Tuesday, December 17, 2013

New Study on Neandertal Burials

Science World Report has a story on a study done by New York University. From the press release:
Neanderthals, forerunners to modern humans, buried their dead, an international team of archaeologists has concluded after a 13-year study of remains discovered in southwestern France.

Their findings, which appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirm that burials took place in western Europe prior to the arrival of modern humans.

“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 William Rendu, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS) in New York City.
The subject of Neandertal burials has been debated for quite some time and there are strong opinions on both sides of the debate. The weight of evidence suggests intentional burial, however. In 1989, Robert Gargett wrote a paper called "Grave Shortcomings: The Evidence for Neandertal Burial," in which he argued that the evidence was lacking. The comments on the article were a sight to behold, some of the most caustic I have ever seen. Dave Frayer wrote, of the remains at La Chapelle aux-Saints:
...we know of no example of a naturally produced rectangular, straight- walled, flat-bottomed pit in the middle of a karstic shelter. That such a natural phenomenon would have occurred and a skeleton would have found its way into it is so unlikely as to make it impossible to consider seriously that the pit sunk into the marl was not the result of deliberate human activity. The manner in which the skeleton lay, on its back, one arm folded and legs flexed, is a strong indication of intentional burial. This seems an unlikely position for accidental death and, in any event, is one that is repeated in numerous other interments1
This seems to be the recent consensus, as well. The focus of the new research is on the cave floor, of which the authors state that the depression discovered was unnatural and suggests a burial.  The other peculiarity is that the remains were found in such good shape, showing no signs of carnivore activity or environmental degradation.  In fact, of the entire suite of Neandertal remains that we have, the La Chapelle fossils are among most well-preserved.  Filling in the pieces.

1Gargett, R. (1989) Grave Shortcomings: The Evidence for Neandertal Burial. Current Anthropology 30(2): 157-190

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