A Philosopher is a person who enjoys thinking about stuff, and is good enough at it to avoid doing actual work for a living. There was a time when philosophers were far more common than they are today. The advent of modern psychiatric meds largely took care of that problem, but the legacy of ancient philosophers remains intact – some of the most profound nuggets of human thought came from philosophers in antiquity. The concept of mortality is one of the very first of these: somewhere, in the deepest, darkest portion of Humanity’s past, some unsung philosopher realized, to his dismay, that people die.
Actually, everyone else was pretty-well aware that people died – but it is the purview of philosophers to declare perfectly obvious truths to be true, and to compulsively expound upon these truths, utterly ignoring the fact that no one is listening.
Philosophers are fairly rare, in any given population, but Theologians are not: pretty much as soon as the Philosopher got done explaining to everyone that they were all gonna croak, the Theologians stepped in to make everything all better. The idea was a simple one: death isn’t really permanent … in some fashion, the core of what a person is moves on to another world, another life, another plane of existence … Heaven, Paradise, Elysium, Valhalla, The Happy Hunting-Ground – whatever it might be called, early shamans argued, we go somewhere else when our time on Earth is done!
Modern humanity harbors some pretty snobby attitudes toward the Neanderthals. To date, there is no conclusive evidence of Neanderthal art, while their technology, in the form of stone tools, was crude, and showed little sign of improvement over the ages. They had plenty of time to advance: the Neanderthal were around nearly a quarter of a million years, while modern humans have been around, at most, for maybe a hundred thousand. We went from stones and fire to thermonuclear weapons in less than half of the entire existence of the Neanderthals, while they, in all that time, just managed to get a little better at making sharpened rocks!
Still, the simple fact is that the concept of an afterlife – this quintessentially human idea that life continues after death – is a product of Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis.
Think about that for just a minute. Picture a Neanderthal: short, hairy, with a heavy brow ridge, and an enormous nose … a cave-man, as you’ve always pictured them. Now imagine he’s out hunting with the rest of the clan. They bring down a bison, working together, and, as they begin to butcher it, he suddenly realizes that this magnificent once-living animal is now dead, and, hard on the heels of that realization comes another: I, too, will die some day! (Hopefully not killed with crude rocks and spears, but still …)
As the understanding settles deeper, he begins to wonder about what happens next. His heart begins to beat more heavily: he will cease to exist … everything he is, everything he knows, everything he loves, will one day be gone! Tears appear in his sunken eyes, freezing almost immediately, because it’s still the middle of an Ice Age. He turns aside from the other hunters, so they won’t see him weeping, because, damn it, real Neanderthals don’t cry!
And suddenly he simply cannot accept it. It’s impossible! No freaking way he can simply cease to be! His tears are dashed away in sudden determination. He grits his teeth and, anticipating Gloria Gaynor by several dozen millennia, he vows I Will Survive!
He’s not a fool, though: he’s seen other members of his clan perish, and he knows he’s no more special than any of them … if I will survive, they must, also, he realizes … somehow, all people must continue … but continue where? What will it be like? His stubborn insistence has given him hope, but with it comes fear: fear of what might happen NEXT. As he begins to speculate about it all, he can see only three possibilities: NEXT may be a place of terror and hardship … or it could be that NEXT is a place of ease and comfort … the third possibility, that NEXT might be identical to this life he rejects out of hand – for what would be the point? Might as well just skip dying, altogether!
As he considered the remaining two possibilities, he began to wonder if both might be true … perhaps well-loved people went to a land of comfort, and hated ones went to a land of harshness … perhaps those left behind could even influence the choice, by making a show of their affections for the deceased! The loved dead could be laid to rest with care and honor, while the hated dead could be treated with careless contempt!
Jokes aside, think about the subtlety of those concepts … and remember that human beings are the only creatures we know of who can even conceive of a NEXT (let alone two NEXTS!) – and those concepts, in all their subtlety, were first explored by the Neanderthal.
How can we possibly know this? Simple: the first ritualistic burials were carried out by them, complete with flowers, and grave-goods – and the only conceivable reason to put Uncle Ugg in the ground with a selection of tools, and some provisions, was to prepare him for The Next Life, a concept of unparalleled brilliance, guaranteed to comfort the only creatures on Earth capable of the massive levels of denial implied by the whole notion: Humanity!
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