Neandertal Burial Practices

Research Paper for Human Prehistory and Anthropology 2013 by Darci Clark

The study of Neandertal (or Neanderthal either is correct) burials has caused much debate in the academic world. The topics under discussion range from whether Neandertals deliberately interred their dead to their possible use of grave offerings and ritual practices, which may or may not have included post-mortem defleshing or cannibalism. An excavation of Neandertal burials in Shanidar Cave, Iraq by Ralph Solecki in 1960 caused controversy when flower pollen was discovered in a burial site. This led Solecki to conclude the occupant, called Shanidar IV, was deliberately interred on a bed of flowers. Although today Solecki’s interpretation has been disregarded, it is a good example of the controversies surrounding the cognitive abilities of Neandertals.

Solecki excavated nine Neandertals at Shanidar Cave between 1951 and 1960. Rock falls in the cave were the probable cause of death for several of the individuals, but others appeared to have been buried deliberately. Evidence of animal remains, hearths and ashes indicated these individuals had occupied the cave before their accidental death or burial at the site. Those that had been killed by the rock falls had only partial skeletal remains while the deliberately buried remains were mostly complete. Seven adults and two infants were unearthed and four of the skeletons had been placed on top of one another. This could indicate one multiple burial or a series of single burials.

Shanidar Skull
Shanidar Skull

These four skeletons, called Shanidar IV, VI, VII, and VIII are the best evidence for deliberate burials at the site. Shanidar VIII was an infant, Shanidar VI and VII were adult females, and Shanidar IV was an adult male. The infant was buried first, followed by the two females placed adjacent to each other, and then finally the adult male. There was also evidence of possible funerary caching at the site in the case of the remains of Shanidar III. Funerary caching is the practice of placing remains in a natural feature, such as a fissure or the back of a cave, without making any modifications to the location.

The excavations at Shanidar grew controversial over the analysis of a routine soil sample. Solecki took six soil samples from the area around Shanidar IV and Shanidar VI in addition to areas where no remains had been found. The analysis was performed by paleobotanist Arlette Leroi-Gourhan several years later. She discovered not only pollen from trees and grasses, but pollen from at least seven species of wild flowers as well. While there were sparse traces of pollen from all parts of the cave, the pollen from the burial area was concentrated in large clusters and was resting in the part of the stamen that contains the pollen. Leroi-Gourhan concluded neither wind, birds, or animals could have deposited the floral pollen in the cave.

The discovery that the remains of a Neandertal had been placed on a bed of flowers was unlike anything archaeologists had ever found in an early burial site. Solecki said of the unprecedented find that “the simplest explanation appears to be that no one had ever thought of looking for pollens in graves.” This led Solecki to conclude that the Shanidar Neandertals were the first “Flower People” who were capable of human feelings by appreciating the beauty of placing flowers on a grave.

Shanidar Cave Entrance
Shanidar Cave Entrance

Today most researchers have disregarded Solecki’s interpretation of this evidence. Ironically, his own description of the site led to this reversal of thought. Solecki describes numerous rodent holes close to the skeletal remains and his assumption was the “animals must have been looking for the flesh of the dead.” He even mentions that the holes were used to determine the possible location of human remains. Solecki would “plot the number and angle of the rodent holes, because they seemed to be most numerous around human bones, and seemed to zero in on them from different directions.”

The gerbil-like rodent which may have been responsible for these holes, called Meriones persicus, is native to the area around Shanidar. Research on the burrows of a similar species called, Meriones crassus, indicates the rodents may have indeed been responsible for the flower pollen evidence which was found in the cave. Evidence that the Meriones crassus had kept flower heads in its burrows was found, in addition to seeds, leaves, and other plant material. Furthermore, the amount of flower heads that were found could easily account for amount of pollen at the Shanidar burial site. If that is the case, Solecki and Arlette Leroi-Gourhan were mistaken in their analysis that animals could not have been responsible for the pollen in the cave. Coupled with the fact that the Meriones persicus was likely responsible for the flower pollen in the burial, no similar pollen evidence has ever been found at any other location. Regardless of his interpretation of the pollen in the burial site, Solecki’s work at Shanidar is still an important Neandertal discovery due to the number and quality of the remains discovered and the academic controversy which has surrounded it.

Meriones persicus
Meriones Persicus: Was the pollen from this little guy?

Enough evidence has been found at thirty Neandertal excavated sites to indicate they were practicing a number of deliberate mortuary activities.One of those activities is funerary caching, which as mentioned before, involves the disposal of remains in a pre-existing natural location. This practice may have started as a way to keep decaying bodies away from the areas inhabited by the living. Placing remains in naturally protected areas such as caves and fissures could have been done to protect the remains from predators. Moving the remains away from living areas would also have guaranteed predators would not be drawn by the scent of decaying flesh. Funerary caching may have taken place at the excavated sites in Caverna (Grotta) delle Fate, Italy, La Quina, Charente, El Sidrón Cave, Spain, and Krapina, Croatia where numerous skeletal remains were found. Even though the practice of funerary caching is not considered a true burial, its use implies that Neandertals understood the idea that the dead needed to be disposed of in an appropriate place.

There is some evidence that Neandertals practiced cannibalism, also called post-mortem defleshing. At the aforementioned El Sidrón Cave in northern Spain, the remains of twelve bodies have been excavated which may have been murdered then cannibalized by other Neandertals. The remains consisted of three adult males, three adult females, three male adolescents, two children, and one infant. Cannibalism was suspected in this case because the bones had been cut open with stone tools to retrieve the marrow and some skulls had been smashed to remove the brain. The remains also show evidence of skinning and intentional disarticulation, meaning the separation of two bones at the joint. While the evidence is strong for cannibalism at this site, it is important to note that some remains still had the skulls intact. This indicates there may have been another purpose for the post mortem processing other than just nutritional cannibalism.

