Did Neanderthals Have a Soul?


“The magisterium of the Church takes a direct interest in the question of evolution, because it touches on the conception of man, whom Revelation tells us is created in the image and likeness of God….

“Pius XII underlined the essential point: if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God…

“As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man…

“The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life.” Pope St. John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution.


Pope St. John Paul II laid down issues of evolution, ensoulment and monogenesis in his address,  quoted above. Yet I still have questions, which came to mind as I listened to the audiobook, Rise of Humans: Great Scientific Debates, by John Hawkes. The Neanderthal genome has been explored in detail, to show that there is a 99.7% similarity between human (homo sapiens) and Neanderthal DNA. Moreover, there is strong evidence that Neanderthals ceremonially buried their dead, perhaps an indicator that they believed in life after death.

Here, then, are several questions that occur to me. Some have been answered, at least partially, in Kenneth Kemp’s article, Science, Theology and Monogenesis. I ask the reader to assess critically these questions and some answers given below, because there seems to be a conflict between what paleoanthropology and genomic research tell us and what we are to believe from Catholic doctrine and dogma.

  • The evolutionary theory I have read suggests that new species arise not from one or two individuals, but from populations.  If new species arise from differences in DNA, and these differences occur because of mutations, how is it that for a large number of individuals the same mutations  occur that give rise to a new species (within some limited time period)?
  • Definitions of soul from the Catholic Catechism and from the writings of Thomas Aquinas state that the soul is the “form” (in the Aristotelean sense) of the body, but immaterial.  Rational faculties, the capacity to reason and to form abstractions, are attributes of a soul.   These are presumably necessary conditions for there to be a soul.   Are they sufficient conditions?
  • What kinds of archeological data would provide evidence for such rational faculties of a hominid–tool making, art, burial of the dead?
  • Does genetic similarity between two species, and the possibility that interbreeding has occurred, imply that if members of one species possess a soul, so do members of the other?

Monogenesis and original sin

Monogenesis supposes that humans descend from one pair of ancestors, male and female, as opposed to polygenesis, that many humans were ancestors. That humans descended from only two is a cornerstone of Catholic dogma on original sin. As set forth by Pope Pius XII,

“For the Christian faithful cannot maintain the thesis which holds that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that “Adam” signifies a number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the magisterium of the Church propose with regard to original sin, [emphasis added] which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.” Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis

Even if “biological” monogenesis does not obtain, what might be termed “theological” monogenesis could occur, and so Pius XII’s objection could be encountered. This proposition has been explored in some detail by Kenneth Kemp, in his article Science, Theology and Monogenesis, which will be discussed at greater length below.

The essential base for this argument rests on a Thomistic view of body and soul, reflected in Pope St. John Paul II’s remark (quoted above) that “[even] if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God.”

Did “Mitochondrial Eve” exist?**

Is it the case that biological monogenesis did occur?  Some evolutionary geneticists have justified the idea of descent from one ancestor (or a pair of ancestors) by the “Mitochondrial Eve” hypothesis, which proposes that all humans are descended from an African lady who lived some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago.

It’s important here to realize that Mitochondrial Eve might have contributed only a small amount to our gene pool, given that there would have  had to be many, many other great-great-……-great grandmothers.  (I have two great-grandfathers who were rabbis, but there were two other great-grandfathers who could have been real low-lifes.)

The Mitochondrial Eve hypothesis has been criticized by evolutionary geneticists who argue that “bottlenecks” (small population sizes) lead to minimal genetic variation and thus lower survival of species.

Francisco Ayala has examined the variation in the gene DRB1 and concludes the variation is too large to admit of a small population (bottleneck) as ancestors.* Ayala’s calculations have been criticized as being biased and limited in assumptions. Let’s bypass the question of biological monogenesis and turn to Kemp’s proposal for theological monogenesis.

Theological monogenesis

Kemp’s thesis, theological monogenesis, rests on the notion of philosophical and theological species:

“The biological species is the population of interbreeding individuals.
The philosophical species is the rational animal, i.e., a natural kind characterized by the capacity for conceptual thought, judgment, reasoning, and free choice. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that a certain kind of body is necessary for rational activity, but is not sufficient for it. Rational activity requires, in addition the presence of a rational soul, something that is more than the power of any bodily organ, and that therefore can only come into being, in each individual case, through a creative act of God. 
[emphasis added]   The theological species is, extensionally, the collection of individuals that  have an eternal destiny. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says ‘God created man in his image and established him in his friendship.’ [CCC 396] Kenneth Kemp, Science, Theology and Monogenesis

I won’t give Kemp’s arguments in detail, but only a summary–please go to the original paper for a complete story. He supposes that a small population, about 5000, existed with the necessary physical characteristics (“body”) for rational activity. God selected two of these, a man and woman to be endowed with a soul, the capacity for abstract thought: e.g. to know that one would die, to have knowledge of one-self as an individual (self-consciousness), etc.

