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Reconstruction of a burial of Neanderthal Man at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France.

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal burial in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France

PHOTOGRAPH BY DEA, A. Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images

Ker Than

for National Geographic

Published December 16, 2013

A Neanderthal skeleton first unearthed in a cave in southwestern France over a century ago was intentionally buried, according to a new 13-year reanalysis of the site.

Confirming that careful burials existed among early humans at least 50,000 years ago, the companions of the Neanderthal took great care to dig him a grave and protect his body from scavengers, report the study authors in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Neanderthals were an ancient species of early humans, who left behind only faint traces of their genes in modern people of non-African descent. The new burial study, led by New York University paleontologist William Rendu, settles a long-standing debate about the Neanderthal site and its remains.

"There has been a tendency among researchers working on this topic to discard all evidence coming from old excavations just because the excavations were done long ago," said Francesco d'Errico, an archeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France who was not involved in the study.

"This study demonstrates that the pioneers of the discipline often did, considering the means they had, a very good job."

Earliest Burials

Most anthropologists now agree, based on evidence uncovered at 20 or so grave sites throughout Western Europe, that our closest evolutionary relatives buried their dead at least some of the time.

The site at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, however, has always been something of a question mark. In 1908, two brothers who were also archeologists uncovered the 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton in the cave, and almost immediately they speculated that the remains were intentionally buried. But a lack of information about the excavation procedures used by the Bouyssonie brothers—as well as the fact that they were Catholic priests—caused many skeptics to wonder if the discovery had been misinterpreted.

In 1999, French researchers reexamined the site. Their excavations, which concluded in 2012, showed that the depression where the skeleton was found was at least partially modified to create a grave. Moreover, unlike reindeer and bison bones also present in the cave, the Neanderthal remains contained few cracks and showed no signs of weathering-related smoothing or disturbance by animals.

"All these elements attest that the two sets of bones have two different histories. The animal bones were exposed to the open air for a long time, while the Neanderthal remains were rapidly protected after their deposit from any kind of disturbance or alteration," said Rendu, a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS) in New York City and the Archéosphère in France.

The scientists also found bone fragments belonging to other Neanderthals—two children and one adult—but it's unclear whether they were also buried.

Paul Pettitt, an archeologist at Durham University in the U.K. who also did not participate in the research, said the report "not only demonstrates that Neanderthal burial was a reality at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, but in my opinion also raises the possibility that the evolution of human burial began with the simple modification of natural pits for funerary use."

Culture and Caring Origins

The idea that Neanderthals buried their dead fits with recent findings that they were capable of symbolic thought and of developing rich cultures. For example, findings show they likely decorated themselves using pigments, and wore jewelry made of feathers and colored shells.

Evidence from the La Chapelle site also suggests that Neanderthals were like us in that they cared for their sick and elderly. The skeleton discovered by the Bouyssonie brothers belonged to a Neanderthal who was missing most of his teeth and showed signs of hip and back problems that would have made movement difficult without assistance.

"Before they took care of his dead body, the other members of his group would have had to have taken care of his living one," Rendu said.

Follow Ker Than on Twitter.

37 comments
Kimberly Navarro
Kimberly Navarro

why would anyone even question whether or not neanderthals buried there dead..even cats when they give birth to still borns do away with there dead to protect the rest of the liter..its called survival...if there is a stench of dead it would draw all kinds of predators..  it is said they used tools to survive..why wouldnt they use the earth to survive as well?

jim davis
jim davis

maybe mr Peabody & sherman could travel back to the time of the Neanderthals and find out what the truth really is.  

Gabriele Menefee
Gabriele Menefee

It is not surprising to me that the Neanderthal buried their dead.  Why wouldn't they?  They were not animals.  They were a hunting and gathering people who thought and communicated.  It would be unwise to think that they did not care for their own.  It may have started as a way of sanitation control to keep the smell and predators away and maybe evolved into a more advanced form of burial.  Don't know.  We can only speculate on their reasons. 

Robert Gargett
Robert Gargett

I hate to rain on anyone's parade. But the claims that Rendu et al. make are not supported, even by the evidence they proffer. For a reasoned, professional's examination of these recent claims from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, your readers might be interested by a three-part series that takes apart the authors' arguments, brick by brick. Beginning with http://www.thesubversivearchaeologist.com/2013/12/omfg-i-dont-know-whether-to-laugh-or.html and continuing through 26 Dec.

