Humanity is a concept with which mankind has struggled since complex thought and behaviour evolved, as we struggled to define that which made us different from the rest of the earth’s inhabitants. Perhaps it is a sign of our inherent hubris and egotism that we assume that we are so substantially different from every other species. Our answers have changed dramatically over time, as definitions of humanity and what exactly it means to be human have evolved as much if not more so than our genetic components.
Human interaction with the world has shown us that there is clearly a continuum of humanity, with fully fledged humans on one end and other creatures which display the basic elements of life at the other. Intelligence and complex behaviour are examples of the elements which would be high on the continuum of humanity. Compassion and the ability to grieve are qualities which most people would pride themselves on having; however, these qualities can also be found in many animals.
African elephants have been studied extensively, and have been shown to have some sort of grieving process when an elephant dies, which appears to vary from family to family. Elephants, both from the family of the deceased and those outside of the family, have been known to investigate and smell the body of deceased, one group even going so far as to drag the body with them for a week. This grieving process remains poorly understood, due to the rarity of being able to study it from beginning to end. However, it is clear that they are acknowledging and are being affected by the death of one of their kind; one study investigated elephants’ interest in death using a rhino skull. The elephants were uninterested, showing that it is only the death of other elephants which will provoke mourning.
(Korir, 2013) Elephants lining up to touch body of deceased
As can be seen above, a herd of elephants are lining up to touch the carcass of an elephant with their trunks, maintaining complete silence. The elephant in question had died of natural causes, and the ritual lasted roughly eight minutes, and then the elephants left. There are numerous other instances of elephants investigating and taking bones of the deceased with them.
Orcas have also shown such ‘irrational’ behaviour towards death, with a killer whale recorded off San Juan Island in 2010 keeping a dead new-born with them for six hours. Such behaviour implies an emotional reaction to death; much like human mothers who lose a child, it can take considerable time to be ready to let the remains go. When a dolphin mother loses a calf, she tends to separate from the group to mourn; but oftentimes some of the school will check on her, much like humans in times of grief.
So it’s clear that animals do mourn, showing obvious if not always immediately comprehensible alterations to behaviour in response to death. However, it is not clear how early this behaviour developed; undoubtedly evolution of the brain which led to more complex and sophisticated behaviour and communication played an integral part. In animals we cannot yet know how far back the grieving process extends, but we know it has a considerable history on the part of humans and indeed our ancestors: the often overlooked and underappreciated homo neanderthalensis.
The Savage Beast: A History of Neanderthal Research
The long history of biases and misinterpretations associated with Neanderthal research has certainly had an astounding impact on the development of this research. Although Neanderthal skeletons had been discovered prior to 1856, such as Engis 2 in Awirs Cave, Belgium in 1829, they had not been recognised as ancient humans due to the prevailing biblical paradigm. Thus the first identified Neanderthal, Neanderthal 1, was discovered in 1856 in the Feldhofer Cave of Germany’s Neander Valley, and consisted of 16 bone fragments. This find was made three years before the release of Darwin’s The Origins of Species, and was taken as proof of his theories.
However, Neanderthal research was impeded over the following decades by the dismissal of its relevance by scientists such as Virchow, who would not recognise new hominin species. As research developed, Neanderthals gained more acceptance as a hominin species, and further understood with the investigation of anatomy and stratigraphy. This increased comprehension did not mean Neanderthals were accepted as humans or a species of intelligence; one has only to look at past descriptions and depictions to see the perception of savagery and stupidity thrust upon Neanderthals. They were seen as ‘savage’, ‘ferocious’, and ‘primitive’.
With the arrival of the 1960s, Neanderthal culture began to be investigated, and the ‘primitive’ idea of the species was being forgotten in favour of evidence-based research. Shanidar Cave was cited as proof of Neanderthal culture, with a male burial with apparent offerings of flowers. The 1970s saw the firm establishment of Neanderthals as intelligent beings very similar to humans, ‘modern humans trapped in archaic bodies’. This can be seen as the arrival of modern Neanderthal research; controversy remains over whether Neanderthals should be reclassified as human, but their culture and intelligence is no longer denied.
