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.