Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Neanderthal Notes

I wrote this email to Barbara J. King, Professor of Anthropology at The College of William and Mary.


Date: Tue, 07 Feb 2006 10:19:02 -0500
From: Abel Vargas
Subject: Neanderthal burials

Dr. King:

I have been enjoying your Teaching Company course "Biological Anthropology." I have been interested in Neanderthals for a long time, intrigued by the fact that another group (sub-group?) of humans lived so close in time and space to us, to anatomically modern humans. You describe yourself as a tall, gracile human being. I am a short, squat, abnormally strong one, so as I look at recent reconstructions of neanderthalensis, I admit a feel a certain kinship and see a similarity with myself.

One thing that interests me about Neanderthal burials is their depth. Is it possible to determine the depth of the grave at the time of burial? Nowadays, few people ever dig a hole by their own work, and movies tend to trivialize the effort involved. When I was in the Army, it took two men, myself and another soldier, four hours to dig a foxhole five feet deep and four feet across, ovally-shaped, big enough for two men to take cover in up to their armpits. We were in a Midwestern deciduous forest, and had sturdy, well-crafted steel tools (a pick and two shovels). This would be barely large enough for a proper modern burial as it is practiced now, (and the wrong shape, since burials now use squared holes, which take even more time to shape) and it was a very significant expenditure of time, energy, and calories.

How much more difficult would it have been for European Neanderthals, without metal tools, using hands, spades, and picks made of quartzite, flint, wood, antler, and animal bone, to accomplish something similar, or even a hole half that size, which would be the barest minimum to hold an adult? Granted, you can make a decent pick out of a wood handle and an antler.

You mention hygienic reasons for burial, because you are (rightly, as a scientist) skeptical about giving Neanderthals spiritual motives for their actions without more evidence. A grave about 24 inches deep would be the minimum needed to gain any hygienic advantage from the burial, and you still would have to worry about some smell or putrefaction rising to the surface, especially if you get a strong rainfall within a week of the burial. You can imagine a human corpse, 100+ pounds of rotting meat, buried in an even more shallow grave, with say about a foot of earth above it. Such a burial would be barely worth the trouble, from the point of view of maintaining cleanliness and avoiding foulness.

Now imagine a Neanderthal group, during the last glaciation, probably hungry and operating on a calorie deficit, in winter with frozen ground, in Europe, with a dead member, attempting to bury her. Digging a grave in these circumstances is not possible, even given Neanderthals greater strength and control of fire.

Where am I going with this? I suspect neanderthalensis was more sophisticated than you give her credit for.

Some ideas:

1) Grave-digging could have been a communal activity. Four people can dig a grave faster than one, with less expenditure of energy as well. This means a level of communication and probably language use (although not necessarily spoken language) that is quite advanced. Perhaps some persuasion had to be used to convince participants that were not strongly connected to the deceased.

2) Moving enough earth to bury someone is very difficult, and hard to justify on purely hygienic grounds. In a predator-rich environment, it is much more efficient and economical to simply drag the body a mile or so, where some bear, large cat, or carrion birds will eliminate the body. Alternatively, use a nearby river that is moving swiftly enough to carry the body away.

3) Grave goods: why leave ANY? An ax is an ax, and losing a useful ax to a grave isn't a smart thing to do.

4) Taking the trouble to bury someone means that you have a profound emotional connection to that person. It doesn't make sense to do it otherwise. If you bury someone you are close to, it is a means to resolve your grief and part of an emotional life. If you bury someone you are NOT close to, it is probably for a better reason than because the body will stink. Probably, you have a belief in a spirit or essence that must be dealt with.

Granted, none of this is a smoking gun, definite proof of Neanderthal spirituality, but it indicates to me a level of communication, not just of information and skills related to survival, but a society of a more complicated sort and with a sophisticated emotional life beyond any of the great apes as we know them so far.

If you can point me to further research on this, I would appreciate this, and I hope some of these are legitimately new points for you, and that I have not completely wasted your time.

Thank you,


Here is her response, this morning.


Barbara J. King wrote:

To Abel Vargas,

I'm online avoiding other work (!) so will at least briefly answer your most interesting email. As a non-archaeologist I don't know much about depth of graves, but your points about communal graves, symbolic marking of graves etc. are very well taken. You are right when you interpret the 2002 course in this light:

..you are (rightly, as a scientist) skeptical about giving Neanderthals spiritual motives for their actions without more evidence.

But, interestingly enough (at least I think so!) I've read and thought a lot in the intervening 3 1/2 years, and, my next course for TTC (taping in July) will be on the evolution of religion. And I definitely do discuss Neandertal spirituality. My next book is on the origins of religion-- it's done and will be out in January '07--and after reading lots more on Neandertals, I shifted my position somewhat. Not TOO much; I still think some anthropologists are far too accepting of patchy evidence and go too far with hominid spirituality... but definitely I've shifted. Life-long learning is fun!

You might find as helpful as I did

Shamans, Sorcerers, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion (Hardcover)
by Brian Hayden

Thanks for writing!

Best wishes,
Barbara King

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