Even Less Proof That Neanderthals Buried Their Dead

Yesterday, The Subversive Archaeologist, your favourite blog, received a comment on the third of three posts relating to Rendu et al.’s recent claim to have uncovered new evidence that the Old Man of La Chapelle had been purposefully buried. It came from reader Morley Eldridge. His is as disinterested a response as one could possibly hope for. Morley is steeped in the late-pre-European invasion archaeology of North America’s Northwest Coast—about as far from Late Pleistocene France as you could imagine. Or maybe not. As he points out the ‘soil’ chemistry of shell middens and calcareous caves are very alike. His comment raises many issues that I’m pretty sure some readers will have shared. I immediately crafted an appropriate response, but was hamstrung by the character limit on Blogger/Google Comments.

So, I emailed Morley the piece, and asked if I might put up his comment and my response. He gave the green light. His comment is reproduced verbatim, as are my responses. I’m adding visual aids of what Morley’s referring to. [And in the captions some after-the-fact facts that you should keep in mind.]

The Subversive Archaeologist (SA)received this comment December 31, 2013, from Morley Eldridge (ME), President of Millennia Research Limited of Victoria, BC.

ME: OK. Had to read all three posts a couple of times to get it straight.

SA: I’m sorry if I didn’t present it coherently. I do try.

ME: I do believe you are basically right Rob, and that Rendu et al were mistaken in the belief that the originally published profiles and plan had to be essentially accurate.The notch is damning if the differences in pit location and morphology are supposed to be due to ‘damage’.

SA: But only basically? Just checking.

The Notch appears on the right-hand site plan. The original outline of the “grave” and position of the deceased are in red. The Rendu et al. excavation revealed that the “grave’s” location was about a metre away from the original presentation. Long-time friend of the SA, Marco Langbroek, advises me that the notch was very likely created during excavation, when the skull and associated bits were removed en bloc. If true, it’s proof that the excavators, Bouysonnie, Bouysonnie, and Bardon (B, B, & B), did a piss-poor job of drawing their plan. The claim that they fudged their published observations is further supported by the excellent duo of photographs that Rendu et al. published, showing the newly excavated 1908 pit compared with the recent exposure.  
There can be no doubt that B, B, & B fudged their site plan and profiles. In these two views, taken from precisely the same vantage point, the size and location of the pit appears identical. Moreover, the Notch created for removal of the skull en bloc appears to have been made almost directly below the shield of rock/travertine that can be seen in both photos of the site post excavation, and in the mid-excavation photo below. 
The pit during excavation. The excavator in red is perched precariously on a half-metre sized island of backfill, hard up against the shield rock formation. Judging by the concave profile visible beneath excavator in red, the notch had to have been almost underneath the shield of rock. It’s difficult to imagine how B, B, & B could have been so far off the mark in their plan drawing. Moreover, the skull’s location almost beneath the shielding rock can easily explain why the skull was excavated virtually pristine. In such locations, preservation is bound to be better than any portions of the carcass that were further away (in this case, all of the post-cranial skeleton). 

ME: Whats left is essentially an amorphous depression that contained a remarkably intact skeleton,

SA: I’ve done the math. About 50% of the skeleton is represented.

The 50% estimate is a charitable one. The true number is close to, but does not reach, 50%. If I may be allowed a bit of after-the-fact analysis, you’ll notice that the backbone is well represented. I’ve previously argued that the Kebara Cave Neanderthal’s backbone would have been preserved best of all, because lying on its back means that the vertebrae and associated soft tissue would have been first to be covered by accumulating sediments. If I’m right, and LCS1 was naturally buried, it stands to reason that his backbone would survive better than the rest of the skeleton. 

ME: and which was excavated by the standards current to the early 20th century.

SA: I have no doubt that the excavation techniques were less fine-grained than some being done today. But if Rendu et al. found very little skeletal material that B, B, & B missed. But it’s not the digging technique that fell down on the job. Neither is it the stratification observed or the stratigraphic interpretation. It was fudging the record of observations that seems to have led most of us astray for more than a century. There’s no recovering from fudged records.

ME: Has there been a concerted effort to search for the century-old field notes, or letters written to colleagues while in the field?

SA: An excellent question. But not one, I’m afraid, that I’d be enabled to undertake.

