A recent study published in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has concluded that Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead. The research, which was conducted by an international team of archaeologists, confirmed the creation of burial sites, even before the emergence of modern humans.
Neanderthals are an extinct species of human relatives. Although the debate rages on as to whether they represent a distinct species from the Homo genus, or a subspecies of Homo sapiens, their genetic variation from Sapiens is thought to be as little 0.3 percent. The first Neanderthal remains were discovered in 1856 by a group of quarrymen, operating within the Neander Valley in Dusseldorf, Germany. A total of 16 pieces of bone, including a skull, were found within a limestone cave and, subsequently, passed on to local school tutor Johan Karl Fuhlrott.
It is often said that Neanderthals were the original cavemen and, hence, a great many fossil remains have been observed in these locations. As they roamed parts of Eurasia, during the Ice Age, they often sought refuge from the grueling elements in limestone caves.
The La Chapelle-aux-Saints Burial Site
In the latest study, a team of archaeologists believe they have provided evidence that Neanderthals engaged in burial practices in Western Europe. The study also suggested that, in demonstrating special patterns of behavior when handling the deceased, Neanderthals possessed much higher cognitive capacity than initially conjectured.
The research, in part, focused upon a collection of 50,000-year-old Neanderthal remains that were originally found in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints of southwestern France. The nature of the region, along with the finding of well-preserved Neanderthal bones, led the initial excavators to theorize the site to represent a burial ground, of sorts. These suspicions, however, were met with disapproval; a number of skeptics suggested the excavators had misconstrued the evidence, casting doubt over the legitimacy of the burial ground.
Over the course of a 12-year research project, William Rendu – lead author of the study and paleontologist at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS), New York City – explored seven caves in the surrounding region. To do this, Rendu collaborated with researchers from the University of Bordeaux and a private research firm, called Archéosphère.
Starting in 1999, the team scoped out the surrounding caves, eventually stumbling across additional skeletal remains. The burial grounds of two children and one grown adult were unearthed, as were the remains of Bison and reindeer. The researchers also performed a separate study of the Neanderthal remains from 1908, along with an investigation of the original burial site.
Preserved Neanderthal Remains and Culture
Ultimately, the group could find no evidence of tool marks near the contentious burial grounds; likewise, there was no evidence of digging. However, after performing geological studies, the group concluded the depression of the enclosed collection of human remains could not have been a natural formation in the cave floor. In addition, when reexamining the bones collected in 1908, the team noticed some telling differences from the afore-mentioned bison and reindeer specimens.
The bones of the human remains were exquisitely preserved, with few cracks, absence of erosion-related smoothing and no indications of disturbance by animals. In contrast, the animal bones were in much worse shape; on this basis, the researchers suspect the Neanderthal remains were deliberately buried, resulting in their preservation.
Rendu summarizes his team’s conclusions on the burial pit and the interred remains:
“The relatively pristine nature of these 50,000-year-old remains implies that they were covered soon after death, strongly supporting our conclusion that Neanderthals in this part of Europe took steps to bury their dead.”
Speaking to the renowned French news agency, Agence France-Presse, Rendu articulates his belief that the pits did not merely represent an attempt to dispose of the human remains, since they had the option to simply leave the corpses outdoors for predators to devour.
The packed sediment around the burial pit suggests the depression may have taken a while to create. Rendu hypothesizes the Neanderthals to have employed fragments of bone, stone or wood to carve out the grave.
The recent findings also help to dispel the common train of thought that Neanderthals were incapable of complex thought and, quite possibly, may have had a more sophisticated culture. Previous discoveries indicate they were capable of creating advanced tools with which to hunt, including spear blades and knives. The manufacture of decorative jewelry, crafted from shells and feathers, is also well-documented.
Although the exact reason for the creation of the burial site remains contentious, researchers are now aware that Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead. Likewise, the researchers are uncertain as to how commonplace this burial practice was. However, Rendu has explained the need to reassess prior excavation sites.
Meanwhile, the latest results also corroborate previous research conducted by Michael Walker and colleagues, working at the University of Murcia in Spain. The following video shows the discovery of fossilized remains of Neanderthals at a burial site in Sima de Las Palos, Spain.
By James Fenner