Cannibals, monkeys, or civilised beings? What do Neanderthal burials tell us about the start of humanity?

I’ve been thinking lately about human origins, at what point did humans start to be humans and what were we before?

neanderthalOne common answer to this is that there was a kind of technological and cultural revolution at the start of the Upper Paleolithic, 40,000 years ago, when the ancestors of modern humans replaced Neanderthals, and symbolic culture started to appear along with new technologies. In a few accounts I’ve read in the past, Neanderthals were uninventive, but started developing a culture by copying what they saw Homo Sapiens doing.

Evidence seems to be stacking up against the idea that symbolic culture suddenly developed, though. For one thing, the earliest confirmed human burials date from 90,000 years ago. For another, Neanderthals may have been more adaptive than we thought, were using sophisticated hunting tools some 300,000 years ago and may have also made the first cave paintings. Could they have been burying their dead even before modern humans came along?

Evidence of Middle Paleolithic burials are hard to come by because if Neanderthals did bury people at the time they certainly didn’t bury all their dead. They may have buried people with grave goods, but if they did they were simple, like stones and floral tributes. This makes it difficult to say if they were placed intentionally, or just happened to be near the corpses.

One major method of trying to prove that there were burials is to show that middle Paleolithic potential burials share similarities with others from the same time and place. This could indicate that groups of burials were carried out by people according to shared cultural values.

If these studies are to be believed, in the Middle Paleolithic burials were usually for males, with a high number of infants and people with diseases. Neanderthals in the Near East were more likely to be buried with the adults at the front of the cave and children at the back, while in west they were more likely to be buried with tools.

If we’re interested in what Neanderthal culture was like, this tells us very little about their beliefs. Were burials a mark of respect, or a way of dealing with enemies? Were they purely practical, or were they preparing for an afterlife?

I think the thing that tells us most about Neanderthals as people is that they practiced cannibalism, or at least stripping meat from corpses. What it tells us, I’m not sure about. Certainly, cannibalism is practiced by humans for religious reasons. But as a way of disposing of corpses it is also practiced by primates and earlier European Homonids.

It would be nice to have some kind of obvious fact to give you about these early burials. But when dealing with something so long ago, the best we can really do is speculate wildly based on the limited facts we have.


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