“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is one of my favorite songs. This tune perfectly captures the mixture of deep sadness, joy, and hope that Christians experience at the funeral of a loved one.
According to anthropologists, funerals and burials—mortuary rituals—reflect the symbolic capacity of our species, though some believe symbolic activity is not unique to humans. They maintain that Neanderthals, too, possessed this capability. The recovery of Neanderthal remains in what appear to be gravesites seems to support this view. In fact, archeologists claim that they have found at least twenty Neanderthal graves.
Given such data, the concept of Neanderthal burials has become nearly unassailable. Yet, significant controversy surrounds this notion.1 For archeologists the issues are (a) whether the Neanderthal burials were natural or intentional and (b) what criteria must be met to establish a burial as deliberate.
Some of the disagreement emanates from the fact that many of the purported Neanderthal gravesites were discovered in the early days of archeology. In those times the standards for excavation and recording site information were not as robust as those used today.
For example, in 1961, archeologists in France unearthed a two-year-old infant in a cave known as Roc de Marsal. The original team interpreted the discovery as a deliberate Neanderthal burial. The gravesite became a widely considered, unequivocal example of an intentional entombment but in 2011 an international team of investigators took a second look at the site.2
This careful reexamination indicates that the “gravesite” was actually a natural depression in the cave floor. Furthermore, the infant’s remains appear to have slid into this natural cavity. When archeologists first unearthed the infant, they discovered animal bones and stone artifacts associated with it. The first team assumed these materials were added to the grave as part of the burial ritual, but did not consider the abundance of animal and lithic remains in the cave site. These remains are so richly distributed throughout the cave that their association with the infant appears to be coincidental. According to the second team of researchers who reexamined the burial site, “Realistically, it would be impossible to dig anywhere within these deposits without encountering concentrated lithics and faunal remains.”3
The new interpretation of the Roc de Marsal infant site may help throw dirt on the idea of Neanderthal burials, but there’s more. La Ferrassie Cave (France) is one of the most important Neanderthal burial sites. Archeologists working in this location have recovered several specimens that look as though they were buried deliberately. Yet, reanalysis of the cave sites suggests that these, too, were natural burials, not purposeful ones.4
In the words of paleoanthropologists Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey Schwartz, “All claimed evidence for symbolic activities among Neanderthals is highly debatable.”5 Thus, scientific advance points to the uniqueness of humans.