Neanderthal Religion, Violence and Cannibalism

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It is possible that Neanderthals believed in spirits and the afterlife. Scientists speculate that Neanderthals possibly buried food and prized items with their dead for their trip to the afterlife as the Egyptians and many ancient cultures did. The practice of burying valuable items with the dead was practiced by the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, horsemen of the Central Asian steppe and others.

On on the floor of Des-Cubierta cave in northern Spain, Neanderthals placed the dead body of a small child aged two-and-a-half to three years old on two slabs of stone, with aurochs horn on top, and set the body on fire. Archaeologist found some some of the child’s teeth.

Neanderthal were more spiritually and intellectually advanced the popular image of them suggests. Neanderthals left behind evidence of spiritual perceptions. This is most clearly seen in Neanderthal burials: 1) at Shanidar in northern Iraq, and in 2) Russian Turkestan. The Shanidar grave contained the body of a 42-year-old man, sprinkled with flowers. The Turkestan grave contained a 4-year-old boy buried with the accouterment of a warrior [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

The Shanidar burial is not clear and unequivocal evidence of a belief in an Afterlife. But in the case of the boy from Turkestan, one wonders why a boy, who could not have been a warrior, be buried with the equipment of a warrior unless there was some expectation that he might need it? This is the best evidence of a belief in an afterlife 45,000 years ago, though it is not proof

Websites and Resources on Neanderthals: Wikipedia: Neanderthals Wikipedia ; Neanderthals Study Guide ; Neandertals on Trial, from PBS; The Neanderthal Museum ; The Neanderthal Flute, by Bob Fink Websites and Resources on Prehistoric Art: Chauvet Cave Paintings ; Cave of Lascaux; Trust for African Rock Art (TARA); Bradshaw Foundation; Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology, by Peter Brown

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Neanderthal Burial Practices

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Neanderthal burial
Neanderthals buried their dead. A headless Neanderthal skeleton found in Kebara cave in Israel was found in a shallow pit with its arms folded, suggesting formal burial rites. Scientists also argue that the fact that so many Neanderthal skeletons have been found in good conditional suggests burial. The remains of Neanderthals that are known to have buried their dead have been saved from erosion and damage.

Neanderthals, living 100,000 years ago in Central Europe, buried their dead with food, hunting weapons, charcoal and prized items such as tools, bear skulls, goat horns and medicinal flowers. Neanderthals buried their dead with blue hyacinth, yellow groundsel, knapweed and yarrow. One grave in Shanidar Iraq contained the remains of eight different flowers. The dead there were smeared with ocher, something Australian aborigines still do today.

Speculated on why so many 300,000-year-old Neanderthal bones were found at the bottom of 160-foot shaft in Spain, Juan-Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University of Madrid told National Geographic, "They weren't brought here by carnivores. None of the bones have tooth marks...there are no tools so people weren't living here. Maybe they inhabited the entrance of the cave, and since corpses smell, they dropped the bodies of their dead down here to dispose of them. Perhaps there was ritual. Whatever the reason, they gave their dead special treatment. This tells us something about how their minds evolved. Animals don't take care of their dead."

Neanderthals Burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints

Paul Jongko wrote in Listverse: “In 1908, several Neanderthal bones were discovered in La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. The remains were so well preserved that, at the time, scientists speculated that they were intentionally buried. It turned into a heated debate by other experts, who claimed that the discovery had been misinterpreted and that the burials had not been intentional. [Source: Paul Jongko, Listverse, May 14, 2016]

“In 1999, William Rendu and his team excavated seven other caves in La Chapelle-aux-Saints. They discovered the Neanderthal skeletons of two children and an adult, along with the remains of a reindeer and a bison. The researchers analyzed the depression where the skeletons were discovered and realized that it wasn’t a natural feature of the cave floor, indicating that it had been dug intentionally. They also added that the skeleton’s pristine conditions—including the one found in 1908—indicated that they were covered soon after their death.”

