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19 December 2013
European Neanderthals buried their dead

Skeptics have long argued that Neanderthals in Europe did not bury their dead, an activity that implies sophisticated symbolic thought. While Neanderthal burials have been unearthed in the Near East, many believed it was a tradition borrowed from anatomically modern Humans, with whom Neanderthals could have been in contact during the period when the graves were originally dug.
     Now an international team of scientists led by William Rendu and colleagues of the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, New York City, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Bordeaux in France and Archéosphère, a private research firm, analyzed results of excavations Rendu and an excavation team conducted at the bouffia Bonneval, La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave system site, in southwestern France, in 2011 and 2012, including the results of an excavation conducted there over 100 years ago.
     The site is famous for the discovery in 1908 of a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton with evidence that has been interpreted to suggest that the skeleton was intentionally buried by other Neanderthals. That interpretation, however, has been historically challenged by many scholars.
     Through the renewed excavations, the scientists found the remains of an additional adult and two youth or children and additional elements of the 1908 skeleton find, along with bones of reindeer and bison and numerous lithic tools of the type usually associated with Neanderthals. They determined that the pit or geological depression where the original skeleton was found in 1908 was not a natural feature of the cave floor, and that it best fit the hypothesis that it had created by humans. Moreover, their examination of the reindeer and bovid (bison) remains associated within the same time and spatial context as the Neanderthal remains indicated a significant difference in their relative condition.
     The researchers came to a clear conclusion: "The results of the comparative taphonomic analysis of the human and faunal materials demonstrate that the LCS1 Neanderthal [1908 skeleton find] corpse was rapidly interred and protected from the post-depositional modifications experienced by the faunal remains. The existence of an artificially modified pit and the rapid burial of the body constitute convincing criteria for establishing purposeful burial during the Middle Paleolithic of Western Europe."
     In short, they say, the debatable hypothesis has been strengthened: Neanderthals buried their dead. Adds Rendu, "While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic, the discovery reduces the behavioral distance between them and us."

Edited from Popular Archaeology (16 December 2013)

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