary perspective), they are comparing these practices to human funerary practices. This comparison makes it seem like Neanderthal burials are part of an evolutionary trajectory toward modern human behavior and capabilities.

But what if the death response of nonhuman primates is factored into the comparison? When we add a second endpoint, we find that the Neanderthal response to death clusters more closely to the responses displayed by nonhuman primates than to modern humans. And as remarkable as the death response of nonhuman primates may be, it is categorically different from modern human funerary practices. To put it another way, modern human funerary practices reflect our capacity for symbolism, open-ended manipulation of symbols, theory of mind, etc. In contrast, the death response of nonhuman primates and hominins, such as Neanderthals, seems to serve utilitarian purposes. So, it isn’t the presence or absence of the death response that determines our exceptional nature. Instead, it is a death response shaped by our capacity for symbolism and open-ended generative capacity that highlights our exceptional uniqueness.

Modern humans really do seem to stand apart compared to all other creatures in a way that aligns with the biblical claim that human beings uniquely possess and express the image of God.

RTB’s biblical creation model for human origins, described in Who Was Adam?, views hominins such as Neanderthals as creatures created by God’s divine fiat that possess intelligence and emotional capacity. These animals were able to employ crude tools and even adopt some level of “culture,” much like baboons, gorillas, and chimpanzees. But they were not spiritual beings made in God’s image. That position—and all of the intellectual, relational, and symbolic capabilities that come with it—remains reserved for modern humans alone.

Resources for Further Exploration

Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead?

Nonhuman Primate Behavior

Problem-Solving in Animals and Human Exceptionalism

  1. André Gonçalves and Susana Caravalho, “Death among Primates: A Critical Review of Nonhuman Primate Interactions towards Their Dead and Dying,” Biological Reviews 94, no. 4 (April 4, 2019), doi:10.1111/brv.12512.
  2. Marian Stamp Dawkins, Why Animals Matter: Animal Consciousness, Animal Welfare, and Human Well-Being (New York, Oxford University Press, 2012), 30.