I hope to see you there!

Sorta Normal
Sorta Normal

Over the ages, Neandertals would have learned that dead bodies of their group and of animals developed a stench and that burying bodies protected them from that putrescence.  I expected that Neandertals built caring relationships and treated their dead with that affection. But I don't believe that they had created religion yet.

A cat buries its putrid excrement automatically/instinctively and certainly Neandertals had more complex brain power and instincts than cats.

James Webb
James Webb

faint traces of their genes in modern people of non-African descent.

I thought all people were of African descent, if you go back far enough.

What does modern people non-African descent mean?

Gangadharan Pulingat
Gangadharan Pulingat

Is burial systems in different tipes in different countries having a relevance according to the climatic and geographic conditions.   

Mireia Estrany
Mireia Estrany

Is burying an evolution symptom? Understanding the earth as the definitive mother? But, is there evolution if there is no time? How will evolutionary biology meet new physical paradigms about time, space and so on? Will new conceptual changes deny evolution? Or on the contrary, will it become a more extraordinary process, full of astonishing implications? Therefore, will human being and the rest of life beings become different as science progresses? Can knowledge change the nature of things, can it change yours? Is life and its origin, its evolution and its actuality, something fix-finite-defined? That is, can one understand it with its limited brain and words? Along these lines, a serious-funny book recommendation, a preview in goo.gl/rfVqw6 Just another leisure suggestion, far away from dogmas or axioms.

James Zaworski
James Zaworski

I think this is a fascinating conclusion on the "Old Man of La Chapelle".  It imbues not only archaeological and paleoanthropological soundness, but also dignity on the part of the people and the family surrounding this venerable man.  


The relationship between Neandertals (the "h" has been left out, for pronunciation purposes), and modern humans is more or less resolved:  we were the same species and the genetic information proves that we have Neandertal genes in our genetic complement.  


It's great that a re-examination of "Neanderthals" (h added, but not for pronunciation purposes), on a genetic level has resulted in a re-examination of the archaeology and the morphology of said humans.

Wyatt Hanneman
Wyatt Hanneman

It makes you wonder how close they were to surviving the conditions that caused there extinction and living among us today. 

Peter Bensen
Peter Bensen

Essentially, Neanderthals burying their dead is a rationalization that you must protect the dead from scavenging in order to protect the living. The idea is to minimalize animal interest in you as food. With self-awareness comes self-decoration. As well as a special connection to others recognized as "us". Grave decoration is just an extension of a natural progression of a very successful species. IMHO.

Kim James Yarwood
Kim James Yarwood

Maybe it was a long hard winter and the Neanderthal clan just got annoyed with smell of a dead person in their cave and they decided to bury it. After all, a pack of wolves might smell that stench from miles away!

Pam Lesemann
Pam Lesemann

How did this conversation turn into one about race? If the posters aren't interested in science, I suggest they go elsewhere.

Stephen Aske
Stephen Aske

Was there any religious significance to this?? Perhaps we have seriously misjudged!

Robert Mace
Robert Mace

i thought they were too stupid to burrie the dead.

Ron Bockman
Ron Bockman

the Neanderthals here in South Philadelphia still bury their dead

Denny Berdu
Denny Berdu

Neanderthals were once prevalent across the Northern Hemisphere...now they are extinct and the only trace of them remains in a small amount of our DNA. NEVER AGAIN!!


The Mantra

ASIA FOR THE ASIANS, AFRICA FOR THE AFRICANS, WHITE COUNTRIES FOR EVERYBODY!

Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries.

The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them.

Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-whites.

What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries?

How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?

And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this?

But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.

Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.

Hanno Phoenicia
Hanno Phoenicia

The article didn't address whether or not personal possessions were buried with the deceased, which would suggest religious beliefs; life after death. The fact that this was done as a ritual strongly suggests this was a factor in their culture. 

ken yurick
ken yurick

@Kimberly Navarro  I don't think you're taking into account the scope of human evolution. What cats do has very little to do with Neanderthal ceremony. It puts them closer to us in terms of social development than say, Homo Erectus. 

