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Is burying the dead an exclusive practice of Homo sapiens?

Or did other primitive humans like Neanderthals put their loved ones to rest underground?

It is a long-standing topic of debate among archaeologists.

Now evidence for funerary behavior could shed light on Neanderthals’ cognitive abilities and social mores and whether, like modern humans, they were capable of symbolic thinking.

A researcher at the Musée d'Archéologie Nationale in France examines material from excavations at the La Ferrassie Neanderthal site in southwestern France.  Thousands of skeletal remains were classified and 47 new fossil remains belonging to a Neanderthal child were identified.
A researcher at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in France examines material from excavations at the La Ferrassie Neanderthal site in southwestern France. Thousands of skeletal remains were classified and 47 new fossil remains belonging to a Neanderthal child were identified. (Antoine Balzeau / CNRS / MNHN)

The best preserved, however, were found in the early 20th century and were not excavated using modern methods.

This has led to skepticism as to whether the practice of Neanderthal burial was deliberate.

A new analysis of a 41,000-year-old skeleton of a Neanderthal boy, found in a French cave in the 1970s, provides new evidence that Stone Age hominins intentionally buried their dead.
This artist's reconstruction shows the burial of a child by Neanderthals at La Ferrassie in southwestern France.
This artist’s reconstruction shows the burial of a child by Neanderthals at La Ferrassie in southwestern France. (Emmanuel Roudier)
French and Spanish The researchers re-examined the remains using modern high-tech methods, re-excavated the original archaeological site where the bones were found in La Ferrassie, south-western France, and reviewed the notebooks and field diaries from the original excavation.

Its conclusion? The corpse of a two-year-old Neanderthal was deliberately deposited in a hole dug in the sediment.

The absence of marks from carnivores that may have attempted to poke around a discovered body and the fact that the bones were relatively undispersed in little weather suggested that the body quickly covered itself, the researchers said.

Many of the genes that help determine most people's skin and hair are far more Neanderthal than not, according to two new studies looking at the DNA fossils hidden in the modern human genome.
Many of the genes that help determine most people’s skin and hair are far more Neanderthal than not, according to two new studies looking at the DNA fossils hidden in the modern human genome. (AP)

The remains were also well preserved (better than animal bones found in the same layer of earth) despite belonging to a child.

Children’s skeletons tend to have more delicate bones.

The position of the skeleton also suggested that the child had been intentionally placed there.

The head, which pointed eastward, rose higher than the rest of the body despite the land tilting westward.

“The origin of funeral practices has important implications for the rise of so-called modern cognitive abilities and behaviors,” the study said.

“These new results provide important information for the discussion on the chronology of the disappearance of Neanderthals and the behavioral capacity, including cultural and symbolic expression, of these humans.”

Researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research in France, the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and the University of the Basque Country in Spain identified 47 bones belonging to the child’s skeleton that had not been previously identified.

One piece of bone was carbon dated and found to be 41,000 years old.

The researchers confirmed that the bone belonged to a Neanderthal by analyzing the fragment’s mitochondrial DNA.

A tube containing the DNA of Neanderthal man can be seen in the State Museum of Archeology in Chemnitz.  Under the motto
A tube containing the DNA of Neanderthal man can be seen in the State Museum of Archeology in Chemnitz. Under the motto “2 million years of migration”, the Landesmuseum presents a special exhibition on the theme of migration from May 1 to July 14, 2019. In the exhibition, visitors can discover how people spread from Africa . (image alliance via Getty Image)

The child was one of eight sets of skeletal remains found at the site.

Potential burial evidence has also been found at one of the most famous Neanderthal sites, the Shanidar Cave in Kurdistan, located in northern Iraq.

This site housed the remains of 10 Neanderthal men, women, and children.

They found ancient pollen clumps, suggesting that Neanderthals may have included flowers as part of their funeral rites.

The most spectacular ancient finds discovered by humans

More recent excavations of the Shanidar Cave have found more Neanderthal remains, which according to early research were deliberately buried.

Other research has suggested that there was considerable diversity in the way European Neanderthals treated their dead relatives in the period immediately preceding their disappearance roughly 40,000 years ago, including cannibalism.

The team of researchers said current analytical standards should be applied to the other skeletal remains at the La Ferrassie site to assess whether they too were buried.


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