WASHINGTON – New findings at a Neanderthal burial ground in France have bolstered the notion that they cared for their elders, researchers say.
The research is based on excavations around the skeleton of an elderly male Neanderthal, the “old man of La Chapelle,” who could barely walk and had lost his teeth. He was painstakingly buried after he died 50,000 years ago.
The burial pit at La Chapelle-aux-Saints was first found in 1908, containing the remains of a man with spinal deformities. Misinterpretation of his bones gave rise to the popular legend of the dim-witted, hunched Neanderthal.
But a more careful analysis of his burial site, and the discovery of apparently intentional grave sites elsewhere in Europe, suggest that Neanderthals had a greater capacity for reverence and caring than previously thought. The report, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is based on 13 years of research at the site in southern France.
Researchers have now ruled out the possibility that the cave floor under the man, who may have been in his late 30s or early 40s — old by Neanderthal standards — was a natural formation, indicating it must have been dug, said the report in PNAS.
The remains of three more individuals have also been found nearby, though it is unclear whether these two children and one adult were related to the buried elder or were even his contemporaries, said lead researcher William Rendu of France’s National Center for Scientific Research.
The pit in which his bones were interred was made of soft limestone and clay. In nature, these rock formations are found horizontally, though the section under his body was nearly vertical, Rendu explained. “The pit does not have any natural origins, it doesn’t fit with any natural phenomenon. The only other explanation is a human origin,” he said.
Just who the old man is remains a mystery, but researchers think he must have been an important person. His disabled right hip and several broken and fused vertebra meant he could not move around on his own, Rendu said, and without workable teeth, others likely chewed food for him.
“He was able to live a long time, aided by other members of his group,” said Rendu.
“This group of Neanderthals showed a high level of conscience for others,” he added. “If they had wanted to just get rid of this man’s body, they could have left it outdoors in nature, where carnivores would have quickly eaten it up. Instead, they dug a hole more than a meter deep using the tools that they had, such as stone or wood or pieces of bone.”
While the good condition of the bones suggest the man was rapidly interred, the packed sediment around the grave site took a long time to excavate, suggesting it took his circle quite some effort to dig it and pack the earth in around the body, Rendu said.
“All this shows that they took a long time to do something that was not essential to their survival but simply to protect the body of this man,” said Rendu.
The cause of the man’s injuries has been a source of debate over the years, and some experts have questioned whether the burial was truly intentional.
Milford Wolpoff, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Michigan who has long argued for the intelligence of Neanderthals, said there is ample evidence of burial, language, paint-mixing and additional high-level cultural practices among Neanderthals, particularly from discoveries made in the last five years.
The latest excavation work began in 1999, and also involved experts from the University of Bordeaux and a private research firm.