The Time Before

Although we’re still in an ice age, we are currently in an interglacial period.  That’s a good thing, since glacial periods are truly unpleasant – dry, cold, low biological productivity, high variability. Low CO2 concentrations made plants more susceptible to drought. Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd have suggested that the development of agriculture was impossible in glacial periods, due to these factors.

There was an earlier interglacial period that began about 130,000 years ago and ended about 114,000 years ago. It was a bit warmer than the current interglacial (the Holocene).

The most interesting events in the Eemian are those that didn’t happen.  In the Holocene, humans developed agriculture, which led to all kinds of interesting trouble.  They did it more than once, possibly as many as seven times independently. Back  in the Eeemian, nichevo.  Neanderthals moved father north as the glaciers melted, AMH moved up into the Middle East, but nobody did much of anything new. Populations likely increased, as habitable area expanded and biological productivity went up, but without any obvious consequences. Anatomically modern humans weren’t yet up to displacing archaic groups like the Neanderthals.

So, it is fair to say that everybody back then, including AMH, lacked capabilities that some later humans had.  We could, if we wished, call these new abilities ‘behavioral modernity’.

The Bushmen are the most divergent of all human populations, and probably split off earliest. They are farther from the Bantu (in genetic distance) than the French or Chinese are.

According to some models, this split (between the Bushmen and other populations of sub-Saharan Africa) occurred more than 100,000 years ago. Recent direct measurements of mutations show much lower rates than previously thought, which tends to place such splits even farther back in time.

The question is whether they split off before the development of practical behavioral modernity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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57 Responses to The Time Before

  1. dearieme says:

    “The question is whether they split off before the development of practical behavioral modernity.” I suppose that Anthropology could shed light on this – if only it were a discipline pursued by competent, honest people.

  2. reiner Tor says:

    Genetic distance is just a social construct.

    • dearieme says:

      It’s a mathematical construct. But the maths was probably invented by dead white males, so you are right anyway.

    • IC says:

      Turning any thing into politics. You should be a politician. Here are for scientific minded people.

  3. dearieme says:

    I’ve always liked “Hottentots”, a poetical, musical word. How do they fit into the picture of Bantu and Bushmen?

    • reiner Tor says:

      AFAIK they’re closely related to the Bushmen.

      • Jim says:

        “Hottentot” and “Bushman” are considered derogatory by some people. These people have no general term for their race but only names for particular tribes as subgroups. “San” or “Khoisan” are considered more acceptable.

        It’s sorta like you’re not supposed to use the Algonkin term “Eskimo” but instead use “Inuit” but I’ve heard that Yupik would much rather be called “Eskimo”.

        When visiting Arizona I recall asking some Indians what tribe they belonged to and they said “We are Navaho.” They didn’t seem to find anything offensive about the name “Navaho” which is derived from a Tanoan term for them. They call themselves “Dine”.

      • Anonymous says:

        Yes, the Bushmen and Hottentots are closer to each other than to the Pygmies, though the three group together against the Bantu. As the name indicates, Bushmen live more like hunter-gatherers. One claim is that they differentiated only in the last 1 or 2 thousand years when the Bantu migration brought agriculture; those who adopted it became the Hottentots.

      • Others say that San and Khoisan are outsiders’ terms and are considered derogatory by the peoples in question. They are said to prefer Bushman, not having a single word of their own to cover their different tribes.

  4. Bruce says:

    “They are farther from the Bantu (in genetic distance) than the French or Chinese are.”

    Are they not considered to be within any of the five major continental races?

    • JayMan says:

      They are number 6 (or number 1, likely more accurately):

      Racial Reality: Global Admixture Analysis at K=6

    • ZankFrander says:

      The notion that Bushmen and Bantu-speaking Africans are genetically very different from another, doesn’t hold any truth in the Southern African context. Black South Africans today are in many cases of mixed Khoisan and Bantu-speaking descent – especially (but not exclusively) Xhosa.

      “The Bushmen are the most divergent of all human populations, and probably split off earliest. They are farther from the Bantu (in genetic distance) than the French or Chinese are.”

