Researchers say Neanderthals were more intelligent and empathetic than previously understood. They cared for their elders and buried them with dignity, according to a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study focused on a skeleton of an elderly Neanderthal man -- 30 to 40 years old -- that was found in 1908 in La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southern France. It is the remains of a man who could barely walk and had lost all his teeth. The shape of his spine led to the theory that Neanderthals were hunch-backed.
When it was discovered the skeleton sparked a theory that Neanderthals were hunch-backed shufflers with low intelligence. Further studies revealed that this was an elderly man who was buried with respect and ritual.
"The relatively pristine nature of these 50,000-year-old remains implies that they were covered soon after death, strongly supporting our conclusion that Neanderthals in this part of Europe took steps to bury their dead," said lead researcher William Rendu in a statement. "While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic, the discovery reduces the behavioral distance between them and us."
Rendu, of France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), told Agence France Presse that the remains of two children and another adult were found nearby, but it is not known if they were related.
The research team studied the remains and the excavation site for 13 years. They ruled out the possibility that the limestone and clay cave floor beneath him had naturally formed into its shape.
"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.
They concluded that the 50,000-year-old grave site was intentionally dug out in order to create a resting place.
The team also concluded that the man must have been of some importance in the community. His lack of teeth indicates that someone else chewed his food for him. He must also have had help moving around, because he suffered from a disabled right hip and several broken or fused vertebra.
Without the help of the community, he would not have lived so long.
"This group of Neanderthals showed a high level of conscience for others," Rendu 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 meter (yard) deep using the tools that they had, such as stone or wood or pieces of bone."
The tight packing of the ground around the grave site offers further clues into the amount of effort that went into this burial.
"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.