Wednesday, December 18, 2013

1237. The Neanderthal Buried Their Dead

By John Noble Wilford, The New York Times, December 16, 2013
A Neanderthal skull from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in southwestern France.

Early in the 20th century, two brothers discovered a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton in a pit inside a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in southwestern France. The discovery raised the possibility that these evolutionary relatives of ours intentionally buried their dead — at least 50,000 years ago, before the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe.

These and at least 40 subsequent discoveries, a few as far from Europe as Israel and Iraq, appeared to suggest that Neanderthals, long thought of as brutish cave dwellers, actually had complex funeral practices. Yet a significant number of researchers have since objected that the burials were misinterpreted, and might not represent any advance in cognitive and symbolic behavior.
Now an international team of scientists is reporting that a 13-year re-examination of the burials at La Chapelle-aux-Saints supports the earlier claims that the burials were intentional.
The researchers — archaeologists, geologists and paleoanthropologists — not only studied the skeleton from the original excavations, but found more Neanderthal remains, from two children and an adult. They also studied the bones of other animals in the cave, mainly bison and reindeer, and the geology of the burial pits.
The findings, in this week’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “buttress claims for complex symbolic behavior among Western European Neanderthals,” the scientists reported.
William Rendu, the paper’s lead author and a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences in New York, said in an interview that the geology of the burial pits “cannot be explained by natural events” and that “there is no sign of weathering and scavenging by animals,” which means the bodies were covered soon after death.
“While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic,” Dr. Rendu said in a statement issued by New York University, “the discovery reduces the behavioral distance between them and us.”
The research center is a collaboration between N.Y.U. and the National Center for Scientific Research in France. Much of the fieldwork involved researchers from the University of Bordeaux and Archéosphère, a private research firm in France.
In light of these findings and other recent studies, Dr. Rendu’s team concluded in the journal, “It now appears that a general reassessment” of these early burial practices “needs to be undertaken with the aim of furnishing new scientific arguments and evidence relevant to the ongoing debate surrounding Neanderthal symbolic behavior.”
Eric Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, a paleoanthropologist and expert on the Neanderthals who edited the journal paper, said in an interview that the new evidence of intentional burials was “very substantial and solid.” He said he had visited the cave last year and “gone over all the pros and cons with the team leaders.”

Asked if the evidence would quiet the skeptics of Neanderthal burial practices, Dr. Trinkaus replied: “I certainly hope it does. Indeed, they buried their dead.”

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