Throughout the course of human history, anthropological findings have assisted archeologists in creating an excellent archeological record. Findings such as burial ceremonialism and certain behaviors that accompany this humanlike ritual are factors that may aid archeologists in the creation of past records. Through the ritual of burial ceremonialism of our ancestors we are able to determine certain behaviors that may have been expressed by the participants. Such examples are our ancestors’ view of death, its significance, and the mere fact that they exhibited humanlike practices. Thus, helping determine how similar they may have been to us.
Archeologists have determined that the first group of ancestors to show any type of ritual burial ceremonialism was the Neandertals. “At sites such as Le Moustier, La Chapelle-aux-Saints, and La Ferrassie in France; Teshik-Tash in Uzbekistan; Shanindar in Iraq; and Amud, Tabun, and Kebara in Israel, there is evidence that shows that the Neandertals buried their dead in the ground” (175).
It would have been much easier for the Neandertals to discard of their dead by ignoring it or leaving it in the woods or forest to be decomposed by natural processes and scavenging animals. This would then have shown that the Neandertals did not recognize the significance of death, but instead, Neandertals took it upon themselves to ceremonially bury their dead. Not only were the dead buried in the ground, but a certain position was assumed, which consisted of a flexed form in which their knees were drawn up to their chest and their arms bend in an upward position (175).
One postulate as to why the Neandertals used this position was to “mimic the position of the fetus in the womb, which may have been used to symbolize death as the end of the circle of life (176).” Other forms have been found as well. An example of this is a skeleton of a Neandertal male, which was found in Kebara Cave in Israel. “This skeleton was intentionally buried, having been laid on his back in an east-west orientation, his head facing west” (182).
Excavators found that his right arm was laid across his chest and his left arm on his stomach. Throughout the cave, animal bones showed evidence of gnawing by carnivorous animals, but the skeleton on the other hand showed no evidence of such damage what so ever. This lead excavators to believe that he was buried there by companions of some sort. It was completely intact with the exception of a missing cranium, which to this day still remains a mystery. This skeleton further proves to archeologists that our Neandertal ancestors recognized the significance of death.
In addition to the fact that Neandertals recognized the significance of death, the skeleton provided additional insight into their culture. The Kebara skeleton, located in Kebara Cave in Israel, provided information to archeologists that Neandertals possessed the ability to speak due to a certain position of the hyoid bone in the throat. Excavators also found that the pelvic inlet size of a Neandertal differs from that of a modern day human.
Before this finding in Kebara Cave, it was believed that the gestation period of a Neandertal female was greater than that of a modern human female, due to the different sizes of children at the same age. This is now known to be incorrect. “So the relatively large size of Neandertal children when compared to anatomically modern children of the same age is probably related to accelerated development after birth, not faster or longer parental development” (181).
An additional behavior that has been recognized of the Neandertals is that they have many humanlike practices, one such ritual is that of ceremonial burials. Through this behavior, it has been found that Neandertals possessed the ability to show and feel compassion. . “The best, though not only, example comes from the skeleton of an adult male found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq” (174).
In this cave, an individual was found that had experienced an incredible deal of trauma, consisting of severe damage to the left side of his head in which the eye socket had been impaired to the point of probable blindness. His right arm was smashed and partially amputated and his right leg showed signs of disease. Despite all this, the skeleton of this Neandertal man showed that he led quite an eventful life because of the amount of stress fractures in his bones.
The only possible way for him to survive would have been with a great deal of help and understanding of his situation from his companions. Another example that illustrates the fact that Neandertals exhibited a certain degree of compassion was found at an excavation site also located in Shanidar cave, an enormous amount of flower pollen was found directly over the site of a burial and nowhere else. Archeologists determined this could mean one of two things.
The individual may have run through a field of flowers right before he died, or his companions placed flowers over his grave. If the latter of the two assumptions is correct, his companions would have exhibited a great deal of compassion (174). These examples show that the Neandertals, on a whole, demonstrated a certain degree of compassion that is much like what modern humans’ exhibited toward their own kind. This is yet another reason supporting that they may have been similar to us.
Although most modern day humans do not practice the ritual of leaving the dead with significant amounts of objects in his or her burial, many civilizations of the past such as Sumerian and the ancient Egyptian civilizations did in fact leave the deceased with objects. These objects consisted of artwork, jewelry, personal items, and many others relating to the life of the individual. Not only do these enable archeologists to use highly technical forms of past dating to determine the relative age of the materials and the deceased, but factors such as an individuals economic and social status are also able to be determined due to the presence and type of these objects and materials.
Studying ceremonial burial has enabled archeologists and anthropologists to further determine the nature of our ancestors in the past. Through the information received, it is easier to understand some of the behavioral habits of our ancestors by studying their rituals and lifestyles as best we can.
Many important pieces of information from archeological and anthropological findings help in the recreation of our past. Although many of the traits described about Neandertals makes them appear human in character, we must remember that these are just humanlike rituals, not actual modern day human beings. This information only further increases our knowledge of how our past was and how we relate to our distant ancestors.
- Feder, Kenneth L. The Past in Perspective: An Introduction to Human Prehistory. Mayfield Publishing Company: Mountain View, California. 1996.