The Consequence of Life: Burial
Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead. This statement has been controversial ever since the 1908 discovery of a burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints France. Every detail of that burial has been questioned skeptically since its discovery, but an immense 1999-2012 study of Neanderthal burials by New York University and France's National Center for Scientific Research has shown that not only was that a burial but it is by no means the only one or the most complex. Neanderthals treated their dead unlike any animal before them, understanding why is key to understanding their mind.
|Shanidar Cave, in Iraqi Kurdistan|
At Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan, an adult Neanderthal male was killed in a rockfall. Near to the rockfall, his family built a small pile of stones (a tumulus) with some chert stone points placed on top. They also build a large fire nearby. Another burial at Shanidar Cave, famously called The Flower Burial, is a male aged 35-40 years laying on his left side in the fetal position. His body is surrounded by flower pollen, which were the remnants of flowers placed around his grave. These were placed there intentionally, whether by a Neanderthal or by a Persian jird (a type of gerbil-rodent) is highly debated. These specific flowers have medicinal properties which lends weight to the Neanderthal side, yet pollen is strewn through multiple layers from jird activity...and the consensus (as far as I can tell) is that team jird has won.
|Looking out from the Shanidar Cave|
|The dastardly Persian Jird|
At La Chapelle-aux-Saints, two children and an adult Neanderthal were buried around 50 kya. Their family dug pits in the cave for the burials, and the children face each other possibly for ceremonial reasons. Their bodies are also surrounded by animal bones. For years people thought the bones and bodies had washed into natural cavities, but the geology “cannot be explained by natural events...there is no sign of weathering and scavenging by animals.” -William Rendu. This is a sign that the bodies were immediately covered after burial, lending serious weight to the idea of a burial practice. The adult has a tumulus of stones built on top of its grave, stones which came from outside the cave. A Neanderthal burial at La Ferrassie cave included a large stone slab over the body. All of these items of evidence: the immediate covering of the body, the creation of a tumulus, and funerary slabs are examples of burial practices. This behavioral phenomenon requires a complexity of thought presumed to have been uniquely human.
|The Neanderthal burial site at La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave, France|
The most impressive Neanderthal burial is at Le Regourdou cave. Here, a Neanderthal was buried (around 70 kya) surrounded by stone points and brown bear bones. This burial has some of the best evidence for grave goods, the stone points were possibly weapons, and the brown bear bones were possibly hunting trophies or trinkets. The human practice of leaving grave goods is tied to the idea of an afterlife and symbolic reasoning. If Neanderthals left grave goods, were they thinking the same thoughts? There are 33 known Neanderthal burials, with more than half associated with stone tools or animal bones, and at La Ferrassie cave a bone fragment has a series of intentional parallel cuts. “Grave goods may or may not relate to metaphysical notions of an afterlife or bodily extension; they probably speak more of self-expression and concepts of ownership. It may well be that neither existed in Neanderthal societies.” -Paul Pettitt.
|Le Regourdou Cave under excavation in 1964|
The uniqueness of this burial does not end there, on top of the grave is a giant (850 kg/1870 lbs) limestone slab, a true funeral slab. Built on the slab was a tumulus of large stones, and on top of that was a layer of burnt sand and various artifacts including more brown bear bones. Regourdou is the first tomb. Yet the strangeness does not even end there. Around the grave are about 20 man-made ditches. These are either lined, filled, or covered with stones, and their purpose is unknown. The only clue is one such small ditch, carefully lined with stones and covered with a limestone slab and a tumulus. Inside, is a nearly complete brown bear skeleton. “It is difficult to see how this could be a natural accumulation.” -Eugene Bonifay. The entire grave site is spectacular. It includes a Neanderthal tomb complete with grave goods and a fire ritual, along with multiple brown bear tombs. This burial is radically different than other Neanderthal burials, possibly connoting an elevated social status or the individual's symbolic relation to bears. Who was this person? Who took the time to built such an elaborate tomb, complete with little bear tombs? Since Neanderthals came together in extended clan groups of up to 40, it is possible that this Neanderthal was the leader of one such group. It is also just as possible that this Neanderthal's clan of 8-15 took years or decades to build the tomb. This tomb raises many strange and unforeseen questions...is this evidence of a social hierarchy? What relation did bears have to this person? How did Neanderthals lift a funeral slab weighing around 1900 pounds? Explaining this tomb is the deepest mystery in all of anthropology.
