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Neanderthal dispute laid to rest – they buried their dead

Symbolic behaviour like burial brings us and Neanderthals of the past closer. Gareth Fuller/PA

Ever since the discovery of the well preserved, nearly complete, 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton in a pit dug in a cave in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, southwest France, it has been long debated as to whether it represented a deliberate burial.

Now, in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a French research team that spent 13 years re-examining the cave and others nearby claim to have settled the century-old debate – confirming that European Neanderthals practised deliberate burial.

The discovery in the cave, by three brothers in 1908, completely changed the approach to understanding prehistoric human groups. Archaeologists began to look for evidence of Neanderthal burial, and in just the following five years nine more potential sites were discovered in the same region. Today, more than 30 sites with evidence of potential Neanderthal burials have been found in Europe and the Middle East, in Israel, Palestine, Syria and Iraq, and also east to Ukraine and Russia.

Those Neanderthal burials in the near east, which occurred at a time and in a region where contacts between Neanderthal and anatomically modern humans could have occurred, have rarely been questioned. But the older, European Neanderthal population developed many millennia before any contact with homo sapiens. Many scholars argued that the evidence of any special treatment of the dead stemmed from old and poorly conducted excavations – and that the brothers were Catholic priests was also a factor. This line of argument rejects any interpretation of symbolic or ritual behaviour.

However, during the past decade, evidence for the use of pigments such as ochre, decorative feathers and the presence of fossil shells not native to the area (and therefore perhaps baring some value or significance) at Middle Palaeolithic archaeological sites supports the existence of symbolic behaviour among the European Neanderthals.

So it was felt important to reassess the question of burial among European Neanderthals, and where better than the site of the original discovery.

Return to the scene

One of our major difficulties was to convince the scientific community that a site excavated 100 years ago could still shed light on the behaviour and ritual of Neanderthals in death. We had to characterise the archaeological context around the Bouffia Bonneval (the cave complex containing the original site), excavate and analyse the archaeological levels of a cavity occupied at the same period, only 50 metres away, and propose an alternative hypothesis concerning the purpose, function and age of the site. Then we had to develop an original approach to test the burial hypothesis. This work took a very long time – we started in 1999 – but the results are even better than we expected.

In 2011 we were given permission to return to excavate within Bouffia Bonneval for the first time in more than a century. We found the bones of three more Neanderthal individuals, two children and an adult, and items associated with them that revealed two different occupations of the cave during two different periods. One hunted reindeer, the other bison, as shown by the unburied animal bones at the site.

But near the centre of the complex we also re-discovered the pit in which the first Neanderthal skeleton was found. While no marks of tools used to dig the pit have been preserved, its dimension and shape combined with a geological analysis ruled out the suggestion it had naturally formed.

Analysis of the original Neanderthal remains from 1908 reveal that they were nearly unaltered, very well preserved compared to the animal bone fragments found all around, which had weathered and decayed. This strongly suggests that the corpse was covered quickly to protect him from elements, scavengers, and it so happens the passing of considerable time.

Through a glass, darkly

It is of course impossible to know exactly what thoughts lay behind this act. If the Neanderthals just wanted to dispose of the body, then leaving him out in the open for the carnivores to do their job would have been simple. But instead they dug this pit, worked to removed a large quantity of sediment, and placed the body in it. They spent a long time doing something that was not essential for their life or survival: they just wanted to protect the body of this old man.

Furthermore, the care of his clan and their attentions for him can be seen in the last of his life, as well in death. At the ripe old age of 40-50 years old, the Old Man of La Chapelle (as he is known) suffered from osteoarthritis that left him stooped and bent, had hip problems and had lost almost all his teeth. He probably had trouble moving by himself, and was certainly useless for most group activities. But his group continued to feed him. They cared not only for his body in death, but also in life.

These discoveries confirm the existence of burial among European Neanderthals, and of their cognitive capacity to do so. But more, our findings also sustain the image of a very human group, with empathy for others, behaviour that shrinks still further the distance between them and us.

This article was co-authored with Cédric Beauval, one of the study’s research team and co-authors, author of other archaeological papers, and director of Archéosphère, a company specialising in archaeological excavations.

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