WASHINGTON: New findings at a Neanderthal burial site in France bolstered the notion that cavemen cared for their elders, researchers said Monday.
The research is based on excavations around the skeleton of an elderly Neanderthal man who could barely walk and had lost his teeth and who was painstakingly buried after he died.
The burial pit at La Chapelle-aux-Saints was first found in 1908, containing the remains of a man with spinal deformities. An initial misinterpretation of his bones gave rise to the popular legend of the dim-witted, hunched and shuffling Neanderthal.
But over the years, a more careful analysis of his burial site, and the discovery of apparently intentional gravesites elsewhere in Europe, suggested 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 an excavation site in southern France.
Researchers have now ruled out the possibility that the cave floor under the man – who was old by Neanderthal standards and may have been in his late 30s or early 40s – was a natural formation, indicating it must have been dug, the report said.
The remains of three more individuals have also been found nearby, though it is unclear whether they were related to or even the contemporaries of the 50,000-year-old buried elder, said lead researcher William Rendu of France’s National Center for Scientific Research.
The pit in which his bones lay was made of soft limestone and clay. In nature, these rock formations are usually found horizontally, though the section under his body was nearly vertical, he 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,” Rendu said.
Just who the old man was remains a mystery, but researchers think he must have been an important person, at least to the group with whom he lived.
Without workable teeth, others likely chewed food for him. His disabled right hip and several broken and fused vertebra indicate he could not move around on his own, Rendu said.
“He was able to live a long time, aided by other members of his group. This group of Neanderthals showed a high level of conscience for others,” he said.
“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.”