The New York Times reports: Early in the 20th century, two brothers discovered a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton in a pit inside a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in southwestern France. The discovery raised the possibility that these evolutionary relatives of ours intentionally buried their dead — at least 50,000 years ago, before the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe.
These and at least 40 subsequent discoveries, a few as far from Europe as Israel and Iraq, appeared to suggest that Neanderthals, long thought of as brutish cave dwellers, actually had complex funeral practices. Yet a significant number of researchers have since objected that the burials were misinterpreted, and might not represent any advance in cognitive and symbolic behavior.
Now an international team of scientists is reporting that a 13-year re-examination of the burials at La Chapelle-aux-Saints supports the earlier claims that the burials were intentional.
The researchers — archaeologists, geologists and paleoanthropologists — not only studied the skeleton from the original excavations, but found more Neanderthal remains, from two children and an adult. They also studied the bones of other animals in the cave, mainly bison and reindeer, and the geology of the burial pits.
The findings, in this week’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “buttress claims for complex symbolic behavior among Western European Neanderthals,” the scientists reported.
William Rendu, the paper’s lead author and a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences in New York, said in an interview that the geology of the burial pits “cannot be explained by natural events” and that “there is no sign of weathering and scavenging by animals,” which means the bodies were covered soon after death.
“While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic,” Dr. Rendu said in a statement issued by New York University, “the discovery reduces the behavioral distance between them and us.” [Continue reading…]