Bring out your dead! Neanderthal burial during the late Middle Palaeolithic

The deliberate burial of individuals in western Europe prior to the arrival of Anatomically Modern Humans has long been questioned by scholars. Nevertheless, in recent years more evidence has been recovered from sites as far afield as the Middle East purporting to illustrate Neanderthal burial practices. However, doubts have been cast over many of these burial locations based around whether Neanderthals possessed the cognitive capacity to bury the dead and also through detailed study of site formation processes. Therefore, the authors of this recent study published in PNAS have sought to tackle the issue of Neanderthal burial through a reanalysis and re-excavation of the site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints (central France), one of the genesis locations for the idea of Neanderthal burials.

The paper documents the detailed work undertaken by these authors to understand site-formation processes, but also to reconstruct the excavations originally undertaken in 1908. Through reanalysis of material from these excavations and fresh excavation of in-situ deposits and back dirt at the site the authors were able to reconstruct a 2 phase model for site occupation:

  1. A basal horizon composed almost exclusively of reindeer remains and containing a Quina Mousterian industry.
  2. An upper horizon composed almost exclusively of bovid remains and containing a Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MTA) assemblage.

Based on previous work and biostratigraphy, the authors assign the basal level to MIS 4 and the upper to MIS 3. This is important because it provides some of the supporting evidence for the site as a burial location. Again through re-excavation the authors were able to reconstruct the exact position and profile of the original ‘burial pit’ identified in 1908. The outline and depth of the depression lead the authors to dismiss this feature as a result of natural geological processes or a result of cave bear hibernation behaviour (based on an absence of remains and the small overall dimensions of the cavity). The pit also cuts through the underlying MIS 4 horizon suggesting deposition of the burial post-MIS 4.

In addition, during excavation the researchers recovered additional human skeletal material from at least 3 more individuals. The taphonomic analysis of these remains indicate a different site formation history than the other faunal material from the site; the Neanderthal remains appear to have been buried quickly, with little weathering or, and most importantly, carnivore modifications that were recorded on other faunal material (4.2%).

Combined, the taphonomical analyses of the bones and the microstratigraphic observations of the depression, make a good case for an intentional Neanderthal inhumation. The supplementary information of the paper also provides useful corroborating information. However, whilst the Neanderthal remains were deposited and covered relatively quickly this could still also simply reflect disposal rather than internment. The question remains why were these human remains buried, was it simply to keep carnivores away from their living site or was there an element of symbolic behavior attached to it. Also this type of Neanderthal behavior cannot be generalized and whether this was practices across the Neanderthal range will require similar more detailed analysis from different regions. This work illustrates the value of returning to ‘excavated’ sites and the importance of older collections in providing new insights into the complexities of past Neanderthal behaviour.

Full reference: Rendu, W et al 2013. Evidence supporting an intentional Neandertal burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints. PNAS.

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