PhD Project

In a nut shell, here is what my PhD project is all about…

  • Examining the characteristics of individual funerary practices, and the differences and similarities between them
  • If caring for the dead is a ‘human’ trait, can this be seen in the Neanderthal world?
  • Compiling a database of all Neanderthal remains, continuing work started during my Masters dissertation
  • Which funerary practices were used by Neanderthals? (eg. burial, defleshing, etc)
  • What factors influence how a Neanderthal group decide to treat (eg. bury) a deceased individual?

Still interested? Want to read some more? Great! Here are the basics…

Le Ferrassie Skull (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Le Ferrassie Skull (Image Source: Wikipedia)

What are funerary or mortuary practices?

Funerary or mortuary practices are the rituals, techniques or processes associated with remembering or honouring a deceased individual. For example, a deceased individual in the Western World would be most likely to receive either a burial (or ‘internment’) or a cremation. The exact rituals associated with a burial or cremation may vary depending upon personal beliefs or religion followed, such as the hymns/songs or the readings, but they will follow a broadly similar pattern.

However, a variety of different types of practices have been and continue to be used across the world, that may seem strange or gruesome to us (far too many to name here). For example, the Tibetan ‘Sky Burials’* seem particularly gruesome to the Western World – but these are in fact not burials at all. This is a practice used in Tibet and other provinces, such as Inner Mongolia, and although exact procedures vary from group to group, essentially the corpse is placed in an open area and vultures are allowed to come and strip the carcass of flesh.

*(Warning: Searching for more information on Tibetan Sky Burials may be tempting, but please be aware that you are likely to come across graphic images of dismembered corpses, so search with care.)

Who were the Neanderthals?

The Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, are an extinct species of  hominid which lived from approximately 200,000 – 30,000 years BP (before present)* in Europe and Western Asia. They looked very much like us, and if you saw one walking down the street you probably would not even notice that they were a different species. Exactly what caused the species to become extinct is still hotly debated, with suggestions that it could have been factors including climate change or competition with modern humans (Homo sapiens). They had large brains like modern humans and therefore were capable of the same complex tasks, such as making stone tools and living/hunting in complex social groups. Popular culture has tended to portray them as short, stocky savages without the capability of high cognitive functioning like modern humans, but evidence is clearly stacking up against this stereotype and actually beginning to show that they were just as capable as early modern humans.

*Note: Exact dates are still being debated and are being constantly updated by new discoveries, so dates are very approximate.

What can funerary and mortuary practices tell us about Neanderthals?

It could potentially show us information about their social structure, their beliefs, and their cognitive abilities. The ability to understand death and mourn the loss of an individual is an important cognitive step forward, and the ability to show empathy and compassion for others are complex emotions. It is important because it shows they were not just out to survive at all costs, they were capable of stopping to consider and care for others even if this may not directly contribute to the survival of the group.

Several Neanderthal sites demonstrate some of these concepts, for example:

Shanidar 3 (Shanidar Cave, Iraq):
Symptoms: Elderly male individual showing signs of traumatic injuries and arthritis. Individual would have required assistance from others in order to survive, and probably even to reach the cave which is on the side of a mountain.
Implications: Group must have had the capability to understand that the individual would die without assistance, and that death was certain and irreversible. The group must have also been capable of caring for the elderly individual and willing to take the time to care for him, even though he may not have necessarily been able to contribute to the survival of the group.

La Chapelle-aux-Saints (France):
Symptoms: Elderly male individual. Severe arthritis across the body, lost many teeth ante-mortem (before death), and suffered with periodontal disease.
Implications: Again, must have been cared for to prevent death for such a considerable amount of time. Would have required considerable assistance and support from group to survive, requiring significant investment by the group.

Studying mortuary practices may also tell us about their culture. For example, are all Neanderthal men treated in one way and women in another? Are children granted the same funerary rights as an adult, indicating that they too are considered a ‘person’ and individual in their own right? Questions like these are not straight forward and easy to answer here, so keep checking back for more information and updates on what my PhD project has found so far on the subject.

So what are you doing with this information?

I am looking at all Neanderthal remains found so far, and examining them for traces of lots of different funerary types, which could be anything from burials through to cannibalism. I am aiming to look for patterns in the bones we find on these sites to try and find out exactly what Neanderthals were doing, and why they were doing it. For example, are Israeli Neanderthals buried while French Neanderthals the subject of cannibalism, or are men more likely to be the subject of cannibalism than women? Information such as this could tell us more about Neanderthal society, and about how Neanderthals viewed the world.