The debate on the familial similarity of humans and Neanderthals has continue to rage on, despite DNA evidence showing potential sub-species status. Whether or not they are ‘human’ has an effect on whether they fall under the category of mortuary archaeology, the study of human funerary sites in the past. It has been questionable whether or not Neanderthals showed the symbolic capacity necessary for funerary behavior like humans do. Regardless of whether they are a sub-species or distinct species, new evidence is appearing that supports the idea that Neanderthals may have been engaging in patterned mortuary behavior.
Paleoanthropologists are arguing that the site of Sima de las Palomas in Murcia, Southeast Spain, may be the first known Neanderthal burial ground of Mediterranean Europe. Three individuals were found with their arms folded with the hands placed closed to their heads. The remains are those of an adult male, a young adult female and a juvenile. They were found buried underneath numerous rocks that were dropped on them from a height. While its possible that this could have been the manner of death, the paleoanthropologists argue that it was simply the method of burial and that they were already deceased. There were also two burnt panther paws found in the rocks which are being interpreted as potential gifts or as having ritual significance (Viegas 2011).
This is not the first proposed Neanderthal burial. At Shanidar Cave in Iraq, there is the questionable flower burial dating to 60,000 years ago, which has been the subject of debate since its initial discovery in the 1960’s. Of nine Neanderthal skeletons found, one burial contained botanical remains of flowers- which has been argued to be evidence of mortuary ritual by Solecki and other paleoanthropologists (1975). This burial in particular has created a lot of debate given the various reconstructions of this potential ‘first funeral’. Regardless of interpretations, we cannot know whether the pollen from the flowers was deliberately added because they were placed in the grave, or whether the wind blew them into the pit that was used to prevent a dead body from polluting the site or attracting predators.
Another Neanderthal ‘burial’ was found at Kebara Cave in Israel and dating to 60,000 years ago. It includes the torso of a Neanderthal and portions of a a stone tool. It is argued that this is an intentionally burial with symbolic meaning due to the removal of portions of the skeleton.
Other potential Neanderthal burials include several caches from 100,000 years ago of Neanderthals such as La Quina including fragmentary cranial remains of at least 22 individuals, L’Hortus included 20 individuals in a fissure, and Krapina Cave included 70 individuals (Pettitt 2002).
While there is a larger question as to the symbolic capabilities and mental capacities of Neanderthals, the real question here is what constitutes intentional burial and funerary behavior. First, it is important to determine that the pit was intentionally dug for the purpose of putting the individual in the burial. This requires close attention to strata, the layers of soil. Second, intentional burials will be in locations that are clearly not due to animals dragging remains to a specific location. This means that it is more likely intentional when the individual is found in areas of high activity- like the center of a cave. The Kebara skeleton was found in the middle of an activity area. Third, the remains are articulated. If remains are disarticulated it is possible that they were scavenged and not properly buried. Fourth, inclusion of grave goods with the individual shows other individuals were involved in the disposal. Although disarticulation can also be a sign of revisiting a grave and memorializing the individual (see my articles on reasons to remove bones from a grave). However, artifacts do not mean that they are grave goods. The individual may have died with the artifact or it may have been dropped at another time.
The problem is that while burial may be intentional, the intention may be to bury the individual to prevent predators from being attracted to the area or to deal with pollution. If we get beyond the argument of the ‘humaness’ of the actions, and look rationally at the evidence, we can see that there is no clear evidence one way or the other. As more burials are found we will be able to see whether there is a pattern. If all Neanderthals within a specfic region are buried in the same position with the same artifacts, there is a stronger argument for intention than just speculation of beliefs in the afterlife.
For the full article debating whether these burials are intentional see Pettitt 2002.
Pettitt. 2002. When Burial Begins. British Archaeology Magazine. http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba66/feat1.shtml
Solecki. 1975. Implications of the Shanidar Cave Neanderthal Flower Burial. In Annals of the NY Academy 293(1): 114-125.
Viegas. 2011. Did Neanderthals Believe in the Afterlife? Discovery News. http://news.discovery.com/archaeology/neanderthal-burial-ground-afterlife-110420.html