      To my understanding, the Khoisan people harbour the greatest diversity out of all human populations, despite their small population size today. Other modern populations have lost significant amounts of this original genetic diversity. But due to the great genetic diversity in Khoisan people I guess that bantu-speaking Africans, Western Europeans or East Asians are populations, that actually inherited a subset of the original genetic diversity that is still present in Khoisan. I don’t understand your statement about genetic distance therefore. Please care to elaborate and name sources!

      By the way: the correct terminology is Khoikhoi and San people – or Khoisan as an umbrella term.

      • gcochran9 says:

        “doesn’t hold any truth in the Southern African context.”

        Sure it does. Statistical geneticists estimate that the Bushmen ( which is what they like to be called) split off from the rest of the human race about 200,000 years ago, assuming the recently measured low mutation rate. They are the most divergent human group.

        That said, there has been recent admixture with other groups. Some Bushmen groups have a a fair amount of Bantu admixture, some don’t. There’s also admixture – a little – from a migration of pastoralists that started up around the Horn of Africa.

        Time length of divergence is not exactly the same as the degree of difference in phenotype, but there has certainly been plenty of time for such differences to evolve, and the Bushmen have pretty unusual phenotypes.

        • ZankFrander says:

          Me: “The notion that Bushmen and Bantu-speaking Africans are genetically very different from another, doesn’t hold any truth in the Southern African context.”

          You: “Sure it does”

          You are wrong. Not only are there groups that are considered Khoisan, who have mixed with Bantu-speaking populations, but also groups classified as Bantu-speakers, who have Khoisan admixture – especially in Southern African and South Africa.

          http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3597481/
          http://www.mpg.de/6830744/Khoisan-lineages-Bantu-groups

          But thanks for finally acknowledging that there is only one human race: “…Statistical geneticists estimate that the Bushmen…split off from the rest of the human race about 200,000 years ago…”

          By the way: Most of us South Africans of Khoisan descent use the term Khoisan – Trust me, it’s not up to a beer-bellied, short-sighted Utah physicist, who looks a bit like a Eugene De Kock turned mad scientist, to decide what we like to be called!

          • gcochran9 says:

            Aren’t you full of shit today !

            There are groups among the Bushmen that have not mixed much (the Ju/’hoansi of Botswana, for example – who like to be called Bushmen), and they are the most divergent group of humans:

            An early divergence of KhoeSan ancestors from those of other modern humans is supported by an ABC-based analysis of autosomal resequencing data.

            Bayesian inference of ancient human demography from individual genome sequences

            Khoisan hunter-gatherers have been the largest population throughout most of modern-human demographic history

            ‘the human race’ is a phrase that refers to all humanity, which is one species. But certainly there are separate races, and the Bushmen are possibly the most different one, certainly the oldest.

          • ZankFrander says:

            Since you don’t want me to reply to your comment directly (afraid of more evidence, that highlights your flaws?), I’ll try it here! You might censor it, you might not.

            I’m aware that there are groups among the Khoisan, that haven’t mixed much with non-Khoisan population and never indicated anything to the contrary. Nonetheless, there are obviously groups among the Khoisan, that have significantly mixed with Bantu-Speaking People or with white Europeans (the so called “Coloureds” population of South Africa and Namibia are essentially the descendants of Khoisan-white European admixture).

            The other issue you carefully avoided is the issue of Khoisan-admixture in Southern Africas Bantu-Speaking population. You obviously have no clue about the region, if you are denying the obvious. And the obvious has been proven by many studies – some of which I have provided in my earlier comments.

            When it comes to your usage of terms like “race” and “species” – you certainly have a ‘unique’ approach.

            If we Khoisan were the oldest and most original human group today (I share this notion), then it would actually make more sense to call those groups of humans, who have differentiated in time from the orginal, “different”. If a mutation is a permanent CHANGE of the genome, then this is actually a differentiation (with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ consequences) from the ORIGINAL.

            There is no doubt that the greatest genetic diversity has been maintained in Khoisan people. Non-Khoisan populations therefore can be considered as owning reduced subsets of the diverse original set of genes, that is still present in Khoisan. There might have been additional natural selection processes, adaptations/mutations that were necessary – especially in the hostile terrains of Eurasia – that led to more ‘differentiation processes’ – which made non-Khoisan populations even more different.

