May 25, 2024

Did Neanderthals bury their dead?

Excavation at a site in France suggests that they did

Was burial of the dead practiced by Neanderthals? It’s an important issue, as the existence of funerary rites would suggest that, like us, the Neanderthals had spiritual intuitions.

For the first time in Europe, scientists have found strong evidence of burial around 41,000 years ago, at the Ferrassie rock shelter in the Dordogne. Their study is published in Scientific Reports.

Dozens of buried Neanderthal skeletons have been discovered in Eurasia, leading some scientists to deduce that they buried their dead. But most of the best-preserved skeletons were not excavated using modern archaeological techniques.

After six Neanderthal skeletons were discovered at the Ferrassie site at the beginning of the 20th century, a seventh, of to a child of around two years old, was found between 1970 and 1973, For almost half a century, the collections associated with this specimen were in the archives of the Musée d'archéologie nationale.

Recent research revealed 47 new human bones not identified during excavation and undoubtedly belonging to the same skeleton. This new information proves that the body of this two-year-old Neandertal child was purposefully deposited in a pit dug in a sedimentary layer around 41,000 years ago. However, further discoveries will be necessary to understand the chronology and geographical extension of Neanderthal burial practices.

Another article earlier this year about excavations in the Shandihar cave in Iraqi Kurdistan  also reported what appeared to be an intentionally buried individual. In the 1950s an American archaeologist, Ralph Solecki, claimed that he had found evidence that Neanderthals had scattered flowers at a burial at the Shandihar site. “The association of flowers with Neanderthals adds a whole new dimension to our knowledge of his humanness, indicating he had a ‘soul,’” Dr Solecki wrote.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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