Monday, October 3, 2016

Neandertal infant burial in Spain?

Excavations at Cueva Des-Cubierta.
Photo by Wikimedia contributor PePeEfe
News articles last week in El PaĆ­s and New Scientist report the discovery of a Neandertal infant burial in an ancient cave about 58 miles north of Madrid, Spain.  As far as I can tell, there isn't a full paper on this, but you can find an abstract from the 2016 conference of the European Society for Human Evolution (on p. 41 of this PDF).

The abstract describes the discovery of Des-Cubierta cave in 2009 and the subsequent excavation of Late Pleistocene remains of a Neandertal child.  The remains consist of a few teeth and a jawbone.  The remains were found near a hearth and surrounded by smaller hearths with the remains of horns and antlers of aurochs, bison, and red deer.  The hearths do not appear to be the remains of cooking hearths or funeral pyres, and the animals from which the horns and antlers were taken are conspicuously absent.  The site also contains Neandertal-style stone tools, confirming the presence of Neandertals.

The authors of the study, Baquedano et al., suggest in their abstract that the site is probably some kind of grave with the small hearths and horns representing ritual funerary activity.  If true, this would be the clearest evidence to date of symbolic behavior of Neandertals in caring for their dead.  It looks like the Neandertal parents placed some hunting trophies in with their dead child and lit some small ritual fires.

Remember though, that this is currently an abstract, and we don't have the full report yet.  These are just preliminary reports and announcements, and we'll have to wait for the full publication to get a more complete story.  Still, the details are tantalizing.

If this is a Neandertal burial site, it continues to develop our understanding of the humanness of Neandertals.  They were not sub-human or even non-human.  They were simply disadvantaged people scattered from the ruins of civilization at Babel.  They made art and tools, and it looks increasingly likely that they mourned their dead.

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