Nathalia Rubio
Nathalia Rubio

@Robert Gargett  I tried reading the link you suggested but it sounded so unprofessional, I only made it to the first picture before deciding the author sounds like a 13 year old PMSing girl (with all your respect) and could read no further. Do you, by any chance, know the name of a peer-reviewed article that shares the same point of view as the author in your link? I would really like to have a look but I honestly can't with your link. It's obnoxious. 



Thanks!

Dean Mitchener
Dean Mitchener

@Sorta Normal

ok but cats are religious! ;) Well at least they are kind of worshiped in our house ;)

Christopher Murray
Christopher Murray

@James Webb It means that Neanderthal genes would only be found in humans whose ancestors had already moved out of Africa.  If you were to go  to Africa and look at the genomes of individuals there, you would find no Neanderthal gene traces, but if you went to Europe you would.

Lise Echiverrai
Lise Echiverrai

@James WebbInterbreeding between modern humans and neanderthals (and denisovans, another side branch of humanity back then). 

Lise Echiverrai
Lise Echiverrai

@James WebbInterbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans (and Denisovans, another side branch of humanity back then)....

craig hill
craig hill

@Mireia Estrany Love isn't just part of being human. But burial is about love. You loved the person you bury. You don't want to move from your domicile, so you put the body elsewhere---under the earth. You don't want to just scatter it about, not only because of the odor but because it pains you to see your loved one chewed by dogs. The solution is burial. When it's done lovingly, as the example in the photo shows, it's most commonly done throughout human history with knees raised, which seems like a fetal position, tho they wouldn't have known that, so it wasn't designed to become a new life as a dead fetus. But the love and respect that caused the dead to be buried is on exhibit when these burials are unearthed.


The rest of your quest-ions are conceptual, not real. Any answer is opinion never provable. But taking a stab at it, Yes, how we view all life changes as science changes how the individual computes what it sees. Evolution is merely a gussied-up word for change, which is universal and hard to miss, tho anti-evolutionists insist they do. And we understand what we understand due to the necessarily limited range of our minds, yes.

craig hill
craig hill

@James Zaworski My first professor of biology in college stressed that if you stand on a busy street corner of a constant stream of pedestrians, by the end of the day you will have seen at least one person with clearly defined Neanderthal features.

craig hill
craig hill

@Kim James Yarwood It wasn't merely the odor that caused the burial, or protecting the living from the scavengers of the dearly departed. And many scavengers can smell a body beneath the earth, unless it's deep enough. The knowledge necessary to comprehend that probably predates the Neanderthal.   

Lindell Bohannon
Lindell Bohannon

@Denny Berdu Mr. Berdu, it embarrasses me to be counted among the white people because of white people who live in fear and ignorance of their future. The human populations will shift over time from what you see and fear now, into whatever new forms work out the best. Change is constant, and necessary. Fear and hate is not. 

craig hill
craig hill

@Denny Berdu You're pretty much the type who wanted to wipe out the Neanderthal! The more violent type of human ape.

Elvia Nelson
Elvia Nelson

@Denny Berdu you're dumb.  Perhaps your hobby should be to get some real knowledge and get out of the ignorance you live in. 

James Ashcroft
James Ashcroft

@Denny Berdu A: Who is "everybody"?

B: I read your post 3 times and I still don't know what the hell you're talking about.

C: With all due respect, find a positive outlet for your energy. Start a hobby. Take up gardening or something. You'd probably make a great chess player.

Richmond Acosta
Richmond Acosta

@Hanno Phoenicia If not religion, at least what the study confirmed is that the kinship and social units of Neanderthals is deeper than forming a mere hunting alliance but rather a social unit which is bonded by love and care. 

Peter Borst
Peter Borst

This is what makes the story interesting. Nothing was buried with the body, so the question arose, was it a burial at all? The researchers had to use other evidence to make a judgement. They stated:


> This project has concluded that the Neandertal of La Chapelle-aux-Saints was deposit in a pit dug by other members of its group and protected by a rapid covering from any disturbance. These discoveries attest the existence of West European Neandertal burial and of the Neandertal cognitive capacity to produce it. -- www.pnas.org

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