Neanderthals Buried a Toddler 41,000 Years Ago in France

The jury’s still out on non-sapiens mortuary rites, but the evidence is building that at least some Neanderthals ritually interred their dead

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A Neanderthal burial (reconstruction)
A Neanderthal burial (reconstruction)Credit: © Emmanuel Roudier / CNRS / MNH
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Less is known about Neanderthals than one might think from the popular press, especially their behavior. The question of ritual burial by non-sapiens is a divisive topic: evidence is scanty, possibly partly because if bury they did, it was in shallow graves. Now an international group of researchers has concluded that a Neanderthal toddler was deliberately buried about 41,000 years ago at the famed La Ferrassie rock shelter in Dordogne, France.

About 2 years old at death, the infant had been placed in a pit dug into an otherwise archaeo-paleontologically sterile sediment layer, Antoine Balzeau of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and colleagues reported in Nature. The child had been part of one of the latest Neanderthal groups in the region.

The evidence of Neanderthal burial so far has been more intriguing than categorical. Dozens of Neanderthal remains have been unearthed in Eurasia, though many were found before the advent of modern archaeological techniques, leading to dubiety about the findings and their interpretation. If they did ritually inter their dead, it speaks to their cognitive and symbolic qualities.

Confusing the issue, chronologically and geographically close Neanderthal groups exhibited a range of relationship with the dead – possibly burying some, but eating others. Cannibalism has even been touted as potentially contributing to their extinction, by infection with kuru (the human form of mad-cow prion disease).

Among the most interesting instances of potential burial include the senescent Neanderthal whose remains were found at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France in 1908, which is also considered to have been intentionally interred in a pit – this by a team revisiting the controversial issue in 2013.

Another extraordinary site is Shanidar Cave in Iraq, which some think was an actual Neanderthal graveyard. About 10 Neanderthal bodies have been unearthed there, of which one may have been laid to rest on a bed of flowers. (Asked what it means that “about” 10 bodies were found, the archaeologists explained that the bodies are generally incomplete.)

Given the number of bodies found in the La Ferrassie rock shelter, seven so far, some consider it too to be a Neanderthal cemetery of a sort. In the newly reported case, the child was identified as Neanderthal based on mitochondrial DNA.

Note that six partial or complete Neanderthal bodies had been found in the La Ferrassie rock shelter, about a century ago. They have been subsequently identified as two adults and five children of various ages, an unsurprising proportion given childhood mortality rates in prehistory. It was only when the site was revisited in the early 1970s, however, that the child’s remains were found – a cranium, pelvis, and bones from the hand, neck and torso.

Grave matters

The new paper analyzes the information gathered to date, noting that a return to the site did not recover more bones, though more bones were identified in previously collected material. The researchers could, however, perform new genetic and structural analysis of the remains.

Based on the original notes from decades ago, the researchers conclude that the child’s head had been positioned higher than its pelvis. Interestingly, write the researchers, its remains evince a relatively strong inclination to the west, in contrast to the general lie of the sediment and archaeological layers in this sector. In other words, the remains do not follow the natural lie of the land – which argue that its grave had been dug.

Examining material from 1970s excavations.Credit: Antoine Balzeau / CNRS / MNHN

New analysis found that its bones were better preserved than those of animals whose remains were found in the same archaeological layer: mainly bisons and other herbivores. That indicates, they posit, that the child’s body was buried quickly after death. Also, in contrast to the hominin bones, the animal ones evince signs of manipulation: butchering and cut marks, green-bone fractures and “fire alterations” – they were cooked. “None of these alterations have been observed on the human remains,” the researchers remark. 

The bottom line is that the most parsimonious explanation for the evidence regarding the toddler is “anthropogenic deposition of the corpse” i.e., that he or she had been deliberately buried around 41,000 years ago, they conclude.

Does it prove that all Neanderthals buried their dead? Certainly not, but it strongly indicates that some did.

Is it possible that these late Neanderthals occupying the La Ferrassie rock shelter were influenced by Homo sapiens?

Theoretically, perhaps. Recent evidence indicates that modern humans reached Europe earlier than had been assumed. In 2013, modern human remains were identified at Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria – from 45,000 years ago. The humans were found with pendants made from cave bear teeth that were like ones made even later by the last Neanderthals of Western Europe, that team headed by Jean-Jacques Hublin wrote.

The Bulgarian discovery supported models that Homo sapiens migrated into Europe in waves, and intermixed with the declining Neanderthal populations. How long the two variants – sapiens and Neanderthals – coexisted is, for now, anybody’s guess, but it seems to have been thousands of years.

Ultimately, the Neanderthals were replaced, though only after interbreeding with us. Since that happened in Europe and/or the Levant – and right here in Israel – the thinking had been that sub-Saharan African populations don’t have a Neanderthal signal in their DNA. But they do, subsequent research has shown. Wondrously, though, some of Neanderthal genes in today’s Africans apparently stemmed from DNA from humans that left Africa early, at least 100,000 years ago, mixed with Neanderthals, and then their descendants went back to Africa bringing their mixed heritage with them. And the rest is prehistory.

Today’s folks in Asia, Europe and America got about 2 percent of their DNA from Neanderthals, sub-Saharan Africans rather less. Neanderthals mixed with Denisovans too – and so did we. Some of us today have Denisovan genes too, as well as whispers of DNA from other hominins we can’t even identify. Sexually fastidious, our ancestors were not.

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