After 13-year study of remains in southern France.
The findings center on Neanderthal remains first discovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. The well-preserved bones led its early 20th-century excavators to posit that the site marked a burial ground created by a predecessor to early modern humans. However, their conclusions have sparked controversy in the scientific community ever since, with skeptics maintaining that the discovery had been misinterpreted and that the burial may not have been intentional.
One skeptical view was offered by science writer Michael Shermer: As for burying their dead in a fetal position, strewn with flowers, he cites with approval authorities who suggest that graves “may have been dug simply to remove corpses from habitation areas” and that the choice of the fetal position was merely a “desire to dig the smallest possible burial trench” (and not because the mourners expected the dead to be reborn). The clincher, in his view, is that we have not yet found a Neanderthal site where “grave goods” (food, jewelry, etc.) were left with the departed. (A set of panther paws was found beside a girl, possibly in the fetal position—see vid below. )
We have, however, found evidence of Neanderthal drawing (an “academic bombshell”), so don’t rule out finding grave goods. One problem is that goods may have been looted, as they were from almost all of the ancient Egyptian tombs.
“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,” observes Rendu. “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.”