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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Neanderthal Burial

Museum reconstruction of a neolithic burial. Image by Flickr user Hutchinson and Hutchinson used under a Creative Commons licence.

Museum reconstruction of a neolithic burial. Image by Flickr user Hutchinson and Hutchinson used under a Creative Commons licence.

New information has come to light in the two ears since this article was written. See not below.

Death is an undeniably emotive topic, no matter when it occurred. When faced with human remains we cannot help but be moved; be they our loved ones who have passed in their sleep, victims of violence in times of war, images on the news or even bones in the enclosed and clinical atmosphere of a museum.

Even if they aren’t strictly speaking human.

Neanderthals were genetically linked to us. We shared an ancestor. We are not directly descended from them, we went our separate ways. Homo Sapiens Sapiens’ (That’s us) evolution diverged from the branch of the family tree that the Neanderthal hung out on. We are taller, physically less robust and presumably cleverer (Neanderthal brains were slightly bigger but they couldn’t compete with us for some reason).

The genetic story doesn’t end there. Lots of randy proto-humans wandering around created desperate times which in turn called for desperate measures. Consequently many of us have some neanderthal genes. Naturally we are now intrigued by these almost-humans, considering these links and the enigmatic disappearance of Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis.

When it comes to being the top dogs on the planet Neanderthals had a long crack of the whip. They got off to a start at about 600,000 years ago and made it all the way up to about 25,000 years ago. Their demise was most likely the result of resource competition, if not open conflict, with us.

Neanderthals were therefore almost human. As a result they have had this quasi-humanness both proclaimed and denounced. This is particularly evident in discussion of the possibilities of Neanderthals engaging in ritual. The various attempts to explain neanderthal remains as burials are a humanising process, pushing them further into our sphere of reference. They are attempts to say these primitives viewed the world in a similar manner to us, at least to some extent. Burial is seen, especially in a religious context, as the defining trait of what it means to be human. Conversely, attempts to discredit the purposeful intentions of the burials could been seen as attempts to distance ourselves from them. Ultimately the attempt to reconstruct Neanderthal spirituality and comprehension through their tangible remains is an activity that, in the absence of written language, can never yield a definitive and unarguable answer.

An Aside

It is often assumed that humans hold the exclusive rights to mourning. The higher orders of mammals would disagree. Of them, particularly evident in mourning and a comprehension of mortality are dolphins, elephants and apes.

But back to the Neanderthals

The balance of the evidence does make it appear as if there was definite intention in the disposal of bodies. Without illuminating their reasoning, this nonetheless goes some way towards helping us form a clearer understanding of the Neanderthal world. It doesn’t indicate with any clarity truly expressive consciousness capable of leaps of abstraction.

The act of burial merely suggests shared beliefs which could only be conveyed by complex language. This would need to be associated with a linguistic construction capable of metaphysical expression and discussion. This is the true key to the fascination with Neanderthal burial. Burial is the ultimate expression of finality and thereby taken to be a clear sign of conceptual thought processes. It is the product of communication – a life lived, a new existence being moved on to such as the concept of an afterlife, sorrow and remorse, memory, god and the supernatural and much more besides. We can assume they had at the very minimum a proto-language, judging by the complexity and refinement of their tools and other possessions and creations. There is also some biological evidence.

The question of Neanderthal burial arose in the wake of skeletons being found in relatively complete states, such as at Le Moustier. This suggests the bodies were placed somewhere secure.

A Neanderthal cranium. Image by Flickr user Opacity used under a Creative Commons licence.

A Neanderthal cranium. Image by Flickr user Opacity used under a Creative Commons licence.

The Physical Evidence

In 1908 a skeleton at Le Moustier (imaginatively named Le Moustier 1) was classified as a Neanderthal burial, but poor excavation meant this claim was not re-examined for another 80 years. The burial was found to be partial and therefore open to interpretation and confusion.

In our eagerness to find Neanderthal burials there have been false starts. The Skhul and Qafzeh hominids were originally thought to be a missing link between “Us” and “Them”. Considering there is now known to be no such link (along a direct lineage), the crude features of the skeletons have forced a reinterpretation of the remains as early humans. Interestingly the nearby Kebara cave yielded well-preserved Neanderthal remains which were found to be contemporary to the Skhul and Qafzeh humans.

In 1961 at Roc de Marsal in France the skeleton of a very young Neanderthal was found. The heart-breaking find of the little three year old’s remains was all the more poignant due to its careful positioning in a natural depression and the considered placement of its limbs. Of any burials, this is the one which really brings home the reason for our fascination with the practice – empathy for our closest cousins. Which was all well and good until in 2009 the intentionality of the burial was questioned.

But this was just one site. To be convincing there needed to be, and were, others which were just as compelling.

