Although it is possible that early humans buried their dead for purely hygienic reasons or to discourage scavengers, many anthropologists view intentional burial as a kind of symbolic behavior. Some have even suggested that it represents the earliest evidence of religion. Therefore, it is understandable that the subject of Neandertal burials is a controversial one. Although not always explicit, this controversy is linked to different perceptions regarding Neandertal cognition and intelligence. It is also rooted in the debate over modern human origins and the “humanness” of Neandertals.
In general, opinions among anthropologists fall within three camps. First, some anthropologists believe that all evidence for Neandertal burials can be explained by natural processes. They claim there is no scientifically sound evidence that Neandertals buried their dead. Second, other anthropologists accept that Neandertals may have buried their dead occasionally and sporadically. They believe the motives behind Neandertal burials were different from those of modern human burials (for example, practical vs. symbolic). Finally, still other anthropologists believe that the characteristics of, and motivation behind, Neandertal and anatomically modern human burials were the same, suggesting that the cognitive capacities of the two groups were similar, if not identical.
Much of the disagreement over whether or not Neandertals buried their dead is linked to different standards used to identify a burial. For some, the criteria may be quite simple. For example, good preservation may be enough for some anthropologists to conclude that an individual was intentionally buried. Others require more rigorous criteria, such as the position of the body (flexed), evidence of a burial pit, grave markers, and/or inclusion of grave goods. Although not the most popular view, some anthropologists claim that one must completely disprove the role of natural processes in order to properly interpret a skeleton as a burial.
More Neandertal sites lack rather than possess evidence of intentional burial. Generally speaking, Neandertal burials are simpler than those of later Upper Paleolithic humans. When present, the burial pits associated with Neandertal skeletons are shallow, and some clearly have a natural origin. Only about half of the Neandertal burials include possible grave goods (for example, stone tools, animal bones, and/or pigment). Because these grave goods are not very different from the items found in the surrounding deposit, it is difficult to rule out the possibility that the items were accidentally included in the grave fill. This contrasts sharply with graves associated with later Upper Paleolithic European burials, which often contain large numbers of art objects and are clearly contained in a pit of human manufacture. The most convincing evidence that Neandertals occasionally buried their dead is that many of the skeletons, especially those of juveniles and infants, are well preserved.
If we use the somewhat looser criteria of most anthropologists, there are approximately 20 Neandertal sites for which there is probable or certain evidence for one or more intentional burials. Some of the better known sites are discussed below.
In 1908, at the site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, a Neandertal skeleton was excavated from a large, roughly rectangular depression. The “old man from La Chapelle” was the first Neandertal skeleton to be interpreted as deliberate burial. The skeleton was well preserved and nearly complete, found lying on its back in a tightly flexed position. Animal bones may have been included as grave goods.
Not long after (1908 and 1914), two individuals, a young adult and an infant, were excavated from another French site called Le Moustier. Both individuals are said to have been intentionally buried. Le Moustier 1, the young adult, is hypothesized to have been laid on a pillow of stone artifacts. Le Moustier 2, the nearly complete skeleton of an infant, was associated with a shallow pit, but its excellent preservation is the strongest evidence that it was intentionally buried.
Between 1909 and 1920, two nearly complete and five fragmentary Neandertal skeletons were excavated at Le Ferrassie, France. Although La Ferrassie 1 (an adult) was not associated with a grave, it has been interpreted as a burial based on its flexed position and the presence of three limestone blocks near its head and shoulders. A year later, a second adult (La Ferrassie 2) was found only a half-meter from the first. La Ferrassie 2 was positioned head-to-head with La Ferrassie 1, and evidence suggests that both were buried at about the same time. As excavations continued, two immature individuals were discovered. La Ferrassie 3 is the partial skeleton of a 10-year-old. La Ferrassie 4 is the skeleton of a newborn infant. Both were discovered in shallow pits. Their association with burial pits and their good preservation has been considered evidence of intentional burial. La Ferrassie 5 was found beneath one of nine meter-sized, cone-shaped mounds that have been assumed to be ritually placed. La Ferrassie 6 consists of the partial skeleton of a 3-year-old child. The skeleton was discovered in a very large pit. Some anthropologists believe that the cranium—which was found 1.25 m away from the body—had been ritually removed.
Excavated in 1939, the burial at Grotta Guatarri, Italy, consisted of an irregular ring of rocks surrounding a Neandertal skull that was missing the base of the skull. The rock ring has been interpreted as being ritually placed. The missing skull base has been interpreted as evidence that Neandertals extracted the brain as part of a cannibalistic ritual. However, the skull lacks evidence of human butchering, and it is possible that carnivores, rather than humans, were responsible for the damage. In addition, some have questioned the placement of the skull inside the ring, because it had been moved and replaced before it was seen by scientists.
One of the most famous Neandertal burials comes from Shanidar Cave in Kurdistan, Iraq. Excavated in the 1950s and 1960s, most of the individuals at Shanidar are presumed to be burials based on the position of their bodies, their preservation, or their association with alleged grave goods. Of these, Shanidar 4 (the flower burial) is the best known. The discovery of a substantial quantity of flower pollen in the soil surrounding the individual led to the conclusion that the individual was buried ceremoniously with flowers. Skeptics of this interpretation point out that the accumulation of the flower pollen could be the result of rodent activity rather than mortuary ritual.
Another possible Neandertal burial was found in 1938 at a site called Teshik Tash in Uzbekistan. Teshik Tash consists of a partial skeleton of a 9-year-old Neandertal child. It has been hypothesized that the individual was buried in a shallow grave and subsequently surrounded by ritually placed goat horns. Skeptics, however, claim that the child’s bones had been disturbed by scavengers, which suggests that its (natural) burial occurred sometime after its death. The evidence for a grave—intentional placement of the goat horns—has also been questioned by some.
Although not uncritically accepted, the hypothesis that Neandertals at least occasionally buried their dead appears to be supported. Exactly what this means—in terms of religion, symbolism, and ultimately the humanness of Neandertals—probably will not be resolved any time in the near future.
- Belfer-Cohen, A., & Hovers, E. (1992). In the eye of the beholder: Mousterian and Natufian burials in the Levant. Current Anthropology, 33, 463-471.
- Gargett, R. H. (1989). Grave shortcomings: The evidence for Neandertal burial. Current Anthropology, 30, 157-190.
- Riel-Salvatore, J., & Clark, G. A. (2001). Grave markers. Current Anthropology, 42, 449-479.