Neanderthal Funerals: Human Ancestor May Have Buried Their Dead Ritualistically, And Protected Remains From Weather And Scavengers

By Ajit Jha on December 17, 2013 6:53 PM EST

Skull discovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints
This skull belongs to the Neanderthal skeleton uncovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, which is now being used as proof that the human ancestors ritualistically buried their kin. (Photo: Luna04, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1908, in a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in southwestern France, scientists discovered the bones of a Neanderthal male. Over 40 subsequent Neanderthal discoveries were made in the area, including what appeared to some to be an elaborate burial pattern suggesting complex funeral practices among the brutish pre-human cave dwellers. Yet, there were many researchers for whom the "patterns" were neither intentional nor indicative an advance in cognitive and symbolic behavior.  

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Studies and re-examinations of the burials at La Chapelle-aux-Saints have continued ever since. The latest update from an international team of scientists claims that the burials at La Chapelle-aux-Saints were intentional. The 13-year study included researchers from diverse fields of archaeology, geology and paleoanthropology. They studied Neanderthal remains from an adult, two children, bones of other animals including bison and reindeer found in the cave, the geology of the burial pits, apart from the skeleton from the original excavations.  

The upshot of the new study is that the Neanderthal skeleton first unearthed in 1908 was intentionally buried which confirms that careful burials existed at least 50,000 years ago among early humans, according to the study authors whose work is reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. William Rendu, a New York University paleontologist, led the study.

In the opinion of the research team, the skeleton found in the depression did not appear to be a natural feature of the cave floor, giving rise to the speculation that the grave was created after partial modification of the floor. Also, while Neanderthal bones had no signs of smoothing caused by weathering and few cracks, the reindeer and bison bones did not show these features.

The fact that there are no signs of scavenging or weathering, the study authors concluded that the bodies were buried soon after the death. In addition, the geology of burial pits "cannot be explained by natural events," according to Rendu. However, the study team did not know whether the practice was a pragmatic measure or a meaningful social ritual. The study authors believe that either way, the findings reduce the behavioral distance between Neanderthals and the modern humans.

The new evidence of intentional burial, according to Eric Trinkaus, a paleoanthropologist of Washington University, was "very substantial and solid." He was the editor of the journal paper. The research team concluded the report with the remark that the ongoing debate on Neanderthal symbolic behavior needs to be assessed with "the aim of furnishing new scientific arguments and evidence." 

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