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  6. A2M says:

    Is there any physical difference between pre-BM and post-BM humans? Like body proportions, intensity of bone ridges, chin structure and alike? The same question goes also for bushmen compared to the rest of us.

  7. Flinders Petrie says:

    That’s very cheeky of you to move behavioral modernity up to the Neolithic. Isn’t it funny how this whole concept of behavioral modernity has been dropped like a sack of potatoes after it became clear that it couldn’t be pinned in Africa before AMH spread out and replaced all the archaic dummies?

    It wasn’t for a lack of trying though. I wonder how much grant money was spent at Blombos Cave over the past decade compared to, say, Qaftzeh, or Geißenklösterle?

  8. JayMan says:

    Well, it’s like I say:

    🙂

  9. Zarf says:

    Bushmen made rock paintings of animals and had a diverse tool kit going way back, didn’t they? So wouldn’t they have to be called “behaviorally modern”? And Bantus were making interesting sculptures and costumes and had all kinds of tools before 1850, so they’d definitely be behaviorally modern, right? Unless cultural influence somehow flowed from Ethiopia and Arabia into an originally art-less tool-poor Bantu country? But even so, they were able to pick up the influence; they wanted to.

    • Flinders Petrie says:

      The problem with using art and diverse tool kits to define behavioral modernity is that Neanderthals also had diverse tool kits, and they made art…maybe even painted art. Most people don’t want to call Neanderthals behaviorally modern, so the game has been to search for something – anything – in Africa that might show advanced cognition earlier than in Europe.

      Figurative art? No. Compare the one and only Paleolithic painted figure from Africa with the much older paintings from Europe.

      And this just begs the question: why does art make people behaviorally modern? If one were to objectively step back and ask: where can we find clear evidence for large leaps in cognitive abilities in the archaeological record? I would have to choose a time even more recent than the Neolithic – around the first state-level societies around 5 kya. Only then do you have clear evidence for the ability to organize complex societies, writing, large-scale engineering, planning years in advance rather than months, etc.

      • Sandgroper says:

        What about 20,000 year old pottery in China? Ya think pottery counts as behaviourally modern? Nomadic HGs making and firing pots sounds like it needs a bit of planning.

      • Flinders Petrie says:

        Re: Chinese pottery: I don’t doubt that Paleolithic H&Gs could plan very well. But I don’t see how ceramics or pyrotechnology alone would tip them over the edge into behavioral modernity.

        There’s also the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, made of fired clay, which dates to 29-25 kya.

      • Sandgroper says:

        The Chinese pottery was made to store/carry food, not just for pretty dolls. It gets back to how you define behavioural modernity, and what you need to allow it to happen.

      • Matt says:

        That’s a point. But if one culture is using skins and gourds to carry food and water (hard to attest from the archaeological record?), and pottery for “pretty dolls” and the other is using pots to carry food and water, it seems hard to see how one is “planning” more than the other.

      • Flinders Petrie says:

        There is clear evidence for storage at Dolní Věstonice in the form of large pits and baskets.

        But again, does food storage, together with finely manufactured figurative art, necessarily reflect behavioral modernity?

        • gcochran9 says:

          Obviously you have to define behavioral modernity. I could say it consisted of the ability to develop agriculture given favorable conditions, or to displace archaic hominids, or for 80% of the population to be capable of learning to read. Whatever – but with a definition, there’s at least some hope of doing something useful. Maybe you could show that making crosshatched pattern on a rock in Blombos inexorably leads to the ability to kick Neanderthal ass. I don’t see how, but at least you’d know where you stood.

          • spottedtoad says:

            I found it very depressing when Ian Tattersal was giving a talk a few years ago where he was anxiously showing all the evidence that Cro-Magnons were behaviorally modern as of 40KYO (complex art, musical instruments, efficient hunting weapons, etc) and then showed those simple ochre scratches from Blombos from 70KYO and with obvious relief announced, “well, and so we can see that humans were entirely behaviorally modern before we came out from Africa.”

            • gcochran9 says:

              Tattersal doesn’t even believe in neoDarwinism. Too much math? it is pretty much normal for paleontologists to know next to nothing about genetics and evolution.

      • Flinders Petrie says:

        I like it: crosshatching is like kryptonite to Neanderthals.