El Sidron Cave Dig
El Sidron Cave Archaeological Dig

Additional evidence of possible cannibalism has been found at the Krapina, Croatia site as well. Similar to the remains at El Sidrón Cave, some of the skulls were smashed and bones were intentionally broken to remove the marrow. The bones of these remains were also burned. The remains of twenty-three individuals were discovered at Krapina consisting of fourteen adults, four adolescents, and five infants. Of those remains, only one cranium had cut marks which exhibited evidence of scalping. The Krapina site differed from Shanidar and El Sidrón because it was a natural rock shelter which may have been actually been inhabited. The discovery of Middle Paleolithic tools as well as animal remains offered evidence for habitation.

The subject of Neandertal cannibalism has caused much discussion in academia regarding the purpose of this practice. There seems to be little doubt that some remains were subjected to some kind of soft tissue processing after death. The primary purpose of processing, or defleshing, of the remains may have been for other Neandertals to consume, but it also could have been some type of funerary ritual which developed out of concern for the body. If indeed the purpose of the defleshing was cannibalism, the question remains whether the individuals were intentionally murdered for consumption as suggested by the evidence at El Sidrón Cave. Cannibalistic societies consider it a cult practice in which the brain and bone marrow are consumed to absorb the qualities of another, or to conquer the spirit of an enemy. It seems unlikely that cannibalism would have been considered a normal method of food provision, so the practice of defleshing could have served a spiritual or ritual aspect, in addition to offering a form of sustenance.

The evidence for deliberate burial is strong in several European and Near Eastern sites. Even though the evidence at these sites prove some Neandertals buried their dead, it does not prove that the practice was performed for each death or that it was even performed by all Neandertal groups.Generally, the fact that so many sites with remains have been found intact is strong evidence in itself that the remains were deliberately buried. Without deliberate burial the remains would probably not have survived decay or destruction by predators. Even if Neandertals did not experience our burial process of grieving and honoring the dead, the burial evidence found in such a widespread area definitely shows some motive for deliberate inhumation.

Red ochre has been found in Neandertal graves at La Ferrassie and La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France as well as Spy Cave in Belgium. The meaning or significance of the red ochre is not known but its ritual use could be further evidence of deliberate burial.Red ochre is a natural pigment derived from hematite, and has been found in later Upper Paleolithic burial sites and cave paintings. Intentional inhumations can also be identified by the placement of the remains. Bodies were placed in their graves lying on one side in a flexed position, similar to the fetal position. Those bodies which were deliberately buried were also fully articulated, meaning all the joints were intact.

The graves at several sites, including the aforementioned La Chapelle-aux-Saints, La Ferrassie, and Shanidar IV, VI, VII, and VIII, are generally accepted as deliberate burials. A nearly complete adult skeleton was discovered in a rectangular pit at the entrance to the cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints. The fact that the pit was rectangular shaped with straight walls and a flat bottom is a strong indication that the pit had been intentionally dug for the grave, since a naturally formed pit would not have those types of features. At La Ferrassie the nearly complete articulated skeletal remains of an adult male and an adult female, plus the remains of three children and one fetus were discovered buried together in a clear cut grave. One of the children, approximately three years old, also had near complete skeletal remains, which is rare because children’s bones are quite delicate and are not usually found intact.

As discussed before, the remains of Shanidar IV, VI, VII, and VIII are the best examples of deliberate burials at Shanidar Cave. The sequential order of the burials, where the child was buried first, followed by the two adult females, and then finally the adult male suggested the remains were interred over a short amount of time. These skeletal remains for all these individuals were articulated as well. Although articulation is an important indicator of intentional burial, by itself it does not offer enough proof. Articulated remains in conjunction with a burial structure or pit, such as those found in La Chapelle-aux-Saints and La Ferrassie, or the presence of grave goods offer the best indicators of intentional burial. Grave goods can consist of stone tools, animal bones, and unique rocks.

Neandertal Skull from La Chapelle aux Saints
Neandertal Skull from La Chapelle aux Saints

The interpretation of grave goods can be difficult because it is impossible to know if the objects were intentionally or accidentally added during the internment. It is entirely possible that tools and animal bones may have been on the cave floor and then fell into the graves when they were filled in. Although strong evidence has been found to substantiate Middle Paleolithic grave goods of Home sapiens at Djebel Qafzeh and Skhul Caves in Israel, no indisputable Neandertal grave goods have been found at this time. One of the best cases for Neandertal grave goods was found at Regourdou Cave in France where the remains of an adult was discovered lying on flat bed of stones and covered with a pile of stones, called a cairn. The cairn was topped with a combination of sand and ash, including bear and deer bones as well as flint tools.This site may represent the only “actual constructed tomb for the Middle Paleolithic” due to the placement of layers atop the body.

Based on the research included here it seems highly likely that at least some Neandertal groups intentionally interred their dead. With evidence for deliberate burials discovered in Europe and the Near East the practice appears to have been widespread, although it may not have always been performed. The compelling early evidence at Shanidar of internments on beds of flowers may have been replaced with the mundane explanation of the Meriones persicus’ storage of flower heads, but the idea that Neandertals may have had some funerary rituals is still very intriguing. The controversy over defleshing and cannibalism will likely continue as more Neandertal grave sites are discovered. The evidence discussed here indicates Neandertals may have practiced both defleshing as some type of funerary ritual as well as cannibalism for spiritual or nutritional purposes. Discoveries of the use of red ochre and possible grave goods only add to the evidence for deliberate burials. Hopefully future excavations will uncover indisputable evidence of true Neandertal burials and offer new insights into the world of one of humankind’s closest relatives.   


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