In the Sima de las Palomas burials found in Murcia there is persuasive evidence of ritual – three bodies are laid out in similar replicated fashion alongside fires and food remains which suggest others camping there and looking over the bodies. Indeed, the bodies have not been ravaged by predators which would have been widespread at the time. The bodies were about 60,00 years old – broadly similar to the bodies in Shanidar cave in Iraq which exhibit similar practices.

Wales has gotten in on the burial act at an incredibly early stage. Pontnewydd Cave has yielded Neanderthal teeth at a depth that suggests definite purpose. Caves have always been seen as a gateway to oblivion and this may well have been true even for these very, very early Neanderthals. Their age is a staggering ~225,000 years!

So What’s the Fuss?

All these burial confirmations are well and good but the real debate centres on what we can deduce from these burials. In other words did they believe in an afterlife? Did they have ritualistic (proto-)religious practice? Could they conceive of a reality beyond that in front of them? Perhaps the debate is misguided; David Lewis-Williams suggests that god is a human creation dating from our earliest beginnings. This suggests that Neanderthals while being almost our our equals, were just not naturally disposed to theology.

Taking Sides – Who Says What

Writing in 2007, Colin Renfrew stated that deliberate burial appeared to have been practiced by Neanderthals in Europe and West Asia. This challenged the view, which was weakening, that the Neanderthal mind was probably incapable of such leaps of reasoning and philosophy. Aside from the argument that they were too thick, it was also argued that burials may only be superficially such. The anti-burialists argue that the Neanderthals must be simply emulating what they had seen Homo Sapiens Sapiens do.

Writing in Prehistoric Europe, Clive Gamble suggests that serendipitous location of finds may be the defining factor of these sites. He argues that even the choice of location may have been unintentional and is by now unknowable. He argues that further attempts to decipher Neanderthal intentions are of crucial importance; if proved, burial ritual would represent an awakening of symbolism and the precipitation of a massive shift in our precursors’ thinking.

In a fascinating article entitled The Neanderthal Dead: Exploring Mortuary Viability in Middle Palaeolithic Eurasia, Paul B Pettitt contends that a cursory umbrella dismissal is not constructive. The evidence strongly suggests purposeful activity and we cannot discount it all with absolute certainty and negate the physical evidence due to any other knowledge of the Neanderthal mentality.

The greatest opponent of Neanderthal burial is R H Gargett. He maintains that seeing these remains as burials is a double-standard. We are making the assumption on the basis of our own preference for burial. He says that we are so familiar with the concept that the standard of evidence is lower for us to accept it. He says the burials need to be proven to occur underneath subsequent deposits and not under the same material and strata in which they occur. Essentially his requirement for proof is that a hole is made, and then infilled with the removed soil. No sites meet this requirement.

Gargett goes against the grain. Within academia there is now a generally but tentatively accepted canon of 30 approved Neanderthal burials.

Why the Confusion?

The intentions of those doing the burying can never be known. In other words, the archaeological record can be easily misinterpreted. For example, it is not safe to infer from burials a belief in the afterlife. A careful burial may simply be a monument to a finished life. After all, atheists get buried too. Burial may also be done simply for reasons of hygiene.

It was once suggested that the remains of dead Neanderthals were in some cases subjected to cannibalism. This was due to cut marks on the bones suggesting butchering. Anyone familiar with Sky Burial (Careful with that link; it is grim to most people…) will know that brutal treatment of a corpse doesn not equate with a lack of spirituality, love for the deceased or cannibalism.

Karen Armstrong tells a more beautiful tale of neanderthals being found in the foetal position. We must assume, she says, that whoever prepared their burial had them in this way ready for an otherworldly rebirth. That may be so, but in the absence of cold, hard and empirical evidence many remain to be convinced as such.

Update – December 2013

In the two years since this article was written, work has continued apace on prehistoric, and neanderthal, corporal deposits. Since the discovery in 1908 speculation about the likelihood of intentional burials at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France has been rife. Now, at the conclusion of a 13 year program at the University of Bordeaux a line has been drawn in the sand. Neanderthals, it seems, definitely did bury their dead.

Prehistoric Europe – An Illustrated History, Ed. Barry Cunliffe, Oxford University Press, 1997
Human and Neanderthal interbreeding – the Guardian
Skhul and Qafzeh hominids
British Archaeology
Human Evolution
Neanderthal beliefs in the afterlife?
Opposing the reading of the remains as burials – PBS
Don’s Maps – Resources for the study of Palaeolithic / Paleolithic European, Russian and Australian Archaeology / Archeology
Wikipedia’s Neanderthal entry
Discovery Channel on Neanderthal Burial
Shanidar Cave
Palaeolithic Religion
Re-examining Neanderthals – The Smithsonian
Neanderthal Language
A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong, Canongate, 2005

This article was posted by on Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 at 12:42.
It is archived in Culture, History, Myth, Religion and tagged , , , , , , .

One Response to Neanderthal Burial

  1. jonathan says:

    good point, interesting

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