The debate surrounding the deliberate burial by Neanderthal of their dead continues. In a recent reply to the Rendu et al. 2014 paper in PNAS, Dibble et al discuss in detail the problems related to interpreting the La-Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton as an intentional burial. Their main critiques relate to the fact that:
– The La Chapelle skeleton was excavated early on, poorly recorded, and hence lacks detailed contextual data, making secure interpretations problematic.
– It cannot be excluded that the pit at La Chapelle was a brown bear nest, the dimensions fit such nests and there is another similar pit present in the cave.
– The skeletal remains were found in a pit which is much larger than the body itself and furthermore the remains are not found fully at its base and within the pit (the head rested against the side)
– The pit does not have a distinct infill, rather it seems to have been gradually filled by the same depositional processes that filled the rest of the cave.
– At La Chapelle, also animal bones are found in anatomical connection, for example bison remains in the second depression
– The better preservation of the Neanderthal bones could relate to the fact it was disposed with flesh on, while the animal remains were mainly butchered and defleshed
– Further spatial data is needed to fully assess the differential bone preservation at the site since diagenesis can be very localised in caves.
– The body was associated with nothing indicating grave goods or rituals.
Although the authors admit intentional burial will always remain a possibility at this problematic site, they argue that it should not be seen as the most parsimonious explanation. Especially, since, in general, the presence of symbolic behaviour among Neanderthals has still not been clearly and consistently demonstrated; merely through some debatable isolated examples. They lay the burden of proof on the claimants of such behaviour and caution against preliminary conclusions which can widely impact further inferences of Neanderthal behaviour. We look forward to reading further discussions on Neanderthal burial and symbolic behaviour, especially with the ongoing fieldwork at Regourdou and La Ferrassie, and am sure the last words on this topic have not been said!