Intentional Neanderthal burials are a subject which, like the rest of Neanderthal research, has caused great contention and controversy in both the academic and public realms. Burial rites and rituals are practices which have traditionally been viewed as human. Increasing evidence has indicated that Neanderthals also buried their dead, displaying complex social behaviour, culture, symbolic activity and behavioural modernity. Several examples of Neanderthal burials have been rigorously studied, and shall be discussed here, beginning with La Chapelle-aux-Saints.
The skeleton of a Neanderthal was discovered at the site in 1908, and provoked what was to become a highly controversial research question: Did Neanderthals intentionally bury their dead? Following on from this: Were the first burials not of early modern humans, as was originally thought? As the evidence grows, it is clear that some form of burial rites were practiced by Neanderthals. Recent study has finally proven, over a century after the discovery of the burial, that it was indeed intentional.
The burial depression of the bouffia Bonneval section of the cave was examined and shown to be a man-made feature. The rapid burial of the remains, indicated by the lack of interference from decomposition or carnivores, is what would be expected from intentional burial.
(Rendu et al. 2014, 82) Bouffia Bonneval excavation map and burial pit location
(Rendu et al. 2014, 84) The bouffia Bonneval in 1909 and September 2012
Three more sets of Neanderthal remains, two children and an adult, were found at the site, increasing its complexity. Bison and reindeer bones were also found, although unlike the burial, these had suffered from weathering and cracking, indicating that these were not intentionally buried. It remains to be seen whether these burials were also intentional. Further investigation of the site could yield valuable information in relation to Neanderthal burial practices.
Des-Cubierta cave located 93km north of Madrid and investigated in 2009 may also provide key insight into Neanderthal burial rites. The remains of a series of small fires were discovered, and surround the jaw and six teeth of a Neanderthal toddler which were deposited in stony sediment. Collectively 30 horns from bison and aurochs, red deer antlers and a nearby rhino skull were recovered, with the horn or antler of a herbivore placed in each hearth. The fires are believed to have been part of the funerary rites of the Lozoya Child, placed there 38,000-42,000 years ago. It is theorised that this cave may have been a specific burial and mourning place for Neanderthals. Tools also recovered at the site are not positioned as in a habitation site, and may have had ritual or symbolic significance.
(Gray, 2016) Des-Cubierta site overview
Shanidar Cave in Iraq was excavated between 1953 and 1960, and became known as one of the most spectacular Neanderthal burial sites to date. Nine adult Neanderthal remains and one child were recovered; four of these died in rock falls, with the other five being intentionally buried. The most spectacular of these burials, Shanidar IV, known as ‘the flower burial’, will be the focus of this discussion as a display of burial cu
Shanidar IV was in a poor state of preservation when found, and was initially disappointing due to this and consequent awkward removal of finds from the site. It was initially believed that the rock fall found covering the burial was the cause of death; however, further examination revealed that the body had been placed in a ‘crypt scooped out among the rocks’. Soil samples were taken from around the burial, and were later examined, revealing tree, grass, and large amounts of flower pollen. Thus began the first suspicions that this was an intentional burial with an offering of flowers.
The body was placed in its final resting place between late May and early July roughly 60,000 years ago, with at least eight species of flowers, mainly small, brightly coloured wild flowers. Relatives of grape, hyacinth, hollyhock, bachelor’s button and a yellow-flowering groundsel were also recovered. The flowers are believed to have been woven into the branches of a pine-like shrub.
Time and effort were obviously spent in the preparation of this burial; one does not prepare a resting place with flowers for an inconsequential burial. This is a clear instance of burial culture and ‘humanity’, displaying great care and attention to the dead. The use of colourful flowers to adorn the burial is a practice that has carried on into the current burial practice of graveside wreaths, a clear display of humanity.
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