Burial, Ritual, Religion,
and Cannibalism 

  In the same humanly manner that Neandertals cared for their disabled companions, they also buried their dead. "Neanderthals were not credited with deliberate meaningful burial of their dead until more than a half-century after their discovery" (Constable 1965:97). This "betrays a keen self-awareness and a concern for the human spirit" (Leaky and Lewin 1977:125). Their grave sites were intentional, and many have been found in different areas in Europe and the Near East. Neandertal interments have humanistic and ritualistic elements, with the cadaver placed in a sleeping or fetal position, with the head facing west and the feet pointing east. A few remains have been found with fauna placed in the hands or the body, along with red ocher, a colored pigment possibly used for symbolic ritual. Some Neandertals were buried together, meaning that entire kin groups remained united after death.

One of the most fascinating and controversial burial sites is the Shanidar Cave. The remains there, called Shanidar IV, were carefully placed in the fetal position on a rough bedding of woven woody horsetail, a type of local plant. According to the pollen samples taken, this Neandertal was interred with several different species of flowers. "From the orderly distribution of grains around the fossil remains, there is no question that the flowers were arranged deliberately and did not simply topple into the grave, as believed, as the body was being covered" (Leaky and Lewin 1977:125). Apparently, the family and friends of the deceased gathered these distinct species of flowers, carried them to the grave, and carefully placed them on the body. Some of theflower specimens found with Shanidar IV were yarrow, cornflowers, St. Banaby's thistle, groundsel, grape hyacinths, woody horsetail, and a kind of mallow. Many of these have medicinal qualities which "range from relief from toothache and inflammation to uses as poultices and for spasm" (Solecki 1971:249). According to Solecki, "one may speculate that the individual was not only a very important man, a leader, but may have been a kind of medicine man or shaman in his group" (Shreeve 1995:53). From this analysis it is likely that the "Shanidar people were aware of at least some of the medicinal properties of the flowers is not unlikely" (Leaky and Lewin 1977:125).

Seven individual Neandertal graves were found at La Ferrassie, in the southwest region of France. These consisted of a man, a woman, two children, and three infants. The man was aged about forty-five and:

his skeleton showed that he had been buried lying on his back, slightly inclined towards the left, with flexed legs. Three flat stones, were associated with the burial, one near the skull and the others on the arms, and various incised large bones, bone splinters, and flint flakes had been put in his grave, the former often being interpreted as protection for the burial. Near the male grave was the skeleton of a woman aged between twenty-five and thirty, buried in a such a position to suggest that she might have been tied up before burial. No grave goods accompanied this burial. Neandertals three and four were buried in trenches both 30-40 cm deep and very similar in appearance. They contained the bones of two (possibly three) children and one fetus or neonate. Amidst the sterile trenches was one oval depression, 40 by 30 cm, which contained the remains of an incomplete foetus (aged about seven months) and three beautifully-made racloirs. (Shackley 1980:87)
Among these, a child skeleton, of about four years of age, "was headless; the skull was buried a short distance away, covered with a large stone marked with a series of artificial, cuplike depressions" (Trinkaus and Shipman 1993:255). Nearby were pits and trenches which in some cases contained animal bones. This evidence indicates that Neandertals ceremoniously interred their dead with symbolic and ritual relevance. The accompaniment of flint tools with the remains can be interpreted as a Neandertal belief in an afterlife. These artifacts and fauna are possible symbolic representations of a good hunt and guaranteed health in the spirit world, or could also be metaphorical of status within the tribe. A distinct feature of this burial site is the development of what appears to be the first grave marker. The cup-like depressions in the stone probably had some unknown significance, including the acknowledgement of a child's death, his membership in the clan, or his prior residence in the cave. This simple monument also symbolized a work of art.
The burial site of the "Old Man," at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, was 
of vital importance in the growth of ideas about Neandertals  during the 
turn of this century. This individual was buried on his back, with his head 
to the west, the left arm extended and his legs flexed to the right. Next to 
the head were three long bones of a mammalian  metatarsal, along with 
other animal remains. Many of these bones appear to have be burnt, as 
well as the surrounding sediment, which could possibly represent some 
feast that took place before this individual was buried.

