Neanderthal Compassion, Neanderthal Burials

from the book Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture:


Caring for severely disabled members of the community must be one of the indicators of respect for the individual and for human life. It is clear that Neanderthals fed and looked after severely handicapped members of their communities who were too disabled to contribute to the food quest. For example, the Shanidar 1 individual found in a cave in the Zagros Mts in Iraq had suffered from a withered right arm and shoulder probably from birth, his right ankle showed extensive arthritic degeneration, and he had received a severe blow to the left side of his face which was not fatal but would certainly have blinded his left eye. Without the support of his group he could not have survived to the age of forty. Another skeleton, La Quina 5, from SW France, also had a withered arm. The “old” man from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, aged 40-45, was also severely disabled. He had suffered from severe osteoarthritis in his mandible, spine, hip and foot, and had also lost most of his teeth. Other Neanderthal skeletons show injuries to their limbs: for example the original Neanderthal skeleton, and one from Krapina, Croatia, both had damaged ulnae which deformed their forearms; La Ferrassie 1 had a damaged femur, and the Shanidar 3 skeleton had arthritis in his ankle and foot which must have made them both lame….

      Another aspect of respect for the individual can be seen in the treatment of the dead. The Neanderthals were the earliest people in the archaeological record to have deliberately buried their dead. Some colleagues have questioned this, but in Western Europe the burials at La Chapelle aux Saints, La Ferrassie and Le Moustier can only be satisfactorily explained as being deliberate burials in pits…. At La Ferrassie the rock shelter seems to have served as a cemetery: it contained pits with skeletons of a man, woman (buried head to head), two children about five years old and two infants…. Burial no. 6 (of a child) was separated from the others and the fill of the pit was topped by a large triangular stone decorated on the underside with artificial cupmarks. The skull of the child lay at a distance from the rest of the skeleton. A similar burial to this was found in the Mezmaiskaya Cave, northern Caucasus, where twenty-four cranial fragments from a Neanderthal child aged one to two years were found in a pit covered by a limestone rock….

      At the very back of the Shanidar cave in Iraq Ralph Solecki found the grave of a Neanderthal, Shanidar 4, with a badly crushed skull. Subsequent examination of soil samples from the grave showed that the body had been laid on bedding of woody horsetail. The presence of clusters of pollen and parts of flowers including grape hyacinths, bachelor’s buttons and hollyhocks suggested that flowers may have been put on the grave: it is too far inside for the pollen to have blown in accidentally, although the fact that two of the members of the excavation team wore flowers in their sashes whilst excavating has prevented interpretations from being clear-cut.

      At Teshik Tash in Uzbekistan the grave of an eight year- to ten-year-old boy was discovered surrounded by six pairs of Siberian mountain goat horn cores still attached to their frontlet bones. It seems that these pairs of horns had been driven into the ground around the body possibly for some sort of symbolic protection. Deliberate burials and funerals imply the belief that some essential quality of human existence—spirit or soul—cannot be destroyed and lives on in some form after death.

      – Jane M. Renfrew, “Neanderthal symbolic behavior?”, in Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley eds., Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture, 51-53