What did Neandertals do with dead people? And what does this tell us about Neandertal behavior? These questions are perennial favorites for undergraduates and lay persons interested in human evolution. Indeed, one of the ‘facts’ many people remember about Neandertals is that they buried their dead, which suggests to some that Neandertals also must have had a rich religious and symbolic life. Recently, a new study of the site of La Chapelle aux Saints (which literally means chapel of the saints, and it is about 320 miles south of Paris) has reignited interest in this long standing debate, so it is timely for us to introduce the topic of Neandertal mortuary practice.
In the first decade of the last century archaeologists excavated the cave site of La Chapelle, and in the process discovered an almost complete Neandertal skeleton. This La Chapelle Neandertal is famous for a number of reasons. He was initially reported to have been over 50 when he died, as his body showed extensive evidence of a hard life. He had had arthritis bad enough to distort his skeleton, and had lost most of his teeth, to name just two of his problems. He was nicknamed “The Old Man of La Chapelle.” More recent analysis indicates that he was about 35 years old at the time of death. But where his skeleton was found turned out to be even more interesting. He was buried in a pit. From this the archaeologists concluded that Neandertals practiced burial just like modern humans, and must also have had a rich symbolic life. As one anthropologist recently wrote us, “All burials are profound.” There are a number of other sites with purported Neandertal graves, but it should be emphasized that most Neandertal remains (and there are hundreds) have not been found in graves. And even the few graves are controversial.
In 1989 archaeologist Rob Gargett (Gargett, 1989, 1999) analyzed the reports on many of the supposed Neandertal graves, and found none of them convincing. Indeed, he argued that all of them appeared to be the result of natural processes, not intentional burial. The reaction he received from other professionals was harsh. He had, after all, challenged one of the oldest and most cherished insights into Neandertal life. But Gargett stuck to his guns, and in 1999 published a rebuttal to his critics than included sites not discussed in 1989. Once again, he made a strong case for rejecting all of the proposed Neandertal burials.
So, did they or didn’t they intentionally bury their dead? The recent reinvestigation of La Chapelle concludes that they did. But does this also mean Neandertals had a complex symbolic life? Not necessarily. Let’s look at one of the best Neandertal graves. The Israeli site of Kebara cave has the remains of 23 Neandertals. One of them was placed in a shallow pit, only 10 – 12 inches deep, which was too shallow for the entire body. The head is missing entirely, as is the right leg and most of the left. And this is one of the best ‘graves’ we have. It is actually typical of the few sites with purported graves. They are invariably shallow; sometimes, as at La Ferrassie, it was simply a natural depression in the cave floor. And, more significantly, there is never any evidence for ritual behavior of any kind; no grave offerings, no ceremonial fires, no obvious corpse modification.
Yes, Neandertals occasionally protected corpses. And even the word ‘protected’ may be questioned. Have you ever come upon a dead animal? The stench within a few days is horribly offensive. If you covered the dead animal’s body with dirt or you dug a hole to bury it, would you consider that corpse ‘protection’ or did you simply stop a terribly stinky smell? Intentional burial is probably all that can be minimally concluded. There is no reason whatsoever to conclude that this activity was associated with symbolism (an afterlife?). Neandertals reasons for burying their dead could have been as profound as grief for the departed and an unwillingness to see them torn asunder by hyenas. Or their reasons could have been much more pragmatic; dead bodies stink. There is an important methodological point here that some of our colleagues forget too easily. We can only reach conclusions about the least complicated activity that accounts for the evidence. Sure, we suppose that it is possible that Neandertals believed in an afterlife, but the evidence can be explained in a much simpler way, and we must grant the simpler explanation precedence.
The University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Center for Cognitive Archaeology offers a range of online courses and also graduate and undergraduate certificates in cognitive archaeology. Information available at http://www.uccs.edu/~cca/.