Ancient Neanderthals Buried Their Dead Like Modern Humans

First Posted: Dec 17, 2013 07:30 AM EST

Humans aren't the only ones that pay respect to their dead and bury them. It turns out that Neanderthals did the same. The findings reveal that this ancient species may have been far more intelligent and human-like than archaeologists first expected.

The new findings come after researchers discovered Neanderthal remains in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. These well-preserved bones led the excavators to believe that the site actually marked a burial ground created by a predecessor to early modern humans. Yet other researchers believed that the discovery had been misinterpreted and the burial may not have been intentional.

In order to learn a bit more about these bones, archaeologists began excavating seven other caves in the area beginning in 1999. Concluded in 2012, this excavation revealed more Neanderthal remains along with bones of bison and reindeer. While they didn't find tool marks or other evidence of digging where the initial skeleton were unearthed, geological analysis of the depression in which the remains were found suggests that it was not a natural feature of the cave floor.

"The discovery not only confirms the existence of Neanderthal burials in Western Europe, but also reveals a relatively sophisticated cognitive capacity to produce them," said William Rendu, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The relatively pristine nature of these 50,000-year-old remains implies that they were covered soon after death, strongly supporting our conclusion that Neanderthals in this part of Europe took steps to bury their dead. While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic, the discovery reduces the behavioral distance between them and us."

The findings reveal that Neanderthals were far more like us than first thought. In addition, it shows a behavior that's similar to our own treatment of the dead.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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