Burial practices

The long-debated topic of Middle Palaeolithic burials and associated burial rituals raise issues similar to those discussed above. Is the archaeological evidence reliable? If it is, what can we legitimately infer from it about the symbolic or other nature of the behaviour represented?

The issue of Middle Palaeolithic burial practices has been discussed at length in a Current Anthropology review article by Robert Gargett (1989). Gargett sets out the case systematically against the acceptance of most reported incidences of deliberate burials in Neanderthal contexts, followed by a variety of positive and negative responses from other commentators. What emerged is that while the case for the existence of intentional burial practices in Neanderthal contexts remains strong, evidence for possible rituals or symbolic offerings associated with these burials (at least in European contexts) is very weak.

Arguments for accepting the majority of claimed burials were set out persuasively in the comments by Bricker, Trinkaus, Frayer, Montet-White and others on Gargett's article. As they point out, it seems impossible to dismiss the evidence for deliberately excavated graves in at least three of the southwestern French sites - at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, La Ferrassie and Le Moustier (Figs 12.7-12.9). At La Chapelle-aux-Saints there are accounts of a rectangular burial pit at the base of the Mousterian deposits (Fig. 12.7) which is difficult if not impossible to attribute of any natural geological processes on the site (Bouyssonie et al. 1908, 1913). The same is suggested by the original accounts of

Chapelle Aux Saints
Figure 12.7 Section and plan of the Neanderthal grave recorded by Boule at La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Correze). The basal level containing the burial produced a rich and typical Quina Mousterian assemblage. After Boule 1909.
Ferrassie Plan
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Peyrony 1934 Ferrassie

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Figure 12.8 Upper: Plan of the six Neanderthal burials recorded by Peyrony in the Mousterian levels at La Perrassie. Lower: Plan and section of burial no. 6 from La Ferrassie, showing the position of the triangular stone - possibly with artificial 'cup' depressions - overlying the grave. After Peyrony 1934.

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Figure 12.8 Upper: Plan of the six Neanderthal burials recorded by Peyrony in the Mousterian levels at La Perrassie. Lower: Plan and section of burial no. 6 from La Ferrassie, showing the position of the triangular stone - possibly with artificial 'cup' depressions - overlying the grave. After Peyrony 1934.

Figure 12.9 Photograph of the skeleton of Neanderthal burial no. 2 at La Ferrassie, taken at the time of the discovery. Note the flexed position of the skeleton. After Peyrony 1934.

Figure 12.9 Photograph of the skeleton of Neanderthal burial no. 2 at La Ferrassie, taken at the time of the discovery. Note the flexed position of the skeleton. After Peyrony 1934.

Neanderthal Burial Rites

at least one of the Neanderthal burials at La Ferrassie (Fig. 12.8: Peyrony 1921,1934,1939; see especially the comments by Bricker on these burials in Gargett 1989) and by similar accounts of an apparently deep grave pit containing the remains of a young child recorded in the later Mousterian levels at Le Moustier (Fig. 9.29: Peyrony 1930; Bordes 1959b).

Perhaps the most persuasive arguments in favour of the intentionality of these Neanderthal burials, however, is provided by purely taphonomic considerations. As Trinkaus and others pointed out, it seems inconceivable that so many individual Neanderthal remains could have survived as largely intact, articulated skeletons unless the bodies had been deliberately protected from both predators and natural decay processes shortly after death. This is especially true in view of the relatively large numbers of individual corpses recorded from certain sites (such as the remains of at least seven individuals at La Ferrassie and nine at Shanidar) and

Monte Circeo Italy Neanderthal
Figure 12.10 Supposedly 'ritual' placement of the Neanderthal skull from the Grotta Guattari (Monte Circeo, western Italy), according to Blanc 1958. Recent research suggests that both the position and damaged condition of the skull are the result of carnivore activity in the site (see Stiner 1991c).

the fact that many are remains of very young children whose bones are especially delicate. Combined with the stratigraphie and other observations discussed above, the case for deliberate interment of most of these skeletons appears virtually beyond dispute.

The arguments for deliberate grave offerings or other forms of ritual associated with these burials are very different. As Chase & Dibble (1987) and others have pointed out, most of the supposedly deliberate grave-goods which have been reported in association with Middle Palaeolithic burials in Europe can be interpreted more convincingly as objects which were incorporated accidentally into grave infillings at the time of interment. This applies most obviously to stone tools and animal bones, which are of course some of the commonest objects encountered in Mousterian occupation levels and would almost inevitably become incorporated into the infill of grave pits from material which was simply lying on the surface at the time of burial. Indeed, since most of the burial pits were excavated through Mousterian occupation deposits, for example at La Ferrassie and Le Moustier, the occurrence of stone tools and faunal remains in the grave fillings is almost inevitable. At best, all the reported occurrences of these grave offerings from European sites must be regarded as unpro-ven. Whether the supposed ring of Ibex horns recorded in association with the Neanderthal burial at Teshik Tash in Uzbekistan (Movius 1953) or the curious concentration of flower pollen recorded in one of the Neanderthal

Figure 12.11 Burial of one of the anatomically modern hominids from the Djehel Qafzeh (Israel) associated with a large pair of fallow deer antlers. After Vandermeersch 1970. The burial is dated by TL and ESR dating to around 90-100,000 BP.

Figure 12.11 Burial of one of the anatomically modern hominids from the Djehel Qafzeh (Israel) associated with a large pair of fallow deer antlers. After Vandermeersch 1970. The burial is dated by TL and ESR dating to around 90-100,000 BP.

Neanderthal Graves

graves at Shanidar in Iraq (Leroi-Gourhan 1975) can be interpreted in similar terms is perhaps more controversial (see for example the comments by Arlette Leroi-Gourhan on Gargett's paper). Equally controversial is the supposedly ritualistic setting of the isolated Neanderthal skull from the Grotta Guattari Cave in central Italy (Fig. 12.10), which has been reinterpreted recently as almost certainly a product of hyena activity in the site (Stiner 1991c). If these conclusions are accepted, we are left with only two convincing examples of intentional and potentially symbolic grave offerings recorded from well documented Middle Palaeolithic contexts -

the large fallow-deer antlers (Fig. 12.11), and the complete boar's jaw, associated respectively with the Middle Palaeolithic burials in the Qafzeh and Skhul caves in Israel (Vandermeersch 1970). The critical interest of these finds is that they were both associated with skeletons claimed to be of essentially anatomically modern, as opposed to Neanderthal, physical type (Vandermeersch 1981, 1989).

The final and no doubt most controversial question is how far the existence of intential burials can be taken as a reliable reflection of symbolic behaviour among Neanderthal groups. Does the mere act of human burial need to be seen as explicitly symbolic in nature, or could it be seen as a reflection of much simpler and more basic human motivation? The argument that Neanderthal burials were a purely functional response to the need to dispose of dead bodies seems rather slim -especially in view of the relatively large numbers of such burials recorded at La Ferrassie and Shanidar and the fact that there are of course much simpler and less labour-inten-sive ways of disposing of corpses, as the ethnographic record demonstrates. At the very least we must assume that the act of deliberate burial implies the existence of some kind of strong social or emotional bonds within Neanderthal societies, which dictated that the remains of relatives or other close kin should be carefully protected and perhaps preserved in some way after death. But to suggest that the burial act must be seen as necessarily symbolic seems difficult to sustain. In the absence of either clear ritual or unambiguous grave offerings associated with the documented range of Neanderthal burials in Europe, it must be concluded that the case for a symbolic component in burial practices remains at best unproven.

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    What does neanderthal burial suggest?
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