Another Neandertal burial site, that of a post-adolescent male, was found in Le Moustier, in southern France. The remains had been sprinkled with red ocher and buried in a position simulating being asleep. "His head rested on a pillow of flints, and burned wild cattle bones were scattered about, as if in offering" (Shreeve 1995:53). At the Teshik-Tash site in Uzbekistan, a child of about nine years of age was buried with mountain goat horns surrounding his grave. They had been arranged vertically, in pairs, forming a circle around the body, with the pointed ends driven in the ground (Shackley 1980). Below the cranium was a small block of limestone which seemed to be inserted in order to support the material on which the head rested.

In addition to interring their dead, it is believed that Neandertals also performed burial rituals. Evidence pointing to this is that many existing Neandertal burials, including the ones just mentioned, contain tools and food offerings. Several of these sites also have hearths around the skeletons. "This might represent a ritual element, such as the provision of warmth to counteract the chill of death, but it is more likely to be the remains of a funeral feast fire, lit while the 'last rites' were being carried out" (Shackley 1980:104). Burials that include these hearths are the previously mentioned La-Chappelle-aux-Saints grave, which contained supposedly burned animal bones surrounding the body. When this site was originally excavated, it was concluded that it "had been a sepulchre where people came to eat (numerous) funeral meals but not to live, since the cave was too low arched for comfortable living, and there was no waste from tool manufacture" (Shackley 1980:103).

] Another interment which contains ritual implications is the burial at Teshik-Tash. As previously mentioned, the horns driven in the ground around the body were probably placed there for symbolic protection. However, a small hearth had been made next to the horns, which burnt for a short amount of time, according to the evidence of the underlying clay not redding (Shackley 1980). These associations also make it probable that some form of a funerary ritual was performed (Shackley 1980).

Other burial ritual behavior occurred in Le Moustier, where a young man's body was posthumously sprinkled with red ocher. At La Ferrassie, the buried man and woman were found head to head, in the front of the cave, and the children were interred further back towards the center. At this site, there were also nine mysterious mounds, all the same size and height, arranged in rows of three. Within one of these mounds rested the neonate and three beautiful flints. "The original investigators concluded that the mounds were built in an interment ritual" (Benditt 1989:33). However, anthropologists are still baffled by their significance.

Some ritual or symbolic purpose may be found in the stone slabs found over Neandertal graves, along with food, tools, and the flexed position of the body. F. Clark Howell believes that:

Evidence of this source clearly indicates that Neanderthal man believed in life after death and that it was probably not unlike the life he lived on earth, sine he seemed to be trying to help his corpses along on their journeys with tools and food. Death itself appears to have been regarded as a kind of sleep, since corpses were carefully arranged in sleeplike positions. (Howell 1965:130)
In contrast to the belief that Neandertals buried their dead for personal, symbolic reasons, some paleoanthropolgists still doubt this theory. They argue "that Neanderthls buried their dead only to discourage scavengers and eliminate odor" (Rudavski 1991:44). These critics allege that the various specimens of pollen from the Shanidar burial could have been carried to the grave by the wind, the feet of mourners, "or even two of the Iraqi excavation crew who wore flowers tucked into their sashes" (Johanson and Edgar 1996:100).

Robert H. Gargett, as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, believed that all the known Neandertal burials can be accounted for by natural preservational processes. Gargett hypothesized that the differential conservation of their remains may be due to geology and not human compassion (Benditt 1989). The most complete Neandertal skeletons were found in caves, where, he indicates, interment can be mimicked by the forces of nature. For example, at La-Chapelle-aux-Saints, the grave of the "Old Man" could have been caused by the dissolving action of water on the limestone floor of the cave. Gargett then claims that if the elderly Neanderthal had crawled into the small cave and died, "the natural disposition of sediments would have left something resembling a grave" (Benditt 1989:32). Gargett also stated that the nine mounds at La Ferrassie could have also been created by natural forces. He suggests that they may have been made "due to the action of frost, which can create geometrically patterned hummocks" (Benditt 1989:32). Therefore, Gargett is very skeptical of most Neandertal burials.