        Here’s a fun definition of behavioral modernity: the ability to function productively in a modern first world society.

      • Sandgroper says:

        You’ve just left out most of the population of modern Australia.

  10. Sandgroper says:

    If you’re going to include rock paintings, you have to include Australians. They didn’t pick up much, presumably because they didn’t want to. But some became semi-sedentary and built large stone fish traps, some put toxic plants through complex processing to render them edible (you have to figure either they killed quite a few test subjects before they perfected the process (a bit like my mother’s cooking) or someone taught it to them), some did selective burning to encourage growth of desirable plants (food bearing plants, plants to attract game animals), and some scattered seeds of food bearing plants, which looks like it’s somewhere on the way to agriculture. They were battling poor soils and low rainfall, and trying to harness a couple of kangaroos to a plough would be hell on earth. I guess diprotodons could have done it, but they had already eaten them all.

    For me, the problem is how to define the start of behavioural modernity, and whether it was just climate-constrained within the past 100,000 years. And whether what it needed was just enough critical mass of AMHs to get it rolling. I’m overlooking the idea that what was needed was some specific archaic admixture, but not discounting it. But archaic admixture in modern people looks like it’s poly-whatsit.

  11. Tom says:

    Domestication is the evolutionary process by which a species becomes more useful to humans. Although humans can initiate it, it seems that the general trend is that it just starts happening on its own by simple proximity. Cats are a famous example of self-domestication, but dogs almost certainly started this way as well, going from wolves to pariah dogs. Rye also self-domesticated to become less offensive to humans, having started as a weed.

    So simple proximity to humans results in domestication. Which species has been around humans the longest? Humans. The break between behaviorally modern humans and the rest is domestication event. Early humans killed off people who were annoying, uncooperative, etc… until after enough generations group think, leader worship, etc… evolved. Lower-status humans became a usable tool for higher-status humans. Domesticated humans thus possessed a powerful advantage: a domesticated animal, themselves. Better than horses, better than dogs, humans are the ultimate domesticated animal. Groups possing this advantage had no trouble expanding into their neighbors, with the resulting hybrid populations being selected for domesticity, thus continuing the process.

    • IC says:

      Co-evulotion into symbiosis between species happens all time. Domestication is one symbiosis. But is this unique human?

  12. BurplesonAFB says:

    You seem quite sure that there had been no agriculture prior to the Holocene, but what evidence of ag would have survived the last glaciation? Not trying to postulate about Russell’s Teapot here, but a km of continental ice and sea level changes on the order of 500’… I mean goddam.

  13. Patrick L. Boyle says:

    Normally you expect to run into the ‘Eemian’ on the Global Warming sites but it is relevant to anthropology too.

    The main significance of the Eemian interglacial in Climatology nowadays is that it was free of modern humans with their nasty habit of burning fossil fuels yet it was warmer than today. So it would seem that CO2 alone is insufficient to account for Climate Change. But you already knew that.

    As I remember we split off from the chimp line about 4.5 million years ago. The Holocene Ice Age began about 3 million years ago. So humans have always lived with this pattern of advancing and retreating ice. Climatologists ‘explain’ our ice age by reference to the so called ‘Milankovich’ cycles. But their are problems. First of all, ice ages have been rare for the last billions or so years and there have been no Milankovich cycles changes to correspond with the onset of those ages. Some scientists are looking at galactic wide phenomena. They think it’s the interstellar dust changes when the solar system passes trough a spiral arm block sunlight, Could be, but the case hasn’t convinced the majority of astronomers or geologists yet.

    Another problem is that the periodicity of ice advances and retreats changed abruptly a million years ago. For the first million and a half years the 20ky cycle predominated but since then it’s been a 100ky cycle of ice and a 10ky interglacial. None of this is well understood.

    So if I’m right about all this, humans are a species that evolved under strange circumstances. We evolved under a regimen of hot followed by cold. It was as if Africa inhaled and exhaled hominids with each of the warming cooling cycles. Most of the really interesting stuff has all happened in our current interglacial, but earlier man (or whatever) would have been walking around through the six 100ky cycles and the twenty or so of the 20ky cycles.

