When it comes to human evolution or deep human history, there’s a sort of begrudging acceptance in Church culture of its possibility, or it’s used as some cudgel in a broader debate about biblical errancy or how symbolic Adam and Eve were, but very few have taken it any further and really sat down and thought through its theological implications and extensions on its own terms.
The fact is that for much if not most of our time on earth we lived alongside, and had children with, entire other species that looked like us and could have also been religious and spoken to God as well. One of the few attempts to really think through the implications of pre-Sapiens hominids is Hugh Nibley’s excellent “Before Adam” (note: saying that I think it’s excellent does not mean that I agree with everything in it), where he points out
Do not begrudge existence to creatures that looked like men long, long ago, nor deny them a place in God’s affection or even a right to exaltation—for our scriptures allow them such.
Of course, the first question that is typically raised is how these creatures relate to our own existence. At what point did we become “as the Gods”? As Nibley points out, for large swaths of humankind’s existence we only see the most rudimentary tools and very slow technological innovation and dispersion, on the order of thousands of years. He argues that “these are not our people.” While I think they are in the sense that we are related to them, he has a point that they are probably not quite human enough for God to see them as His own species, as children made in His image.
It isn’t until the Great Leap Forward that we start to see the trappings of culture and modern behavior and, presumably, religious beliefs and concepts like purity, sin, and redemption. If we peg the Great Leap Forward as our “as the Gods” moment that would place some Adam and Eve-like character or scenario, at around 50,000 BC. Or maybe that switchpoint happened with the agricultural revolution, writing, and the first civilizations, which would actually put Adam and Eve in the ballpark of the timeframe suggested by a literal reading of the Old Testament.
But again, this is all speculative and is going down the rabbit hole I warned against earlier by only considering early hominid importance vis-a-vis our understanding of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. It is likely that our development as God-seeking creatures happened gradually, and I would not be surprised if early hominids had some sort of proto-rituals that God may have recognized and accommodated in some manner or another. Perhaps an early form of cleansing, blessing, or endowment-type rituals that are found across the world. One (somewhat controversial) school of thought in comparative mythology suggests that the commonalities we see across religion and language are due to a diffusion from an earliest Adam and Eve-type ur-culture many thousands of years ago.
While this might seem like some weird deep doctrine hobby horse, the fact is that the gospel according to Homo Erectus applies to most our existence as children of God while on earth. Anatomically modern humans came around about 300,000 years ago. One estimate for mean length of an ancient generation is 27 years. That means we have been around for about 11,000 generations. Neanderthals and Denisovans were around since about 40,000 years ago, or 1,500 generations. As a species we’ve been “Lord over the whole earth” for a small portion of our existence. While deep time is hard to intuitively understand, Richard Dawkins would use a clever thought experiment of envisioning each generation as a page in a book. If each of our ancestors’ lives was written on one page, a thousand page book would be about two inches (per my random online book width calculator). So such an ancestral record during our time as the only hominids on earth would be a book three inches thick. (And, it goes without saying that the existence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be the last handful of pages stuck together at the very end).
However, our history while sharing the earth with other species that look like us would consist of a series of volumes a foot and a half in width. An existence calling for the protection of Dyeus while hunting now-extinct big game, of living a violent existence before government where the neighboring group leader can simply kill steal your stuff and let your family starve if you lose a street fight, of our ancestors being raped by Neanderthals (or our Neanderthal ancestors being raped by Homo Sapiens), is the rule, not the exception, to our existence. There is a whole universe of experience that has been lost to time but probably involved no less crying out to God during their “nasty, brutish, and short” existences in their own way, even if the Adam and Eve moment or process came with modern behaviors or civilization. And while we don’t have written records, and in some cases the only record for their existence is written in our blood, the spirit of turning the hearts of the children to the fathers and mothers may entail at least acknowledging this universe of experiences.