Neanderthals Buried Their Dead
December 17, 2013

Cave Finding Confirms That Neanderthals Buried Their Dead

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton discovered in a cave in southwestern France was intentionally buried, a finding that confirms burials took place in Western Europe prior to the arrival of modern humans.

“This discovery not only confirms the existence of Neanderthal burials in Western Europe, but also reveals a relatively sophisticated cognitive capacity to produce them,” said William Rendu, the study’s lead author and a researcher at NYU's Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The findings, which appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were part of a 13-year study of the former Neanderthal lair in France and provide further evidence that Neanderthals weren’t stupid, the researchers said.

The conclusion that Neanderthals buried their dead centers on remains first discovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. The well-preserved bones led its early 20th-century excavators to speculate that the site marked a burial ground created by a predecessor to early modern humans. That theory has sparked controversy in the scientific community ever since, with skeptics claiming that the discovery had been misinterpreted and that the burial may not have been intentional.

Between 1999 and 2012, Rendu and colleagues excavated seven other caves in the area, and found more Neanderthal remains – two children and one adult – along with bones of bison and reindeer.

Although they didn’t find tool marks or other evidence of digging where the initial skeleton was unearthed in 1908, geological analysis of the depression in which the remains were found suggest that it was not a natural feature of the cave floor.

As part of the current study, the researchers re-examined the human remains uncovered in 1908, and found that the Neanderthal remains contained few cracks, unlike the reindeer and bison remains at the site. The Neanderthal remains also contained no weather-related smoothing and no signs of disturbance by animals.

"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," said Rendu.

"While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic, the discovery reduces the behavioral distance between them and us."

The idea that Neanderthals buried their dead corresponds with recent findings that they were capable of symbolic thought and of creating deep cultures. Evidence from the La Chapelle site also suggests Neanderthals cared for their sick and elderly, and organized their homes in a manner similar to humans.