In contrast, anthropologists Philip Chase and Harold Dibble believe that "deliberate burials are clearly present, but there are no obvious signs of ritual" (Chase and Dibble 1987:276). According to both authors, Middle Paleolithic graves only contain items of everyday use, causing one to question whether they reflect any symbolic or ritual ceremony before interment. Most burials are located in the occupational areas of the sites and objects relevant to these interments are indistinguishable from the artifacts found throughout the entire area. An example of this is the Teshik-Tash site. Even though it appears that the young Neandertal's grave was surrounded by a ring of Siberian mountain goat horns, these specimens were found throughout the site, making up a vast majority of the faunal remains. Chase and Dibble conclude that:

We might, therefore, expect some association with the burial simply due to random dispersal of remains of that species through the site. But such association would not have significant behavioral implications. Second, the association between the goat horn cores and the burial is not that strong. At the time of the discovery only the skull lay within the concentration of horn cores and the postcranial remains lay beyond it. The dispersal of the bones suggest predator disturbance....Even if the horn cores were at one time associated with the burials, the association may have been pragmatic rather than ritual: the horns may simply have been used as picks for excavating the grave. (Chase and Dibble 1987:276).
Therefore, in order for Neandertal graves to be truly symbolic or ritualistic of "religion or belief in an afterlife, the grave goods must exhibit some special characters beyond those seen in other contexts of the site," such as those in Upper Paleolithic burials (Chase and Dibble 1987:274).

Another ritually symbolic behavior that Neandertals are believed to have practiced is the worship of cave bears. Collections of bear bones at several widely dispersed sites suggest this, especially at Drachenlock, in Switzerland, where "a number of bear skulls were found stacked in a stone chest" (Kennedy 1975:92). The stone chest was believed to have been built by the Neandertals, who also inhabited the entrance of the cave. The top of the structure was covered by a massive stone slab. "Inside this were the skulls of seven bears arranged with their muzzles facing the cave entrance, and still deeper in the cave a further six bear skulls in niches along the wall" (Shackley 1980:110). Next to these remains, were bundles of limb bones belonging to different bears. Consequently, it was at this site that the supposed symbol of the "Cult of the Cave Bear" was found. This consisted of the skull of a three-year-old bear pierced in the cheek by the leg-bone of younger bear. "These are resting on two bones from still two other bears, an arrangement that could hardly have happened by chance"(Howell 1965:127).

A recreation of what the stone chest at  Dranchenlock would have looked like. Click on the image for a larger view
A drawing depicting the cave bear skull that was pierced with the leg bone of a younger bear. Click on the image for a larger view.


In Regourdou, southern France, a similar phenomenon was encountered. Here, a rectangular pit contained the remains, most of which were skulls, of at least twenty bears, covered by a massive stone slab weighing nearly a ton . Nearby, lay the remains of a Neandertal in another stone pit, with various objects, including a bear humerus, a scraper, a core, and some flakes, which were interpreted as grave offerings (Chase and Dibble 1987).

Perhaps related to cave bear worship, is the unusual finding in a deep chamber of Basua Cave in Savona, Italy, where a vaguely zoomorphic stalagmite, surrounded by clay pellets, was apparently used by Neandertals for a ceremony. Bear bones lay scattered on the floor, which further suggests that this was unlikely to be just a game, and must have had some sort of ritual purpose (Kennedy 1975).

In contrast to the idea that Neandertals built these cave bear storage pits for ritual purposes, it is possible that these sites can be explained by natural agencies (Chase and Dibble 1987). Underground streams could have caused an accumulation of cave bear bones in natural niches, and groups of fallen roof blocks. Another attribute is that cave bears prepared circular nests and sometimes died during hibernation. Cave ins may explain the creation of pits with large tops covering them. It is possible that some bears died of natural causes in these caves and over a period of time, as cave ins occurred, the effect of a storage pit was created. Chase and Dibble also discovered faulty interpretations produced during the early twentieth century in the examination of caves that containing alleged cave bear cults. Early archaeologists poorly recorded data on possible hunting wounds on the bears or evidence to indicate if they had been butchered (Chase and Dibble 1987).

