Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual

A 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton discovered in a cave in France was intentionally buried.

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

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.

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.

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