The discovery of a possible Neanderthal burial ground has suggested that they practiced funeral rituals and possessed symbolic thought long before modern humans.
According to a Quaternary International paper, evidence for a likely 50,000-year-old Neanderthal burial ground that includes the remains of at least three individuals has been unearthed in Spain.
The skeletons found in apparent burial poses at the site Sima de las Palomas, in Murcia, Southeast Spain, may be the first known Neanderthal burial ground of Mediterranean Europe.
The remains of six to seven other Neanderthals, including an infant and two juveniles, as well as associated tools and food, have also been excavated.
The deceased appear to have been intentionally buried, with each Neanderthal””””s arms folded such that the hands were close to the head, suggesting that it held meaning.
“We cannot say much (about the skeletons) except that we surmise the site was regarded as somehow relevant in regard to the remains of deceased Neanderthals,” Discovery News quoted lead author Michael Walker as saying.
“Their tools and food remains, not to mention signs of fires having been lit, which we have excavated indicate they visited the site more than once,” he said.
Walker, a professor in the Department of Zoology and Physical Anthropology at the University of Murcia and his colleagues, have been working at the site for some time.
So far they have found buried articulated skeletons for a young adult female, a juvenile or child, and an adult — possibly male — Neanderthal.
“We cannot say whether these three individuals were related, though it is likely,” he said, explaining that DNA has been denatured due to high ambient temperatures.
“Surely the child was related to one of the others, though,” he explained.
The Neanderthals were found covered together with rocks burying their remains. The researchers believe it””””s likely that other Neanderthals intentionally placed the rocks over the bodies from a height.
While it cannot be ruled out that an accident killed the three individuals, the scientists believe that wasn””””t the case.
“I think there is just enough evidence at Sima de las Palomas to think that three articulated skeletons are unlikely to have been the result of a single random accident to three cadavers that somehow escaped the ravages of hyenas and leopards, which were present at the site,” Walker said.
Erik Trinkaus, a professor of physical anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, is one of the world””””s leading experts on Neanderthals.
He said that it is certainly possible that the Neanderthals at Sima de las Palomas were buried.
He said a few dozen documented Neanderthal burials from Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia have already been documented.
Trinkaus added that the Neanderthal remains from Spain will “provide us with our first glimpse of overall Neanderthal body form in Southern Europe, as well as additional specimens for a number of aspects of Neanderthal biology”.