This is the only fine-grained depiction of the LCS1 Neanderthal. There are no photographs taken at the time. We have only the two views of its skull, which was removed en bloc. This representation is a museum diorama, and it clearly includes discrepancies from the original position of the remains. As I observed previously, the mandible is not in the same place as it was in the bloc that included the cranium. As for the rest, all we have to go on is the one, tiny, plan drawing of the remains that was published in 1908. And even there, one can see obvious differences between the remains as drawn by B, B, & B, and those depicted in the diorama.

ME: The position of the body looks very much like what we see in purposeful flexed pit interments in shell middens here.

SA: Which is why B, B, & B argued that LCS1 was emplaced in what looked to them like a sleeping posture. My response: death during sleep would produce the same result.

ME: The skeleton is much more intact than what we normally see, though, and I’m not bothered at all by the missing elements.

SA: We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.

ME: Shell middens have similar chemistry to limestone and marl that preserves bone well but causes inexplicable bone loss on the micro-scale.

SA: I agree that chemistry is very important. But, in what is to all intents and purposes an impermeable basin, it’s hard even to imagine that the groundwater makeup could vary so much on a metre scale. It’s expecially difficult for me to accept that chemical variability is at fault, given the author’s description of the excellent preservation of those bits that were recovered.

ME: Plus we get all kinds of turbation and other taphonomic processes.

SA: That’s true. None were ever proposed or observed. And, as I point out, they weren’t being transported downward in the column because the depression is impermeable.

ME: I suppose some unwell Neanderthal may have crawled to the lowest point of a rockshelter, curled up into a fetal position, then expired and was somehow rapidly covered with a cultural matrix containing tools etc. naturally, and before the scavengers had time to do much gnawing.

SA: This is where you and I disagree the most. If LCS1 had expired in winter, and had frozen to death, in the north-facing bouffia it might have been June before it thawed. Scavengers are far less interested in a carcass after it has been frozen, and microbes, too, do far less microbing once a carcass has been frozen—so you don’t see the effects of bloating that you do in a carcass that wasn’t frozen.

ME: If the skeletal position was more higgelty-piggelty I’d offer up the suggestion, that I haven’t heard postulated before (what say you, Rob, is the following behaviour known to palaeoanthropologists?), that perhaps a bear (U. arctos) could have buried him and covered him with dirt and debris, as grizzlies here are fond of doing with moose and caribou, and the occasionally human (some of whom have recovered enough to crawl out and away and live to tell the tale).

SA: That’s good to know. But of course, thanks to the fudged record, we have no good idea what arrangement the skeletal elements were in at the time they were excavated.

ME: One of my most scary times in the bush was realizing that the stink of rotting flesh was correlated with the pits and excavated hollows in a ridge-top aeolian (?) sand deposit and with the numerous grizzly bear tracks we’d been looking at – the bears usually hang around to guard such delicacies as they ripen. I don’t see why bears wouldn’t also do this in a convenient cave with soft-ish marl and midden, and it would be extremely hard to distinguish this from a purposeful burial.

SA: Thanks, Morley! Another arrow in my quiver!

ME: Obviously for one reason or another occasionally the bear doesn’t return to his cache. But the regular flexed body position would suggest this wouldn’t be an explanation here- unless the skeletal depiction was also ‘cleaned-up’ by the illustrator.

SA: Which, sadly, we’ll never know. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Morley. I’m hoping you have a prosperous new year.

Make a Note on Your Calendar: Check Out the September 21st Issue of Science


It might be nothing. But just the same I’m gonna wanna see the September 21st issue of Science. That’s because yesterday I received a request to comment on my feelings about the recent findings from Roc de Marsal–that the Neanderthal child long believed to have been purposefully buried wasn’t, whether or not I saw this as a vindication of my ancient efforts, and my assessment of the role of new techniques, such as micromorphology, to document site formation processes in aid of the arguments. The Science writer who did the asking mentioned that he’d just returned from a week at La Ferrassie, where the Roc de Marsal team are presently working with the same goals as their previous project. Add it up. La Ferrassie + Roc de Marsal + Science + the comments of one might be said to have foreseen it all = major story. But I could be wrong. You know… Mind befuddled by years of bitterness, suddenly brought into the spotlight, imagining the glory that never was, and all that. It could be nothing. But what if…?

     For the record, here’s my statement to ‘the press.’