|Brown Bears are kept at the Regourdou site as a tourist attraction|
How Neanderthals Treated Death
In general, most Neanderthal burials are simple compared to ours, and were “body-centered” -Jean-Jacques Hublin. The most locationally unique Neanderthal burial is at Sima de los Huesos Spain, where deep within the cave around 30 bodies were tossed into shafts as a burial. This occurred around 500 kya, and is disputed whether these were Neanderthals or Heidelbergensis. The first undisputed burial evidence is from around 90 kya. Most burials are shallow graves dug into soft midden soil, near the living areas at the mouths of caves and rock shelters. While originally burials were not separated from the rest of a site, at Kebara cave there is evidence that bodies were buried deeper within the cave over time. Eventually Neanderthals began to associate certain areas of a cave with burials. Neanderthals tended to bury their dead within the cave or by the entrance, whereas humans mainly buried their dead by the entrance or on the terrace of caves.
|Kebara Cave, at Mount Carmel, Israel|
While many bodies were put in a fetal position, not all were. Some bodies had bones stained with hematite (rust-red iron ore), which was either sprinkled or painted on the body (when mixed with vegetable seed oil or animal fat). There is evidence of defleshing at burials, either for ritual or for cannibalism. Sometimes a body was disarticulated to fit in a grave. At Mount Cerceo Italy around 57 kya, a Neanderthal's head was bashed in to reveal the brains, and the hole was later enlarged and the edges smoothed so it could be used as a bowl. Other evidence of cannibalism points towards a general similarity with animal butchery, like at El Sidron cave in Spain a family of 12 was overwhelmed by another clan, killed, and eaten. While funerary slabs show respect for the dead, cannibalism shows that sentimentality was fleeting and at times hunger prevailed.
|Mount Cerceo, Lazio, Italy|
The construction of tombs and nutritional cannibalism were not practiced everywhere at all times. Neanderthal burial practices were just as varied as contemporaneous human burials. There were burials of individuals (sometimes only parts of individuals) and burials of groups. Groups were either buried at the same time (as in La Ferrassie), or not (as in Shanidar). Most burials were dug into the cave floor, but some used natural fissures or depressions, and some even widened natural pits. Strangely enough, at some places bones were unceremoniously pushed away from the living space, not even buried at all. “Aquitaine and Levant contain relatively large numbers of burials as well as places of multiple burial, which might suggest that burial was practiced more widely in these areas and that, by contrast, Neanderthals in other regions either did not bury their dead, or did not practice it frequently.” -Paul Pettitt. A universal feature is that children and infants were given more elaborate burials, and there was no distinction between male and female burials. While the most famous burials are within caves, just as many burials were by rock shelters. “If there was any general means of disposal of the dead in Neanderthal society we shall never recapture it as it is obviously archaeologically invisible.” -Paul Pettitt.
|Illustration of the burial of Ferrassie 5, including the stone points associated with the burial as grave goods. By Emmanuel Roudier|
If there is any rhyme or reason to the location of Neanderthal burials, it may be due to inter-clan competition. “These are regions...that Neanderthals were particularly numerous, and it is tempting to suggest that the practice of burial may have been connected to population size and perhaps to a sense of territoriality.” -Paul Pettitt. While this is an interesting thought, since we only have around 30 burials of a species which included millions of individuals over hundreds of thousands of years, the most insightful burials have probably not even been found. We do know that they continued burying their dead up until the last Neanderthal.