    So one question arises, was the rate of evolution constant? Did we evolve only during the warm periods? Or did most of the evolution take place in cold periods when all the hominids were huddled up in Africa to escape the cold? Is it possible to see the Milankovich cycles in the skeletons of early man?

    • dearieme says:

      “It was as if Africa inhaled and exhaled hominids with each of the warming cooling cycles.”

      Congratulations on a striking simile.

  14. Flinders Petrie says:

    I’ll bite with the traditional explanation for why agriculture arose in the Holocene but not the Eemian:

    During the Eemian, global human population was very low, whereas at the beginning of the Holocene , human populations had been growing exponentially since 50 kya.

    So in places like the Levant, you had Epipaleolithic populations living in sedentary villages without agriculture during a climatic amelioration around 14 kya. Increased rainfall and sedentism coincided with increased population density, and the Natufians reached carrying capacity right about the time when Mother Nature cruelly changed the game with the Younger Dryas. It was either innovate or perish, and the Natufians emerged on this side of the Pleistocene with amber waves of grain.

  15. dave chamberlin says:

    John Hawks has a fine lecture on you tube on this subject. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUo6cop4vXg. I could chatter on at length on this subject but I defer to John Hawks who is a friend and peer of Greg’s as well as being a top notch scientist. The title of the talk is titled “Rapid evolution, can mutation explain historical events”. Not being a respected scientist I would answer the question with a two word answer, hell yes. But scientists are moderate conservative people whom carefully weigh their words which by itself excludes me from their ranks.

  16. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    So, was this behavioral modernity latent back in the previous interglacial, just waiting for that vital spark, or did a whole lot of selection have to happen? And if so, what was that selection for?

    Indeed, but this definition “or for 80% of the population to be capable of learning to read” have we really reached behavioral modernity?

    • Sandgroper says:

      In Australia, the UK and USA, no – not by that definition.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        The demographics are different in the US from what I remember of Australia, and there was a reasonably high capacity to read when I left, although I have met illiterates in Australia, but it was a long time ago, around ’77 if I remember correctly, and she was already in her 40s.

        I have also met Chinese who could not read until they were adults and were probably not the greatest of readers for all that …

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        I have also met Chinese who could not read until they were adults and were probably not the greatest of readers for all that …

        Of course, I did not start learning to read Chinese until well into adulthood, and it is an ongoing process.

      • Sandgroper says:

        A recent report in Australia revealed that an alarmingly high proportion of Australian adults are not functionally literate enough to understand simple instructions or fill in a form correctly.

        I imagine a fairly high proportion of Chinese adults are similarly not functionally literate.

      • dearieme says:

        I suspect that a fair proportion of highly literate people have trouble filling in forms, as they have to guess at what was meant by the semi-literate people who designed the form.

        Though my point might be stronger if I replaced “literate” by “intelligent”.

      • Sandgroper says:

        dm – I think ‘literate’ and ‘intelligent’ amount to the same thing (OK, not completely, apparently there’s something called ‘non-verbal intelligence’, but there’s still a pretty good correlation according to Steve Hsu’s data). The reality is that a person with mean intelligence is struggling somewhat now in the modern world when it comes to tasks that require literacy – whether that includes designing forms or filling them in.

      • Chinese orthography is a bit more challenging than that of Spanish or even English.

      • Sandgroper says:

        No kidding.

  17. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Is it possible that during the last interglacial the density of humans was such that they did not really have to compete with other humans?

    This time around humans had to develop a mental toolkit to deal with other humans …

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      Alternatively, is it possible that the small amount of Neanderthal admixture lead to some out-of-the-box thinking genetic combinations … and maybe a little extra perseverance?

  18. j mct says:

    This thread is bit old but hopefully not dead.

    I’ve been reading about this for some time as it’s been a topic for a long time, and usually the thing that is said delineates the break is a marked increase in the elaborateness of cave painting and other works of art. Art usually has a story behind it, not all the time, in that one cannot fully appreciate Da Vinci’s Last Supper without knowing what it’s about. Telling stories means engaging in a far more intense form of symbolic behavior than art, it’s the behavior we are engaging in it right here, though we are doing it with our fingers and our eyes as a facsimile of it’s original form, which is done with the mouth and the ears, i.e. language itself.