I’m very proud of Sandgathe, Dibble, Goldberg and the rest for having the audacity to undertake their re-examination of the Roc-de-Marsal burial, and of the French authorities who have shown some flexibility in allowing such a project. I’m especially happy that I can claim to have had a role in paving the way for their work. As for the techniques that have been deployed in support of the new excavations at Roc de Marsal, and now at La Ferrassie, if the palaeoanthropological community is more likely to accept revisions of erroneous claims based on new techniques, I’m all for it. However, the fact remains that there never was sufficient evidence of any kind to support the claim of purposeful burial in any of these cases, a point I thought I’d made forcefully in my two papers on the matter. Unfortunately I was one of the few to have seen it that way and in reality I’ve been dismissed by the majority of palaeoanthropologists for the past 23 years. I’m afraid that a few ambiguous in-text citations bearing my name in the present is hardly what I’d call a vindication. 

Yep. Bitter. But a justified bitterness. A well-steeped bitterness. Tannic, you might say. Tannins? Wine? brb… That’s better. Bitterness goes better with wine. ‘A drink is like a hug’® I always say!

Roc de Marsal (Dordogne, France). From oldstoneage.com
Roc de Marsal Neanderthal child

Roc de Marsal contained the partial remains of a Neanderthal youth that was claimed to have been purposefully buried. There never was any good evidence for it, although the remains were found ‘in a depression’ and they were articulated for the most part. In 1989 and again in 1999 I said as much. One of my major contentions has always been that depressions can occur naturally for a good number of reasons, and that depressions in caves and rockshelters–which already tend to preserve bone well–are places where vertebrate specimens can be expected to preserve extraordinarily well, as compared with those that decayed on a plane surface under the same depositional regime.
     Moreover, the excavators described the ‘fill’ of the ‘grave’ as being just like all the rest of the breakdown sediments in the cave–i.e. no new stratum created at the time of the ‘burial’ which could be seen to be distinct from the sediments into which the ‘grave’ was dug and from those sediments that accumulated naturally after the ‘grave’ was filled in. Given the propensity for nature to create depressions, that new stratum is one of the only–if not the only–way that one could be certain that a purposeful burial has occurred. [My colleagues complain that this is rarely the case even in modern burials, and that they shouldn’t be held to such a standard. My only response to that is: such thinking has given us the myth to end all myths about the Neanderthals.] Sandgathe et al. excavated at Roc de Marsal expressly to recover as much information about the depositional circumstances of the remains as was possible. It was only good fortune that the original excavators left the cave deposits adjacent the burial for the perspicacious Sandgathe and the rest of the équipe to study.
     Those I’d give anything to call my Champions [sense #3 below*] will no doubt have a far more difficult time at La Ferrassie, where the remaining profile, the témoin, is well away from the area where the skeletal remains were recovered. Nevertheless, their efforts will not go unrewarded, especially since they’re attempting to work out the depositional history of the site as a whole, something which has been lacking in previous work at that site.

La Ferrassie, témoin, or ‘witness profile.’ The Neanderthal remains were found in the lowest levels shown here. From our friends at Wikipedia.
New excavations at La Ferrassie at the close of the 2011 season. From oldstoneage.com

La Ferrassie I

     La Ferrassie is, perhaps, ‘ground zero’ in the debate about whether or not the Neanderthals buried their dead [if you can call one voice crying in the wilderness a ‘debate’]. There, in the early twentieth century [and into the later second half] a series of skeletal remains were excavated, beginning with the early discovery of an almost complete skeleton, La Ferrassie I.
     La Ferrassie is also claimed to have been the location of a veritable Neanderthal cemetery, based on the inferences of the early excavators. You may remember the ‘nine mounds’ from your introductory anthropology courses. I predicted that these would eventually be found to have been the result of cryoturbated sediments, which can take the form of wavy strata when viewed from the side. Indeed, the profile that J.-L. Heim published shows these wavy sediments in profile, presumably redrawn from the original, with the crests of the waves almost a meter above their bases. I look forward to the results of the current excavations with glee.

Early 20th century plan of the La Ferrassie ‘cemetery.’ From our friends at  Wikipedia

*cham·pi·on noun \ˈcham-pē-ən\
1: warrior, fighter
2: a militant advocate or defender
3: one that does battle for another’s rights or honor
4: a winner of first prize or first place in competition; also : one who shows marked superiority

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