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NeanderthalsFirst to Bury Their Dead?
According to Ian Tattersall, a specialist in human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Neanderthals were the first known hominid to practice the burial of the dead. But, what the ritual meant to Neanderthals remains unclear. To Homo sapiens, there is a deep meaning behind the burial ritual. Tattersall said that scientists have so far found no evidence of religion practiced by the Neanderthal species.
"I don't think you could ever really know if Neanderthals were religious, but my guess would be no," he said. "To have something abstract in your head, you need to be capable of playing with symbols. Neanderthals did business very differently from Homo sapiens."
Although Neanderthals had occasionally practiced burial of the dead, it was among the Cro-Magnon where evidence emerged of the elaborate burial, with hints of ritual and belief in an afterlife. At one burial site, the deceased was dressed in clothing on which more than three thousand ivory beads were sewn. Carved pendants, bracelets, and shell necklaces boggled the imagination. These elaborate internments are only the most dramatic example of many.
In all human societies, the burial of the dead with grave adornments indicates a belief in an afterlife. The human urge to adorn their person was expressed by the Cro-Magnon to its fullest. And the effort put into the graves suggests that decoration and art were integral components of the lives and societies of the people who made them. Art was central to the Cro-Magnon experience of their environment and to the way they explained the world.
These people disposed of objects that were valuable in terms of the time taken to make them. They clearly didn't have to devote all their time to the basic business of making a living. Leisure time was available for symbolic and artistic pursuits.
And the variety in the Cro-Magnon burial hints at a social division of labor in the society. Riches and personal adornment in life often reflects social status, and this is mirrored by the objects taken to the grave. Some Cro-Magnons were buried with an abundance of artifacts of various kinds while others were more simply interred.
Modern humans tend to recognize their own cultures in pondering Cro-Magnon burial procedures, according to Tattersall and co-speaker J. Wentzel van Huyssteen of the Princeton Theological Seminary. While it remains unclear exactly what rituals accompanied these burials and what beliefs they embodied, these interments reflect the fundamental human urge to adorn and elaborate, the speakers noted.
15 October 2002