When would Adam and Eve have appeared in human pre-history? That point is not clear.

Certainly tool-making is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for rational activity in the sense Kemp would take. Pebble tools go back to Homo Habilis some 2.6 million years ago, and in more advanced forms, possibly requiring rational forethought, to Homo Erectus, some 2 million years ago. Neanderthal man had a sophisticated tool-making capability, used fires, buried his dead with accompaniments.

As pointed out above, genomic analysis of Neanderthal DNA shows a 99.7% similarity to that of Homo Sapiens. Moreover,  rcent genome analysis of homo sapiens skulls show some interbreeding with Neanderthals, although that conclusion is controversial.


The questions raised at the beginning of this article have been answered only partially. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that biological monogenesis occurred. If we accept (as I do) that mind, self-consciousness and what we please to call “soul” are not solely a physical thing, but are immaterial, then we still are in the dark as to what constitutes paleo-archeological evidence for rational activity, activity that is sufficient to show that individuals in a species are endowed with souls. We are unsure when in pre-history God gave two individuals their souls, and continued to do so thereafter for each of their descendants.
To the question put in the title, I would answer “Yes!”, Neanderthals did have a soul. I would argue that any species that buries its dead has knowledge that life will end, and is therefore endowed rationally.
Finally, to all who would dispute that there is such a thing as a soul, and that mind/consciousness/etc. are purely physical phenomena–you’re welcome to your opinion, but I (and many others) don’t agree with you.


*”This argument is based on variation in the DRB1 gene in the human population.  This gene, one of one hundred or so that make up the human leukocyte antigen complex, is very old. The fact that thirty-two of the fifty-nine variants found in man are also found (in similar, though not identical form) in chimpanzees shows that these variants arose before the phylogenetic divergence of chimpanzee and man, some 6 mya [million years ago].  Since no individual can carry more than two such variants, the absolute minimum human population in every generation after the evolution of man  from a common human-chimpanzee ancestor is sixteen. (The other twenty-seven variants could have arisen from later mutations.)

This genetic diversity precludes very narrow population bottlenecks as
well as very long-lasting ones, as such bottlenecks are too small to transmit the observed range of variation to succeeding generations. …Ayala calculates that the minimum bottleneck sufficient to maintain that level of diversity (and then to return to the mean population size) is about 4,000 synchronously reproducing individuals, or perhaps slightly less. That suggests an actual population of some 15,000–20,000 individuals.”  Kenneth Kemp, Science, Theology and Monogenesis.

**Note that a similar story is given for an original “Adam”, traced through the Y-chromosome (passed from father to son), who lived 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Whether Y-chromosome Adam and Mitochondrial Eve were alive at the same time and had children is an interesting question, to which we’ll not know the answer (while alive).


Francisco Ayala, Am I a Monkey?
Anne Gauger, Douglas Axe, Casey Luskin, Science and Human Origins
Warren Brown (author), Nancey Murphy (editor), H.N. Maloney (editor), Whatever Happened to the Soul?

Bob Kurland is a retired, cranky, old physicist. Convert to Catholicism in 1995. Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith. Intermittent blogs at Rational Catholic and adult education classes here to achieve this end. Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC. Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group. And, finally, his motivation: “It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking. Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.” St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.
  • I’ve been listening again to Hawkes’ “The rise of humans–great scientific debates”, and I learn that it is very likely that Neanderthals had a capacity for speech (same FOXP2 (sp?) gene that humans have), and that many (not all) humans have 3% of Neanderthal genes in their DNA.

  • Pax

    This debate has always made me questions the common definition of ‘species’. Probably do to holes in my understanding of evolutionary theory.

    I was under the impression that creatures of different species are incapable of interbreeding, which seems to fly directly in the face of the concept of ‘intermediate species’.

    So how does one define ‘species’ and what test are done to verify that Neanderthal are a different species then homo erectus or homo sepias etc.

