Over the past decade or so, the term “Neanderthal” has become much less of an insult. While some still may use the name of humanity’s closest extinct ancestor to denote stupid or “primitive” behavior, scientists have determined that the ancient hominids were much more similar to Homo sapiens than was previously thought. Neanderthals had larger brains than do modern humans and may have produced cave paintings before humans did; they also almost certainly interbred with the first people to emerge from Africa approximately 100,000 years ago. Where there are weddings, there are usually funerals, and the Neanderthals were no exception: recent evidence suggests that the hominids intentionally buried their dead.
The first support for this conclusion came from a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, an area in the southwest of France. In 1908, two brothers by the name of Bouyssonie with an interest in archeology excavated the site to discover a Neanderthal skeleton, nearly 60,000 years old and almost entirely complete. The bones of the “old man of La Chapelle,” as he came to be known, showed signs of serious osteoarthritis and tooth loss, suggesting that he required the support of a family group for years before his demise. When that demise came, the Bouyssonie brothers hypothesized, it was reasonable that his family would have respected his death with a proper burial.
After over a hundred years, William Rendu and an international team of researchers have reexamined the evidence of La Chapelle to confirm the intentionality of the old man’s repose. The archeologists and anthropologists studied a number of aspects of the site, with particular focus on the soil around the skeleton and the status of the bones. By looking at the strata, or the layers of dirt in the burial pit, the scientists determined that its construction “cannot be explained by natural events.” The articulation, or relative positioning of the bones, was also mostly intact, and the bones themselves had few signs of weathering or scavenging. These observations show that the old man’s body was inhumed soon after death, as might be expected for an intentional burial.
Other Neanderthal skeletons have shown even more convincing evidence for funeral rites. For example, an entire family was found buried at Sima de las Palomas in southeastern Spain, each member with arms carefully folded and hands placed near their heads. In Iraq, at a site known as the Shanidar Cave, one skeleton was surrounded by the remains of flowers, perhaps the last tribute of the family towards the departed.
While it is impossible to know exactly what significance death held for our ancient ancestors, the research suggests that they grappled with the unknown much as we do today. Neanderthals offered respect for the dead, placed them in safety and security and may have given them tokens to take into the afterlife. Further research into these ancient burials promises to illuminate the beginnings of how we as humans learned to deal with the end.