Funerals are found in human cultures throughout the world and mark an important part of the cycle of life where the deceased is remembered by the community. However although funerals are a familiar part of human culture there is mounting evidence that members of another distinct Hominid species Homo Neandertalensis carried out funeral rites for the deceased. The earliest evidence for this practice dates back 350,000 years ago to specimens from Sima in Spain. The specimens obtained from this site were originally thought to be members of a species known as Homo Heidelbergensis. Standing at over 6 feet tall and with a smaller brain to body ratio than later Neandertals they didn’t fit the typical pattern of Neanderthal finds. A recent reappraisal of these specimens by Professor Chris Stringer however suggests that they are in fact early Neandertals. There has been controversy over the dating of the specimens with a range of 350,000 to 600,000 years ago.
How did the Neandertals get there? One interpretation has been that the Neandertals fell into the pit in an accident. However there are many specimens in the group and it would seem unlikely that as apex predators they would all have met the same fate. Alternatively their remains may have been washed into the pit. There are no signs of occupation. The remains of other species are found at the site – Cave Bears for example. The evidence suggests that members of these other species had been trapped in the pit. However there is one feature which does suggest that the Neandertals placed deceased members in the pit. There is a single tool at the site – an axe crafted out of a rare material – red quartzite. The axe is named Excalibur after the mythological sword. Perhaps the Neandertals left significant items there in remembrance of their deceased kin.
In Iraq 60,000 years ago another group of Neandertals lived and died. The Shanidar cave contains some of the most important Neandertal finds. The specimens repeatedly show evidence of ceremonial burial. They are associated with pollen from several plants. These plants are known to have medicinal properties. The site contains evidence of funeral practice. A pile of stones was assembled over one of the buried specimens. The remains of a fire was found over the grave of another. There is circumstantial evidence that another specimen had died from wounds received from early humans. Although this suggests conflict, humans and Neandertals would interbreed at one or more occasions. These interbreeding events would resonate throughout history by giving rise to modern humans.
More recently there have been remarkable findings from Spain. In the cave of Des-Cubierta in the mountainous region of Sierra de Guadarrama near Madrid, archaeologists have made some finds which provide stronger evidence of Neandertal funeral rites. There they found the remains of a child. There was evidence that the body had been cremated. The body is thought to have had two slabs of stone and an Auroch’s horn placed upon it. Intriguingly a piece of pink quartz was found nearby. These are preliminary findings. Nevertheless if they are borne out after further analysis there will be little doubt that the Neanderthals were the first species to organise funeral rites. If this is so then for the Neandertals death brought with it a special significance which was marked with ceremony. A piece of red quartz may have been used in Sima for this purpose even before humans (Homo Sapiens) existed.
Assuming that this was not a case of convergent evolution these findings would suggest that this may also have been true of Homo Heidelbergensis hundreds of thousands of years ago. Recognising our mortality is an important part of the human condition and how we plan for this is important just as it is for birth and other parts of the life cycle. These findings though suggest that we humans are not alone in being cogniscant of our own mortality. We shared this ability with Homo Neandertalensis. Unfortunately as a distinct species they are extinct. However they have left us part of their genetic make-up as their legacy and perhaps part of their culture too.
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