Plants and Animals

Neanderthals confirmed to have buried their dead

December 17, 2013 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: Bjørn

Modern humans have buried their dead for about 100,000 years, starting back when we had other closely related species living alongside us. It has long been speculated that Neanderthals also buried their dead, but the evidence was open to a lot of interpretation, until now. The conclusion of a 13-year-long study has revealed that Neanderthals did, in fact, intentionally bury their dead. The results were published by lead author William Rendu of Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS) and an international collaboration of researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A fossil site in southwestern France was uncovered over a century ago in 1908. Almost immediately, some asserted that they had discovered a grave site and that an earlier human-like species was responsible. Not everyone was convinced that the placement of the remains had any kind of meaning because there was no evidence of digging near the remains, and the debate has raged on among paleoanthropologists ever since.

To put the matter to rest one way or another, archeologists from a variety of countries banded together and started to investigate seven other nearby sites. The digs began in 1999 and concluded in 2012. One of the final discoveries included bones from two children and one adult that were alongside fossilized remains of prey animals, like bison.

Modern analysis of the 1908 cave site showed that, while there was no direct evidence of digging, the remains could not have gotten there naturally. Additionally, the 50,000-year-old Neanderthal bones were in incredible condition and preserved much better than the nearby animal bones, which leads the team to believe that they had been buried, and thus protected from the elements. 

A major point of contention about Neanderthals burying their dead is that many did not think they had the mental capacity to do so. This research suggests that they did. However, the circumstances of the burial are not understood. It is possible that they simply buried dead bodies for sensible reasons, like controlling smell. While there is no evidence of this, there could have been a funeral-like ritual that accompanied the burial. No matter what the reason was for burying the dead, the fact that they did it at all means that they were on a higher mental plane than had previously been attributed to the species and could have been more like Homo sapiens than we realize.

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