Rendu, claimed, “This discovery not only confirms the existence of Neanderthal burials in Western Europe, but also reveals a relatively sophisticated cognitive capacity to produce them.” He also said that Neanderthals had buried their dead long before the arrival of modern humans in Europe

Neanderthals Put Time and Effort Put Into Caring for Dead

Neanderthals' relationship with the dead ranged from carefully preparing burials to using the bodies for food or tools. A study published in the journal PNAS in December 2013 suggests that Neanderthals took time to bury their dead as much as 50,000 years ago. "For years there was a huge debate among anthropologists about how complex the Neanderthals' thoughts actually were," said William Rendu, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences in New York. "We knew the Neanderthal was a good tool maker, but there was nothing that linked them to art or symbolic thought." [Source: Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2013 \=/]

Deborah Netburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The idea that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead was first floated back in 1908. In August of that year the remains of a male Neanderthal were discovered in a small cave in the town of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. He was found lying in a pit that looked as if it had been dug deliberately, leading researchers to suggest that intentional burials may have been part of Neanderthal culture. Since then, as many as 40 potential Neanderthal burial sites have been discovered across a wide swath of the world ranging from southeast Spain to Mongolia. \=/

“However, not everyone believe these places are truly Neanderthal burial sites. There have been questions from the scientific community about the accuracy of the excavation of the burial site in 1908 and suggestions that the Neanderthals did not have the cognitive ability to choose to bury their dead. To find out, Rendu and his team reexamined the original cave in France in 1999 to see what they could learn using modern archaeological techniques. Over the course of a 13-year-study, they found several lines of evidence to suggest that this Neanderthal burial site was real and that the burial was intentional. \=/

“The pit where the remains were found was clearly not a natural part of the cave floor, and digging it would have taken a lot of time and effort on behalf of other Neanderthals, Rendu said in an interview. The researchers also note that both reindeer and bovine bones were found in the cave, but they were more deteriorated than the Neanderthal bones, suggesting the Neanderthal had been covered up quickly and completely. \=/

He added that the quick burial was not just a speedy way to get rid of a decaying body. "If they just wanted to get the body away from them, they just had to put it in the open air and the carnivores would have eaten it," he said. "Instead they removed a large quantity of sediment. It took a very long time for them to do, and it was not essential to their survival. If we look carefully, we find the Neanderthals may have had some symbolic or spiritual thoughts that were not needed just to survive."” \=/

Reconstruction of the Chapelle-aux-Saints grave

Stone Structures in a French Cave: Neanderthal Shrines?

Perhaps the best illustration of Neanderthals’ capacity for complex cognition and symbolism was found in 2016 in Southern France. More than 1,000 feet inside the Bruniquel Cave, Neanderthals assembled two rings of 400 deliberately broken stalagmites, with other material piled and propped around it. Some say it resembles a labyrinth, or a shrine. [Source: Jon Mooallemjan, New York Times magazine, January 11, 2017 ||*||]

Mysterious ring-shaped structures found Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France are believed to be shelters fashioned by Neanderthals about 176,500 years ago. Associated Press reported: “The structures were made from hundreds of pillar-shaped mineral deposits, called stalagmites, which were chopped to a similar length and laid out in two oval patterns up to 16 inches high. They were discovered by chance in 1990, after remaining untouched for tens of thousands of years because a rockslide had closed the mouth of the cave at Bruniquel in southwest France. While previous research had suggested the structures pre-dated the arrival of modern humans in Europe around 45,000 years ago, the notion that Neanderthals could have made them didn't fit long-held assumptions that these early humans were incapable of the kind of complex behavior necessary to work underground. [Source: Associated Press, May 26, 2016 ~]

Using sophisticated dating techniques, a team led by archaeologist Jacques Jaubert of the University of Bordeaux, France, found that the stalagmites must have been broken off the ground around 176,500 years ago "making these edifices among the oldest known well-dated constructions made by humans. Their presence at 368 yards from the entrance of the cave indicates that humans from this period had already mastered the underground environment, which can be considered a major step in human modernity," the researchers concluded in a study published online by the journal Nature in May 2016. ~

