martes, 17 de diciembre de 2013

Neanderthals buried their dead in Western Europe (France)

For decades, scholars had questioned the existence and evidence for burial in Western Europe prior to the arrival of Anatomically Modern Humans. However, most now agree that Neanderthals did bury their dead, with over 20 sites known throughout Europe.
La Chapelle-aux-Saints which borders the Sourdoire valley in south-western France, was first excavated in 1908, and remains were discovered in a shallow depression within the cave. This discovery sparked the debate on burial ritual by Neanderthals.
Academic arguments on potential for Neanderthal burial
The cave also revealed hundreds of artefacts belonging to the late Mousterian culture along with the well preserved skeleton of an adult Neanderthal man who appeared to have been intentionally buried in a rectangular pit 30 centimetres deep, 1.45 metres long and 1 metre wide.
Brothers Jean and Amédée Bouyssonie, as well as L. Bardon, led archaeological digs in the cave from 1905 to 1908, but much of what they found was discounted in later years due to various academic arguments that included the brothers being Catholic priests, even though a further Neanderthal ‘burial’ was uncovered at the nearby cave site of La Ferrassie.
“There has been a tendency among researchers working on this topic to discard all evidence coming from old excavations just because the excavations were done long ago,” Francesco d’Errico an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France who was not involved in the study explained in a recent article in the National Geographic.
12 year fieldwork project
The intentionality of the burial at the La Chapelle-aux-Saints remained an issue of some debate, but the new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presents the results of a 12 year fieldwork project, along with a taphonomic analysis of the human remains which has finally confirmed the funerary nature of the 50,000 year old Neanderthal burial.
“This discovery not only confirms the existence of Neanderthal burials in Western Europe, but also reveals a relatively sophisticated cognitive capacity to produce them,” explains palaeontologist William Rendu, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS) at New York University.
It has already been accepted that Neanderthals buried their dead in the East – such as at sites like Shanidar in the Zagros Mountains (Iraqi Kurdistan). However, these eastern burials dated to a time when contact with Anatomically Modern Humans might possibly have occurred, suggesting Neanderthals may have been mimicking their behaviour.
Re-examination proves deliberate burial
Rendu and his collaborators, including researchers from the PACEA laboratory of the University of Bordeaux and Archéosphère, a commercial archaeology company, began excavating the original site and seven other caves in the area between 1999 and 2012 where they found more Neanderthal remains—two children and one adult—along with bones of bison and reindeer.
Crucially, the researchers who reinvestigated and excavated this and the other nearby sites, showed that the shallow depression where the skeleton had been found a century before, was partially modified to create a grave, perhaps a re-utilisation of a functional pit. While they did not find tool marks or other evidence of digging where the initial skeleton was unearthed in 1908, geological analysis of the depression in which the remains were found suggests that it was not a natural feature of the cave floor.
Intentionally and rapidly covered
They were able to show that unlike the reindeer and bison bones also present in the cave, the Neanderthal remains showed no signs of weathering-related smoothing or disturbance by animals and must therefore have been both carefully placed in the scoop and intentionally and rapidly covered.
“The relatively pristine nature of these 50,000-year-old remains implies that they were covered soon after death, strongly supporting our conclusion that Neanderthals in this part of Europe took steps to bury their dead,” observes Rendu. “While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic, the discovery reduces the behavioural distance between them and us.”

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