Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead?
The conventional answer is yes, yes they did. In fact a quick web search will reveal any number of web sites touting this or that Neanderthal burial. They were almost human, they had stone tools and other implements of human culture, they were clearly human enough to mourn their dead. Apes, dolphins, and elephants mourn their dead. Neanderthal skeletons have been found in what appear to be graves, what’s the problem? The problem is that some academics with excellent credentials challenge the view that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead in the manner of humans. The claim is that because we bury our dead in a ritualistic fashion, we have projected that behavior onto the scant evidence that exists for Neanderthal burials.
So, what is the evidence? Well, here is where the crux of the debate is. There are a few dozen cases where deceased Neanderthals appear to have been wholly or partially buried. The problem is that none of these cases is a “smoking gun” case. There is no such thing as a Neanderthal grave that was indisputably a grave. IE, body carefully laid out surrounded by tools, adornments, food, and other obvious items placed with the the dead in their grave:
The is the Amesbury Archer. Pretty hard to call that anything but a grave. There is no comparable Neanderthal site. Some of their graves might have had flowers and such buried with the body, but even that is debatable. A few did have a few grave goods, but again, it’s debatable. Worse, much worse in my opinion, there isn’t even a Neanderthal grave where it is clear a hole was dug, the body placed inside, and the hole refilled with the dirt from the hole. In what cases were properly investigated (archeology has made a lot of progress since the 19th century,) the bodies appear to have been placed in natural depressions, and the dead weren’t always completely buried. Well, what does it matter? It matters because scientists are trying to answer the age old question, were Neanderthals human? IE could a typical Neanderthal have learned English and conversed with us? I’ve blogged about the Neanderthal speech debate here. If Neanderthals buried their dead as humans do, wouldn’t this mean they also believed in an afterlife of some sort? At the very least it would seem to indicate an understanding of individuality and life and death in a way that humans do. That’s the argument as I understand it, and the majority of Neanderthal researchers find it reasonably compelling.
The counter argument? The Neanderthals may have been simply disposing of the bodies. Aside from the smell, they would attract carnivores and scavengers. The picture is also muddied by the fact that Neanderthal skeletons have been found with marks where meat was carved from the bone. Cannibalism or ritual defleshing? No one knows. It’s also possible that the burial-like Neanderthal “graves” that have been discovered might simply have been Neanderthals mimicking their far more successful cousins, Homo sapiens, with no clear intent other than a vague idea that copying what they do might lead to more success for their hunts. Of course this gets into another muddy area, why did the Neanderthals eventually get wiped out when they came into contact with Homo sapiens? Current thinking, which is by no means definitive, is that they simply couldn’t compete with Homo sapiens much more sophisticated hunting and food gathering abilities.
In any event there’s no overarching point to this post, other than to point out that what we know about our closest known cousins in the human lineage is still subject to debate. And while the current consensus is that Neanderthals were humans (speaking figuratively,) it’s by no means cut and dry. Complicating the debate about Neanderthal cognizance even further, they had bigger brains than humans. Yet somehow their tool use remained rather simple and primitive right up to the very end. And then of course there is the messy business of humans and Neanderthals breeding with each other. Most people alive today have some Neanderthal genes, and we didn’t get them through cannibalizing Neanderthals. What was up with that?
Maybe someday, a post on recently discovered Neanderthal art as a follow up to this post about a Neanderthal “sculpture.” More posts on weird weapons of war are definitely coming up. And no, not a single person caught the smurf reference joke. I will not be posting about smurfs.
(The above images are claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They aren’t being used for profit and are central to illustrating the post. For the top image, credit and copyright: Shanidar Burial. Image: JohnConnell, Flickr. The second image, I don’t know who holds the copyright, it’s posted all over the web. I’m guessing credit and copyright: Wessex Archeology. For more thinking on Neanderthal cognizance, this is interesting.)