Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead?

Digs & Discoveries March/April 2014

(Courtesy Achéosphère)

More than 100 years ago, archaeologists first excavated the cave of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France and made a spectacular discovery—what seemed to be an intact Neanderthal burial. However, excavation methods in the early twentieth century were sloppy by modern standards, and the 20 or so Neanderthal “burials” found since then have all been seriously questioned—many believe they are the result of natural features and depositional processes. Now, a research team led by Cédric Beauval of the private company Archéosphère and William Rendu, a researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, have reexamined La Chapelle-aux-Saints and found evidence that the burial is authentic. Their analysis shows that the burial pit is not a natural feature, and probably was dug by Neanderthals. But Rendu does not believe these burials were common—a 2011 reanalysis of a purported Neanderthal burial at Roc de Marsal showed that it was the result of natural processes. “Some of the Neanderthals in some regions, in very particular moments, made these kind of burials,” Rendu says. Having burial practices suggests that Neanderthals possessed spiritual beliefs, but what they may have been is anybody’s guess.