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Neandertal Grave Attests to Complex Cognition

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Neandertal grave

Neandertal burial pit at La Chapelle-aux Saints in France. Image: Courtesy of Cédric Beauval

Some 60,000 years ago, in a small limestone cave in central France, Neandertals dug a grave and laid an elderly member of their clan to rest. That’s the picture emerging from re-analysis of a site that yielded the famous La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neandertal skeleton in 1908, and it has important implications for understanding the behavior and cognitive capacity of our closest evolutionary relatives.

Archaeologists have long debated the question of whether Neandertals buried their dead. The practice is considered a key feature of modern human behavior. In recent years researchers have found compelling evidence that Neandertals had other modern practices, such as decorating their bodies and making sophisticated tools. Furthermore, they did these things before anatomically modern humans invaded their turf, which suggests that Neandertals developed these cultural traditions independently, rather than learning them from savvy newcomers.

Over the years researchers have argued that a number of Neandertal sites preserve evidence of burials. But critics have countered that the sites were excavated a long time ago using outmoded techniques insufficient for establishing that our Neandertal cousins interred the deceased.

In the new study, William Rendu of New York University and his colleagues re-excavated the French cave, recovering more Neandertal bones and teeth as well as stone tools and animal remains. After successfully identifying the exact position of the burial pit that contained the skeleton the team was able to assess it in detail. The researchers found a number of features that suggest the pit was at least partially modified for the purposes of burying the Neandertal, opposed to being an entirely natural depression. They also observed that whereas the animal remains show signs of having been gnawed on by carnivores, the Neandertal bones exhibit no such modifications, indicating that the Neandertal corpse was covered rapidly, as would occur if he were intentionally buried. “The existence of an artificially modified pit and the rapid burial of the body constitute convincing criteria for establishing purposeful burial,” team writes in a paper that will be published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Ironically, the original La Chapelle-aux-Saints discovery is what gave rise to the Neandertals’ unfortunate rep for being dumb brutes. Shortly after the find was made, French paleontologist Pierre Marcellin Boule reconstructed the skeleton to show a stooped, slouching individual with bent knees, a short neck and a low, sloping skull. Thus the image of the oafish caveman was born. Scientists later determined that the skeleton was in fact that of an old man who suffered from severe arthritis, and that Boule had allowed that condition as well as his preconceptions about Neandertals belonging to a side branch of human evolution to guide his iconic reconstruction.




Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 7:22 pm 12/16/2013

    “… it has important implications for understanding the behavior and cognitive capacity of our closest evolutionary relatives.”
    . As I understand, whether one is closely related to Neanderthals, Denisovions or another yet to be identified hominin group depends on who you are and where you came from…

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 7:28 pm 12/16/2013

    - Also see

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  3. 3. joshuagenes 9:18 pm 12/16/2013

    Perhaps humans buried the neanderthal.

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  4. 4. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:31 am 12/17/2013

    I wonder if earth around the skeleton preserved traces of clothing or any other perishable artifacts (or lack of them?).

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 7:06 am 12/17/2013

    I don’t think the earth covering the body in any way preserved it from decay – only from being scattered by scavenging mammals, etc.

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  6. 6. string_beery 6:50 pm 12/17/2013

    “an old man who suffered from severe arthritis”

    I’ve read somewhere that human remains predating the agricultural revolution are dominantly populated by individuals under 30 years of age. Don’t know if that’s true or not, but am curious as to exactly how old this particular “old man” was…?

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  7. 7. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:03 am 12/18/2013

    Pre-industrial human societies have big mortality of small children. After that, living full adulthood and into old age is not unusual. This is why simple mean is misleading here.

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  8. 8. cccampbell 9:45 pm 12/19/2013

    Convincing evidence of thinking advanced enough to qualify as human might be the inclusion of grave goods that could indicate a belief in life after death. So far the evidence seems to be incomplete and controversial. Can anyone cite conclusive evidence that I’ve missed?

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  9. 9. rgargett 8:45 pm 12/22/2013

    Um. Hi. *waves*
    I invite all of you to visit The Subversive Archaeologist for an alternative scientific interpretation of what was found in 1908 and what Rendu et al. have to say. Pop by and say “Hello.”

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  10. 10. timcliffe 1:22 pm 12/23/2013

    Joshuagenes – the burial is dated at 60,000 ybp – too early by quite a bit for H. sapiens to have been present.

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  11. 11. timcliffe 1:51 pm 12/23/2013

    Jtdwyer – It depends on what you mean by “closely related.”
    The article you linked to says that modern Papuans have approximately 6% Denisovan DNA and other people from Australia and various southeast Asian islands have lesser but detectable amounts.
    And non-Africans from around the world appear to have about 2% Neandertal DNA.
    So these archaic humans did not disappear without a trace, but the traces they did leave are not huge parts of anyone’s genomes (i.e., “closely related” is a stretch).
    On the other hand, a strong argument has been made that the archaic genes that have persisted probably had selective value for those who carried them – it’s unlikely that a few random Neandertal genes would have spread throughout most of the world unless those genes were quite useful.
    So even though our relationships with archaics are distant, they are not irrelevant. Their contributions made our H. sapiens ancestors more fit.
    (One might ask how we repaid the favor. Funny, none of the archaics are around to be asked.)

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