Neanderthals Buried Their Dead In Caves, Researchers Find

By Josh Lieberman on December 17, 2013 2:50 PM EST

Neanderthal
Neanderthals in Western Europe buried their dead, a new study finds. (Photo: Reuters)

Neanderthals in Western Europe buried their dead, according to a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a practice which began even before Neanderthals came into contact with modern humans. The study adds to a growing body of scientific evidence that Neanderthals were more complex than we've given them credit for. 

The idea that Neanderthals buried their dead goes back to 1908, when a possible tomb was discovered at the La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave in southwestern France. Archaeologists uncovered a well-preserved 50,000-year-old skeleton there, leading many to believe that it was intentionally buried. But not everyone bought the idea that just because the bones were in good shape they had been carefully buried. 

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Beginning in 1999, researchers led by William Rendu of the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, in New York City, looked at Neanderthal remains from the La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave and seven other caves in the area. Rendu and his team excavated the sites for 13 years, finding two Neanderthal children and one adult, along with the remains of bison and reindeer. 

While the researchers didn't see tell-tale sigs of burial, like tool marks or signs of digging, the newly found Neanderthal bones were found in a shallow pit that didn't form naturally. And if nature didn't form the pit, it stands to reason that early man did. Rendu said that the pit "does not have any natural origins, it doesn't fit with any natural phenomenon. The only other explanation is a human origin."

"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."

Also reducing the distance between them and us is the fact that Neanderthals organized their living areas, according to a study published earlier this month. Researchers in northwest Italy found caves separated into different areas for activities like killing game and tool production. The organization of living spaces has traditionally been thought of as a modern human trait.

"[The burials are] novel evidence that Neanderthals were able to develop, by themselves, some complex symbolic thought," Rendu told LiveScience. "The behavioral distance between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans seems to become even thinner."

READ MORE:

Bone Tools Discovery: Did Neanderthals Teach Humans Tool-Making Skills?

Cat Domestication Traced To Ancient Chinese Farm: Felines Became Friends 5,300 Years Ago

The Comb Jelly Was Our First Ancestor, Surprising Evolution Study Says

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