    It seems odd given that we share 99% of genetic material with a group that it would be separated. I mean isn’t there greater difference in genetics between say man and woman? Or between Africans and Europeans? wouldn’t such people simply blend in and be considered part of one species if we were all living together today?

  • Stephen Korsman

    I think that biological monogenism is not hard to maintain, and I think it’s actually hard to avoid. I’ll explain why … as background you’ll need to look up the concepts of most recent common ancestor (MRCA), and identical ancestors point (IAP), and pedigree collapse – Wikipedia explains them nicely, and I’ll try to do so here briefly. Also, population dynamics is not my field of expertise – that’s clinical virology and molecular biology.

    The time spans I’ll mention are so short that I need to clarify that I am not coming from a creationist perspective, and believe in human evolution over hundreds of thousands of years, or longer.

    Let’s start with me. I have two parents. Four grandparents. 8 great grandparents. 16 great great grandparents. And so on. Going back 20 generations, I have just over 1 million ancestors. 30 generations – 1 billion ancestors. 34 generations and I have more ancestors than hominids that have ever existed. But 34 generations is definitely AD, not BC. So something is wrong there. 1000 years ago there were definitely not several billion humans on the planet. And the explanation is pedigree collapse. I have 4 grandparents. A friend of mine only has 3, because a pair of first cousins once removed got married to each other. I have third cousins I cannot identify as such, and could easily marry one without knowing it. Think of that on a massive scale – it’s not just royal families that do this. It’s the very reason a large population can descend from a smaller population without having more ancestors than that smaller population allows for.

    Our most recent common ancestor – we have one. We must, unless we evolved from different amoebas, and the early hominids we evolved from were divided into completely separate unrelated groups derived from multiple different amoebas. Monogenism, the type we’re talking about, requires the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all humans to be human … otherwise we have polygenism, with two or more separate non-human groups resulting in two separate evolutionary events that resulted in humans. For modern humans to have separate evolutionary origins (for races, or geographical areas, for instance) a HUGE feat of separation must have occurred preventing interbreeding, which would have eventually resulted in a common pedigree, and common ancestors WITHIN humanity.

    Recently some clever population dynamics people did some clever maths. Assume a situation where we have a) our current population size, and b) a situation where, throughout history, geographical boundaries and race and language and monogamy are taken out of the equation, and human mating is random. I.e. for each child born, their parents mated randomly, regardless of partners producing prior offspring, regardless of distance between them, etc. Not physically possible, but for the purposes of the maths, that’s what they did. And their result? Under such circumstances, we are all descended from one individual who lived … in the 1200s AD … 800 years ago.

    Once you include the variables of distance and language and marriage, etc., we end up with a REAL, probably date for the most recent common ancestor of all humans alive today. And that date is between 1800 years ago and 5000 years ago.

    If you read up on the MRCA, you’ll know that there is something about this that is a very tricky thing to understand. At the time that our MRCA lived, there were not just two people. There could have been hundreds, thousands, millions. Bottlenecks exist and influence this, but they are not required for this to work out the way it does. Some people alive then bred, some did not. Of those who bred, not all their descendants bred. So while there may have been 1728296 people alive at the time our MRCA lived, some have no descendants alive today, some are ancestors of some people alive today, some are ancestors of most people alive today, but only the MRCA is the ancestor of every single human alive today. And if that ancestor was monogamous, then it’s really a couple who are our MRCA.

    Every time someone dies, the exact identity of that MRCA might change. The MRCA today is not the same person (or couple) as the MRCA of 10 years ago, or 100 years ago.

    The identical ancestors point (IAP) – a bit more tricky. Our MRCA had ancestors, and they are, by definition, ancestors of everyone alive today, but they are not our most recent common ancestors. And the population he was part of – they had their own most recent common ancestor. And if you go back in time, you’ll reach a point where every single person alive at that time fits into one of two groups – those who have zero descendants today, and those who are ancestors to everyone today. (This took me weeks to come to understand properly!)

    And when is our probable IAP? Depending on who does the calculations, and how they incorporate groups with significant isolation in their history (e.g. various aboriginal peoples) – 15000 years ago to 100000 years ago.

    Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam? Their identities also change as time passes, and people die, and the genetic make-up of the population varies. Imagine everyone in the world except all my maternal grandmother’s descendants die from a nuclear holocaust. Suddenly my maternal grandmother is Mitochondrial Eve, and she and my grandfather are our MRCA couple, and all we can say about Y-chromosome Adam is that he probably lived in England in the last few hundred years.