“Jaubert ruled out that the carefully constructed rings, which show traces of fire, could have come about by chance or been assembled by animals such as the bears and wolves whose bones were found near the entrance of the cave. "The origin of the structures is undeniably human. It really cannot be otherwise," he told The Associated Press. The Neanderthals who built them must have had a "project" to go so deep into a cave where there was no natural light, said Jaubert. They probably explored underground as a group and cooperated to build the rings, using fire to illuminate the cave, he said. "These are exceptional tours, certainly for extraordinary reasons we do not yet know." Paola Villa, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who wasn't involved in the study, said the site "provides strong evidence of the great antiquity of those elaborate structures and is an important contribution to a new understanding of the greater level of social complexities of Neanderthal societies." ~

“The authors said the purpose of the oval structures — measuring 172 square feet and 25 square feet — is still a matter of speculation, though they may have served some symbolic or ritual purpose. "A plausible explanation is that this was a common meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior," Villa suggested. Wil Roebroeks, a Neanderthal expert at the University of Leiden, Netherlands, noted that the structures in Bruniquel may represent only the tip of the iceberg of Neanderthal culture, but most relics would have been made of organic material and decayed long ago. "Bruniquel cave (shows) that circular structures were a part of Neanderthals' material culture," said Roebroeks, who called the rings "an intriguing find, which underlines that a lot of Neanderthal material culture, including their 'architecture,' simply did not survive in the open." ~

La structure at Bruniquel Cave

“Roebroeks, who also wasn't involved in the study, said the fact that similar rings haven't been found anywhere else makes it hard to test any theory about how they came to be. "One could even envisage that groups of Neanderthal teenagers explored this underground environment deep in the cave, as teenagers tend to do, building fires, breaking off stalagmites and gradually turning them into the structures that 175,000 years later made it into (the journal) Nature," he said.” ~

Neanderthal Violence

The presence of so many healed fractures also seems to indicate Neanderthals experienced a fair amounts of violence. A Neanderthal skull found in Croatia showed evidence of a severe head wound that healed. A hole found in 36,000-year-old Neanderthal skull found in bear the village of St. Cesair in southwestern France appeared to have been made a flint spear or flint knife. Scarring shows the victim survived the attack, which had led some deduce that since the injury was so severe other people must have taken care of him for him to survive.

A skeleton of a Neanderthal man found in a cave near Shanidar, Iraq had a crushed right leg and foot, an injury to his skull that left him blind in one eye and a shattered right arm severed at the elbow.

Other Neanderthal bones show evidence of knife and spear wounds and frequent trauma injuries to their head, arms and trunks. The only 20th century people that sustain similar trauma injuries are rodeo riders. Neanderthals with spear wounds are sometimes offered as evidence of warfare but some scientists believe the wounds could have been caused by hunting accidents.

Neanderthal Murdered by Modern Humans

20120205-Neanderthal annecy 2.jpg The skeleton of Neanderthal male found at Shanidar, who lived sometime between 50,000 and 75,000 years, had a broken rib that indicated he had been struck in rib and died of a collapsed lung one to three weeks later. Some researchers argued that this was evidence of a man being stabbed to death or being badly beaten up by another Neanderthal, but others say the wounds could just as easily been caused by an accident.

That is until Duke anthropologist Steven Churchill published a study in July 2009 that used modern forensic science and determined that the victim, known to scientists as Shanidar 3 after the Iraq site, was most likely killed by a thrown spear. What is perhaps even more remarkable about the finding is that at that time only humans had throwing spears, a technology that makes sense in open grassland of Africa, while Neanderthals used only thrusting spears.

In an experiment Churchill’s team aimed to re-create the conditions of Shanidar 3's death using a crossbow, Stone Age projectiles and a pig carcass (pig skin and bones are thought to have the same toughness as Neanderthal skin and bones). When the projectiles were fired at a velocity consistent with that of a thrown spear the punctures left on the pig’s ribs resembled those found on the Shanidar 3's ribs. By contrast when the ribs were stabbed with a thrusting spear Churchill found the ribs “were busted al to hell. The high kinetic energy cased a lot of damage on the area.” In addition, the angle of entry of Shanidar 3's wound is “consistent with the ballistic trajectory of a thrown weapon.”

This isn’t the only evidence of the murder of Neanderthals by humans. A skull and bones from El Sidron cave in Spain were found with jagged edges, which Antonio Rosas of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid believes were made by blows from stone tools of modern humans. A Neanderthal jawbone found by French anthropologist Fernando Rozzi bore butchering marks like those found on deer carcasses butchered by humans. He says that humans probably removed and ate the Neanderthal tongue and used the teeth for decorative ornaments.

