Neanderthals cared for elders, burial site shows

2013-12-17 12:01
Texas A&M archaeology professor Michael Waters displays an artefact used by prehistoric man as a scraping and cutting tool. (Stuart Villanueva, AP, Bryan-College Station Eagle, file)

Texas A&M archaeology professor Michael Waters displays an artefact used by prehistoric man as a scraping and cutting tool. (Stuart Villanueva, AP, Bryan-College Station Eagle, file)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

  • Palaeontology
    A contemporary of Darwin classifies all the fossil animal forms known in 1860, and discusses... Now R774.00
    buy now
Washington - New findings at an old Neanderthal burial ground in France have bolstered the notion that cavemen cared for their elders, researchers said on 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 grave sites 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, said the report in PNAS.

The remains of three more individuals have also been found nearby, though it is unclear whether these two children and one adult were related to, or even the contemporaries of the 50 000-year-old buried elder, said lead researcher William Rendu of France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The pit in which his bones lay was made of soft limestone and clay. In nature these rock formations are 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," said Rendu.

Just who the old man was remains a mystery, but researchers think he must have been an important person, at least to the group of Neanderthals 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, said Rendu.

"He was able to live a long time, aided by other members of his group," said Rendu.

"This group of Neanderthals showed a high level of conscience for others," he added.

"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 metre deep using the tools that they had, such as stone or wood or pieces of bone."


While the good condition of the bones suggest he was rapidly interred, the packed sediment around gravesite took a long time to excavate, suggesting it took the man's circle quite some effort to dig it and pack the earth in around the body, Rendu said.

"All this shows that they took a long time to do something that was not essential to their survival but simply to protect the body of this man," said Rendu.

The cause of the man's injuries has been a source of debate over the years, and some experts have questioned whether the burial was truly intentional.

"It's good that they found the remains, but I don't think they needed to resolve the burial issue," said Milford Wolpoff, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Michigan.

"It's like asking whether your Ford was made in Detroit."

Wolpoff said there is ample evidence of burial, language, paint-mixing, and more among Neanderthals, particularly in the last five years.

Adam van Arsdale, a paleoanthropologist at Wellesley College, agreed that the notion of intentional burial should come as no surprise.

"That research might be able to demonstrate that by re-examining La Chapelle-aux-Saints, a specimen initially recovered more than 100 years ago and one that is a big part of our understanding of 'classic' Neandertals, is more noteworthy," he said.

"It is nice to see a demonstration that hard work and methodological rigor can help recover some of the evidence that was thought to be lost."

The latest round of excavation work began in 1999, and also involved experts from the University of Bordeaux and Archeosphere, a private research firm.
Read more on:    palaeontology

Read News24’s Comments Policy publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining

Inside News24


Watch: Insane road bike skills!

This will have you sitting on the edge of your chair.


Where were you when you last felt alive?

The most extreme journey ever?
Red Bull Lionheart trail run - not for the fainthearted!
Adventure holidays for your bucket list
Top 10 water sports to try before you die

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now! - shop online today

Save up to R1000 on Hisense smartphones!

View the large range of Hisense smartphones. Buy today and save up to R1000!

Deal of the week!

Save R1200 on the Samsung 48” smart full HD LED television now only R8799. Buy now!

Toys 4 for the price of 3

Buy 4 toys and get the cheapest FREE! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Mind blowing prices – As seen on TV

Get mind blowing prices on 1000’s of products! Shop now.

Save 20% on Nivea beauty products!

Buy any two Nivea beauty products and save 20%. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25


There is a tendency to focus too intently on outer appearance and beauty which hides who you really are. You are being more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.