If there’s one thing Neanderthals were good at, it’s dying – after all, every one that ever lived is now dead. On the plus side, at least some of them seem to have gone out with a bang, with evidence having recently been uncovered of some outlandish cave funerals.
Presenting the findings at the recent meeting of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution in Madrid, archaeologist Enrique Baquedano reported that his team had uncovered the charred remains of several small bonfires in the Des-Cubierta Cave in Spain. The fires were lit around the final resting place of a small Neanderthal infant – known as the Lozoya Child – who is thought to have died around 40,000 years ago, according to New Scientist.
Within each hearth, the team found the remnants of animal appendages, including bison horns and deer antlers. They also found the skull of a rhinoceros in the area. This seems to suggest that the fires performed a ceremonial rather than a functional purpose, and could be the first real evidence of ritualized funerals among Neanderthals. It also points to the fact that humanity’s ancient relative had the emotional intelligence to honor and mourn their dead, suggesting that their cognitive capacities may be more similar to our own than we once thought.
The finding builds on our existing knowledge of Neanderthal culture. For instance, scientists recently analyzed a body found in a cave in France, concluding that it had not been scavenged by any carnivorous animals, which would suggest that it was buried immediately after death. However, this latest discovery provides the strongest indication yet that Neanderthal funerals may have been ritualized affairs, with the burning of animals taking on symbolic meaning.