    Remember that our MRCA is an entire organism, or, if monogamous, an entire pair of organisms. Mitochondrial Eve is only the common ancestor for all mitochondria found in living humans today. Y-chromosome Adam is only the common ancestor of all Y-chromosomes found in living humans today. Our genes for eye colour – the common ancestor would be Eye Colour Eddie. The gene that produces the protein that would synthesis vitamin C if it worked – all humans today have that gene descended from Vitamin C Victor. Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam are just the common ancestors for those genes that have been made popular by naming the people they came from.

    So … where does this get us today?

    Our most recent common ancestor probably lived within the last 5000 years. Our identical ancestor point – within the last 100000 years. And the IAP is very useful in deciding monogenism. Were all the people we are descended from at that time human? Or were there two species of hominid, e.g. neanderthals, that were part of that group? (Remember that even if only Homo sapiens sapiens was part of that group of our ancestors at the IAP, their ancestors could have mated with neanderthals prior to that, and thus allow neanderthal genetic material into the eventual human population.)

    And very, very important in determining who “humans” were – remember that the way we speciate hominids results in separate groupings that are not necessarily what God considered to be separate groups. There is still debate as to whether neanderthals are a separate species, or a subspecies of Homo sapiens. Even in recent times, some have tried to classify human races as being of separate species origin. We know better now, but we are still flawed, and we are basing our classification on who lived where and how they differed, and not on God’s original decision, “Let this group be called Man, and let this part of the group have ancestors in 2015 AD, and let these two people be the MRCA of all alive in 2015 AD.”

    From a theological perspective, I imagine what God called Man came into being the moment before he revealed himself to the group he decided was Man, and from that moment, man sought to have a relationship with God, and so it becomes irrelevant whether that was two individuals taken out of a population of Homo sapiens sapiens and put in the garden of Eden (and later perhaps even permitting ensoulment of those in the original population their immediate descendants took as spouses, and certainly subsequent children), or whether that was a group made up of 1421 Homo sapeins and 23 Homo neanderthalensis who married into the group, or whether it was even prior to the separation of modern humans and neanderthals (which allows for at least two groups of what God considered Man to be capable of seeking God.)

    So, in summary:

    1. Our MRCA is far more recent than commonly believed, and is definitely a modern human
    2. The time when all people were either our ancestors or not falls well within the timeline for Homo sapiens
    3. This makes biological monogenism very, very likely
    4. Religiosity amongst neanderthals probably means theological monogenism points to a time that actually predates biological monogenism, or at least coincides with it

    Interesting side effects of having such a recent MRCA, especially if you look at the multiple MRCAs of sub-populations of modern humans:

    1. All modern Jews are probably descended from Mohammed.
    2. All modern Muslims are descended from King David.
    3. All white people are descended from black people somewhere in their ancestry.
    4. All black people are descended from white people somewhere in their ancestry.
    5. Everyone is probably descended from Confucius.
    6. Europeans (and those with recent European ancestry) are probably all descended from Charlemagne.

    Interesting Catholic side effects – if you take this principle and apply it to the consecration of bishops by three other bishops (i.e. consider a bishop to be the “offspring” of three “parents”), it is entirely possible that all bishops living today are descended from the Apostles Jude and Thomas and Paul, but not James (or even Peter, because no, even our pope isn’t required to have Peter in his personal apostolic succession, because that’s not how popes are chosen – they’re successors of his office, and it’s quite possible that Paul, not Peter, made Linus a bishop.)

    • Richard

      This last post is very interesting with all the Maths possibilities. But I do not see how this has addressed the fact that modern humans living today have varying quantities of functional Neanderthal DNA in their genomes; some other people have varying quantities of Denisovan DNA (especially some Asian groups – up to 15 or more %); some other living humans have both Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in their genomes. And, of course all humans living today have anatomically modern human DNA. Given the paleo-archeological evidence, it seems very certain that all of these human groups were/are endowed with spiritual rational souls. Furthermore, these human (probably) biological subspecies all have a common ancestor probably dating from about 600,000+ B.C. Also, Pius XII did not propose that polygenism is impossible, but that at the time he could not discern how that would work and be consonant with Original Sin as literally worded from the council of Trent. No pope since has stated the situation as Pius XII did. All subsequent popes have left the door open for polygenism. St. Pope John Paul approved the publication of the International Theological Commission’s conclusion that human beings could very well have originated from a population of penultimate photo-humans. Cardinal Ratzinger was the head of that commission and approved its conclusions.