There was no single Neanderthal mindset towards burial. Their treatment of the dead exists in a gray area between elaborate stone tombs and no burial at all. While tombs and grave goods are reflective of the idea of an afterlife, “...as if they recognized some stage after death.” -Eric Delson, cannibalism and the lack of burial signify that bodies immediately lost their connection to the individual. Tombs and grave goods may only signify memorials and the idea of individual possession, not symbolizing an afterlife at all. Since there is so much local variation, it is possible that some Neanderthals recognized an afterlife and other did not. The understanding of an afterlife may have been a cultural trait, passed down from generation to generation within a family group. If Neanderthal linguistic variation was centered around the family unit, it is conceivable that cultural variation in burial practices were also. The burial at Le Regourdou is the most confusing...what was the connection between that individual and brown bears, and why did that connection have to be formalized in death? We will never know for sure.
The Cult of the Cave Bear
|A sketch of a Neanderthal next to cave bears, by Emmanuel Roudier|
The connection between bears and Neanderthals is not isolated to Le Regourdou. In the early 20th century, there were multiple discoveries of cave bear bones in strange positions, the most famous of which is Drachenloch cave. Drachenloch was famously excavated by Emil Bachler and Theophil Nigg. At the time their discoveries were revolutionary, but in the intervening years everything they did has been disavowed and undone by the archeological community.
They found cave bear bones placed in strange positions, surrounded by stones. They found ditches filled with bear bones and topped with slabs. They found a cave bear skull with a bone stuck through its cheek, and skulls placed on top of rocks. As it turns out, cave bears scratch out nests, making bones and small rocks collect in crevices. Those bones and rocks are then saved from erosion, giving the impression that they were placed there. Due to rockfalls, large slabs then fall on collections of bones, forming the impression of a burial. With thousands of bones in a single cave, and thousands of years of bear activity, it is not impossible that one bone would be lodged through another.
|The infamous cave bear skull|
Emil Bachler began his excavation already believing in the cult of the cave bear and didn't leave detailed records of context. He wasn't even there most of the time. The lead excavator Theophil Nigg was there most of the time and his notes completely contradict Bachler's. Bachler said that the bear graves were “obviously man-made”, had slabs laying on them, and that small walls were associated with the bear graves. Nigg's notes report the exact opposite of all these claims.
“It was a small chamber with sloping walls...the bears...dug out their lair, forming, with the complicity of the sloping walls, the most beautiful trap for prehistorians one could imagine. When the overlying material had been removed, the little chamber was surrounded by a circle of bear skulls, oriented in all directions, but for the most part horizontal and lying in place...The work of the bears and the unconscious elimination of all the little bones had sufficed to produce a structure such that one could hardly doubt the intervention of man.” -Andre Leroi-Gourhan (speaking about the cave at Les Furtins)
The idea that Neanderthals had a cave bear based religion was popular in academic circles throughout the 1960s and 70s, and popularized by the book The Clan of the Cave Bear. While many parts of that book still stand...the Neanderthals have names which include bilabial phonemes, and only use sign language (the book was written in 1980, and the Neanderthal hyoid bone was found in 1983). The cult of the cave bear has also not stood up to modern research. Reality is much more ridiculous than fiction, the true meaning of the actual bear graves at Le Regourdou is completely unknown. While Drachenloch is a Neanderthal burial, the fantasies of Emil Bachler live on into the 21st century.
“All relevant conceptions of that kind are either products of a certain mental climate at the time of the discovery of the fossils or of ideologies...the discussion of religious customs among recent hunter gatherers proves that what remains of the practice of their cult differs markedly from the fossil remains found in the Mousterian bear caves. An examination of fossil bone formations...makes clear that supposed ancient bear cult sites are bone beds of natural origin. The characteristic appearance of the sites is a result of the activities of the bears themselves and of geological and sedimentary processes.” -Ina Wunn