    Language is not just words, it’s words and rules, or semantics and syntax. A pidgin is a primitive language that has words but no rules. Monkey troops sometimes have systems of calls for things, that vary somewhat from troop to troop, so are ‘culturally’ determined, and these would make the cut as pidgins though they are obviously far less elaborate than the pidgins that human pidgin speakers might use. Pidgins are far inferior to full blown languages in that it is somewhat hard to get across whether the man’s teeth are sinking into the dog’s leg or the dog’s teeth are sinking into the man’s leg in a pidgin which is easily done in a full blown language.

    So if someone wanted to set up an ambush, either for an enemy or hunting and were to say “Grick, you will run out and get it’s attention, then run back past by these bushes where I and these men will have hidden ourselves, and when it follows you and runs by the bushes, we will hurl our spears at it” is employing prepositions, plurals, the nominative and the accusative cases and complex tenses like the future perfect. That cannot be done in a pidgen. So a full blown language is a huge advantage over a pidgen.

    It’s also a huge advantage even if the guy coming up with the plan has full blown language and he is surrounded by pidgin speakers, superior communication and teamwork is not the only advantage. Men need language not just to communicate, but to think in. So our would be general in the paragraph above could not have even come up with his battle plan where he positions his men not just in space but in time also, without full blown language, let alone communicate it. Language makes men much much much smarter as well as better communicators. In addition I would think that the neurological changes between a pidgin speaker and someone fully linguistic would not require much in the way of a bigger brain, as in it would be a energy free change, you wouldn’t have to eat more to support your brain, so the phenotype improvement would be all upside, and thus the selection coefficient for the genes that caused it would be huge as such things go, much more than lactose tolerance.

    Also, children who are biologically capable of language, if they grow up in a milieu where the language spoken is a pidgin, will invent a grammar to go with the words of the pidgen, the resulting language being called a creole. This happened somewhat sometimes amongst slaves in the new world, who were from different african tribes and hadn’t spoken to someone in their native tongues in so long that they had forgotten them, adopted a pidgin form of their masters’ tongue, and got the words but not the rules, semantics are way easier to learn than syntax, even a dog can learn a few words, and since they were older never came up with a creole but their kids would.

    So one can easily imagine a scenario where all this happen, in that at first language makes an individual much smarter, even without the communication advantage, with the communication advantage kicking in and making it all go faster. One could imagine too that linguistic women might vastly prefer a linguistic mate over pidgin speakers far in excess over what his superior foraging skills alone might indicate and vice versa (one might think maybe not vice versa, but a pidgin speaker will still speak and speak and speak in the pidgin). In addition, there is no reason that the whole thing could not have got started with a mutation in one individual, given that individual would have been way smarter for his language even if he could not use it to communicate better.

    It doesn’t seem to me that this anatomical change would show up in a skeleton. A present day neurologist probably could not find exactly what it would be either. I also do not think that it would improve tool making in a short period of time all that much either. So it never will be found by digging.

    The only way one might nail down when it happened I think is if and when whatever genes one needs to be linguistic rather than a pidgin speaker, are discovered, some study determining when they entered the genome might do it.

  19. Greying Wanderer says:

    “Here’s a fun definition of behavioral modernity: the ability to function productively in a modern first world society.”

    I don’t think that makes sense in this context. The “modernity” in question was at a much lower level.

    Population density, conflict, competition? Whatever allowed single bands to become multi-band clans?

    The funniest answer would be if it turned out to be religion.

    • Matthew M. Robare says:

      Why? Most traditional religions tend to promote behavior that’s very conducive to group survival, keeping inbreeding down and even promoting good hygene. A number of rituals have a lot to do with social cohesion — for instance, initiation ceremonies where young men are given a code of behavior to follow on pain of ostracism or death, or giving a role to people with mental issues that would, in more modern societies, lead them institutionalized and medicated or homeless.

      In South America, moreover, the shamans of hunter-gatherer tribes have been observed keeping little gardens that they come back to, experimenting with growing the plants for their medicine or magic. Thus it’s conceivably possible that agriculture was first invented by shamans.

      As it happens, I’m not sure this is the case. Apart from anything else, we know the Neanderthals had some sort of religious feeling, because they deliberately buried their dead.

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