Toddler Skeleton Indicates Neanderthals Buried Their Dead

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 

Neanderthal
This Neanderthal cranium and mandible were found at La Ferrassie in the Dordogne region of France, in the same area as the skeleton of a buried child. Xavier ROSSI/Getty Images

No matter how much evidence we have to the contrary, Homo sapiens think ourselves very civilized. In fact, we often talk about the other human species that used to share this planet as if they were as far removed from us as armadillos or penguins. But Neanderthals, for instance, did a lot of the same things as their modern human contemporaries: They made jewelry, string, art and more.

Nevertheless, researchers are still hemming and hawing over whether some of the innovations we assume were trademarked by modern humans were shared by our last closest cousin. A study published in the December 2020 issue of the journal Scientific Reports finds that Neanderthals almost certainly buried their dead.

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For more than a century, archaeologists have been unearthing buried skeletons of Neanderthals in Europe and parts of Asia, but many of them were excavated using techniques that would make a modern archaeologist wince. Given the way they were exhumed, it has been exceptionally difficult to tell whether the burials were intentional, but it's been assumed by some researchers that Neanderthals were not smart enough to engage in "symbolic behavior" like honoring their dead with a burial.

But a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from France, Germany and Spain reopened the case of a 41,000-year-old skeleton of a 2-year-old child unearthed between 1970 and 1973 in the La Ferrassie rock shelter, a cave in southwestern France. The team re-excavated the site where the child was found, and reviewed the notes from the original dig.

The researchers found the bones to be relatively unscattered (meaning animals likely hadn't messed with the body) and they didn't seem to have been weathered by the elements (which suggests rapid burial after death). In addition, the bones seemed to have been placed intentionally, with the head pointing east and uphill of the other bones, even though the incline of the hill sloped west.

This study indicates that the child was intentionally deposited in the ground, not long after death. Because the dating of the bones indicates the toddler died not long before Neaderthals winked out of existence, this discovery brings up questions about when Neanderthals adopted funerary practice and how widely it spread before their extinction.

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