More and more research into Neanderthals is showing insight into their surprisingly complex lives and similarities to modern humans. But did they play games like us?
It is impossible to say with any certainty whether Neanderthals played games due to a lack of any evidence, such as board games or anything else. However, play is a commonly observed behavior in many animals, including primates like Neanderthals, and it is an important behavior for development.
To find out more about the importance of play and how Neanderthals may have behaved, read on.
Play in Animals
While we cannot say for certain whether Neanderthals would have played, nor can we do anything but hypothesize what sort of games they could have played, it is very likely that they did engage in play. However, whether this is playing using “games” depends on how we define what a game is.
If we define a game loosely to include actions like play fighting, tickling, or chasing, then these behaviors are all found in chimpanzees, one of the species closest to modern humans. There are many theories regarding the motivations for play in animals, with it being suggested that it is important for social, physical, and cognitive development, training young animals for situations that they may encounter in the future.
For example, chimpanzees often engage in play wrestling, which is an important skill to know in adulthood, as well as climbing up trees, which is important for future situations when the chimpanzee may need to evade a predator. In short, play helps in training for future unexpected situations in a safe environment.
Chimpanzees also use play to learn skills from their parents, with young chimpanzees mimicking them in building nests and termite fishing with sticks.
There also appear to be gender differences, with young chimpanzee males engaging in more aggressive play using play weapons and young chimpanzee females pretending to be mothers, carrying rocks on their backs like their mothers would carry their young (they are also known to play with their younger siblings in a similar way).
It is also thought that play is a positive factor for healthy brain development, with rodents in environments that allow playing exhibiting greater brain development than in environments that do not. Another factor for play may simply be that animals find it a fun way to blow off steam at the same time as doing something physical that is good for them.
The impact of play on the brain can be incredibly powerful and has been shown to slow down symptoms of neurological illnesses like Alzheimer’s in rats. It is not just unique to mammals either; species of birds, reptiles, insects, and fish are all believed to engage in play.
Development of Games and Humans
While games may have originated to help in developing social, cognitive, and physical skills, we can also think of playing games to include engaging in activities like playing board games. While the oldest board games are very ancient indeed, with Egyptian senet dating back to 3,500 BC, Neanderthals went extinct long before this in around 30,000 BC.
Games like senet, backgammon, mills, and chess spread around the world very quickly, leading to many local varieties, but these are all relatively modern compared to Neanderthals.
The earliest games were likely linked to religious behaviors like divination and later evolved as a form of entertainment. However, no evidence of this has been found in Neanderthals.
Saying this, however, Neanderthals are known to have been a creative species like humans that may also have engaged in spiritual ceremonies like burying the dead. This shows that they were likely capable of symbolic thought, which would have been crucial in the development of games in Homo sapiens.
Did Neanderthals Play Games?
To summarize, whether or not Neanderthals would have played games depends on how we classify games. If we mean playing in a similar manner to other primates, then it is extremely likely that they would have played games to help form bonds and learn skills, and for their cognitive development.
Neanderthal children could have played with very rudimentary dolls or toy weapons to help them prepare for the roles they would one day need to assume in Neanderthal society. They are thought to have been a creative species perhaps capable of language, decoration, and music, so it is not unthinkable that they also played games together in various forms.