The earliest discovered burial sites are those of Neanderthal man, though according to researcher George Constable, they "were not credited with deliberate meaningful burial of their dead until more than a half-century after their discovery." The well-known anthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leaky said of the discoveries that their grave sites were intentional and thus indicates the Neanderthals displayed a keen self-awareness and a concern for the human spirit.

Many burial sites have been discovered in Europe and the Near East. The placement of the remains reveals ritualistic elements, as the cadavers were found in a sleeping or fetal position. Some remains have also been found with plants or flowers, placed in the hands or the body, and sometimes with red pigment, possibly used in a symbolic rite. Some Neanderthals were found buried together in a group, meaning that entire family groups remained united after death.

One of the most interesting burial sites contained remains that had been carefully placed in the fetal position on a bedding of woody horsetail, a regional plant. This particular Neanderthal was also buried with several varieties of flowers. Leaky stated that the flowers were arranged deliberately as the body was being covered. Apparently the family and friends of the deceased gathered the distinct species of flowers, carried them to the grave, and carefully placed them on the body.

An analysis of the flower specimens revealed them to be cornflowers, St. Banaby's thistle, and grape hyacinths, among other plants. Many of the plants found have curative qualities that range from pain relief to inflammation suppression. It is not known if Neanderthals were advanced enough to realize the exact medicinal properties of the plants to their specific uses, or if this was only a coincidental placement of flowers and herbs. Or perhaps they were honoring a special person of the tribe, such as a medicine man or shaman. Regardless, it is evident that Neanderthal man was much more complex than he was given credit for.

According to anthropologist F. Clark Howell the flexed position of the body, and discoveries of other sites where stone slabs were placed over the Neanderthal graves, along with food and tools, suggests that Neanderthal man believed in life after death. Their concept of the afterlife must not have been that much different than the life they experienced on earth; they provided the dead with food, tools, and other everyday items, much like the Egyptians did for their journey to the next life. Death to the Neanderthals may have even been regarded as a kind of sleep, perhaps like a rest before a rebirth, as corpses were carefully positioned in the fetal state.


Burial, Ritual, Religion, and Cannibalism. http://thunder.indstate.edu/~ramanank/ritual.html. 10 July 2001.

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