Neanderthal Cannibalism

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Neanderthal burial
There is strong evidence that Neanderthals practiced cannibalism. Neanderthal bones between 100,000 and 120,000 years old found at Baume Moula-Guercy cave on the Rhone rive in France have cut marks and gashes that indicate they were stripped of their flesh and broken apart and dismembered with a hammer stone and anvil. Marks also indicate the tendons were cut and joints were torn apart.

The bones were intermingled with deer bones with similar cut marks. The discovery, reported by Alan Defleur of Marseilles Universitie de la Mediterranean in the October 1, 1999 edition of Science, are regarded as the most conclusive evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism.

Fine cut marks and unusual fractures, similar to those made on the bones of butchered animals were found on Neanderthal bones from Croatia suggesting that Neanderthal's practiced cannibalism there. Cut marks on the bones of all nine Neanderthal bones at El Sidron Spain have led scientists to believe they too were cannibalized, perhaps out of hunger, perhaps as rituals — or perhaps they were eaten by modern humans.

Croatian archaeologist Jakov Radovcic told National Geographic, "We simply don't know whether this represents ritualistic cannibalism or whether these people had a taste for their fellow men, so to speak. I think it was an honored way to treat the dead. The animal bones in their caves suggests there was plenty of game. Why would they have to each other?"

Berkeley's Tim White disagrees. "I think they wanted the meat and marrow," he told National Geographic. "If it were part of a ritual to break open the bones then all the bones would have been broken. But they smashed open only the large bones of the limbs — the ones with lots of marrow."

In 2010, researchers reported the discovery of the skeletons of a family of Neanderthals — three adult females, three adult males, three teenagers, two kids and an infant — in a cave in Spain. Their bones bore marks that some scientists suggest were signs of cannibalism. Some speculate the family may have been a meal for another group of Neanderthals. There is other evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism, archaeologists said. It seems that when times were rough and no other food was available Neanderthals ate their own kind. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 08, 2011]

Evidence of Cannibalism in Belgium

Neanderthal bones found in a Belgium cave bear show unmistakable signs of butchery, and some scientists say this is first evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism in northern Europe. Kacey Deamer wrote in Live Science: “Archaeologists pieced together 99 bone fragments to identify five distinct Neanderthals, four adults and a child, who lived between 40,500 and 45,500 years ago. Markings on the bones included indentations from hammering (likely to remove bone marrow), and cut marks from carving the flesh away from the bone. Also in the cave were the remains of horses and reindeer, which had been similarly butchered. "Similarities in anthropogenic [human-created] marks observed on the Neanderthal, horse and reindeer bones … suggest similar processing and consumption patterns for all three species," the scientists wrote in their research, published July 6, 2016 in the journal Scientific Reports. [Source: Kacey Deamer, Live Science, July 12, 2016 /*]

“The Neanderthal remains provide "unambiguous evidence" of cannibalism, the researchers said. Other Neanderthal bones have also shown signs of cannibalism, but the Belgian site is the farthest north to do so — showing regional variability of Neanderthal mortuary behavior. The other discoveries were in France, Portugal and Spain, where scientists found a group of Neanderthals, including an infant, who may have been cannibalized by another group of Neanderthals. /*\

“Beyond cannibalism, it appears that the Neanderthals also used their peers' remains as tools. A few of the bones bore markings that suggested they'd been used to help sharpen stone tools. "The big differences in the behavior of these people on the one hand, and the close genetic relationship between late European Neanderthals on the other, raise many questions about the social lives and exchange between various groups," Hervé Bocherens, one of the lead researchers, told CBS News. /*\

“An analysis of DNA within the Neanderthal mitochondria (energy-making organelles in cells that carry their own DNA) suggested that the Belgian Neanderthals were genetically similar to other Neanderthal communities living in Germany, Spain and Croatia. This suggests the Neanderthal population in Europe at the time was small, as there was "only modest genetic variation despite large geographic distances when compared to modern humans," the scientists wrote.” /*\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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