A cave bear skull


Neandertal man may have practiced cannibalism, due to hunger, or as some form of death ritual. One of the most controversial sites dealing with this issue is in Monte Circeo, Italy, where in 1939, a Neandertal skull was discovered in an oval ring of stones. The hole where the spine connects to the head, known as the foramen magnum, had been enlarged and broken away, suggesting that the brains were extracted and consumed. However, the original position of the skull inside the ring of stones is doubtful, because the person who discovered it, did not remember if he replaced it in its proper position (Klein 1989). An analysis of the skull showed no cut or scrape marks, peeling or flaking, associated with cannibalistic practices (Bower 1991). Instead, gnaw marks consistent with carnivore chewing appear on various parts of the skull, especially at the base. From this evidence, it is probable that a cave hyena tampered with the skull, ate the brains, and shoved it upon an insignificant arrangement of stones.

The mutilated remains of twenty Neandertal men, women, and children were found at Krapina, Croatia, in 1899. It has been speculated that these individuals were ritually devoured since, judging from the great amount of animal bones in the cave, game was plentiful. Analysis done on these remains show that "Neandertals made the same patterns of cut marks on their fellow humans as they did on their animal prey" (Gore 1996:27). Some scholars believe that this cannibalistic slaughter was not part of a ritual, since all of the bones were not torn open in the same manner. Only the limb bones, which contain an abundance of marrow, were severed. Cannibalism is therefore seen as "one of a variety of ways Neanderthals sustained themselves rather than an occasional act of desperation by starving humans" (Gore 1996:27). Other evidence, such as the Teshik-Tash site and the Neander Valley skull, point to the defleshing of the cadaver before burial. It is possible that Neandertal man ritually ate his comrades, so that he could gain their strength and courage, as believed by many tribes of Bushmen today. Other Neandertal death rituals may have been involved, such as a sacrifice to a god, as in the case of the European bog bodies.

The Monte Circero skull was found in a circle of stones, thought to represent some ritualistic cannibal carnage. Today,  it is known that Hyenas broke the base of the skull. 
However, a skull fragment from, along with other various bones from Krapina, indicates something completely different. Cut marks from Neandertal tools can be visible seen on the skull and the other remains, not pictured here, from Krapina.
A microscopic view of cut-marks on a pre-Neandertal bone from Atapuerca. Picture from Juan Luis Arsuaga, et. al's. Atapuerca.

It is yet to be proven whether or not Neandertals truly practiced ritually symbolic behavior, or had the beginnings of a religion, although speculation indicates it. Their dead were buried, possibly fearing their resurrection, which might explain why many Neandertal corpses appear tightly flexed, as if they had been tied with thongs. The placement of heavy stone slabs upon their graves may also be seen as impeding their dead from returning. The defleshing of the body could be symbolic of preventing its spirit from haunting them (Constable 1973).

Neandertals may have practiced hunting magic and had rites related to hunting, which affected  every member of the tribe (Constable 1973). The Basua Cave contains one such clue. Clay pellets arranged in a vague animal shape around a stalagmite, deep within the cave, could be   symbolic of a future hunt, or retelling the story of a previous hunt. On the other hand, it could be be a child's game. Another viable example of hunting magic was a ceremony held at a cave in Lebanon, some fifty thousand years ago, where Neandertals dismembered a deer, placed its remains on a bed of stones, and sprinkled it with red ocher. The pigment was probably symbolic of blood and the act was apparently a ritualistic or magical attempt to control life and death in the deer kingdom (Constable 1973).

****NEWS FLASH*****
    New evidence has come to light that Neandertals were cannibals. Why, is still not known. The latest articles can be found at the links below:

Evidence of Cannibalism Among Neanderthals ABC (9/30/99)

Back to Home page index