Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘archeology

Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead?

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The conventional answer is yes, yes they did. In fact a quick web search will reveal any number of web sites touting this or that Neanderthal burial. They were almost human, they had stone tools and other implements of human culture, they were clearly human enough to mourn their dead. Apes, dolphins, and elephants mourn their dead. Neanderthal skeletons have been found in what appear to be graves, what’s the problem? The problem is that some academics with excellent credentials challenge the view that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead in the manner of humans. The claim is that because we bury our dead in a  ritualistic fashion, we have projected that behavior onto the scant evidence that exists for Neanderthal burials.

So, what is the evidence? Well, here is where the crux of the debate is. There are a few dozen cases where deceased Neanderthals appear to have been wholly or partially buried. The problem is that none of these cases is a “smoking gun” case. There is no such thing as a Neanderthal grave that was indisputably a grave. IE, body carefully laid out surrounded by tools, adornments, food, and other obvious items placed with the the dead in their grave:


The is the Amesbury Archer. Pretty hard to call that anything but a grave. There is no comparable Neanderthal site. Some of their graves might have had flowers and such buried with the body, but even that is debatable. A few did have a few grave goods, but again, it’s debatable. Worse, much worse in my opinion, there isn’t even a  Neanderthal grave where it is clear a hole was dug, the body placed inside, and the hole refilled with the dirt from the hole. In what cases were properly investigated (archeology has made a lot of progress since the 19th century,) the bodies appear to have been placed in natural depressions, and the dead weren’t always completely buried. Well, what does it matter? It matters because scientists are trying to answer the age old question, were Neanderthals human? IE could a typical Neanderthal have learned English and conversed with us? I’ve blogged about the Neanderthal speech debate here. If Neanderthals buried their dead as humans do, wouldn’t this mean they also believed in an afterlife of some sort? At the very least it would seem to indicate an understanding of individuality and life and death in a way that humans do. That’s the argument as I understand it, and the majority of Neanderthal researchers find it reasonably compelling.

The counter argument? The Neanderthals may have been simply disposing of the bodies. Aside from the smell, they would attract carnivores and scavengers. The picture is also muddied by the fact that Neanderthal skeletons have been found with marks where meat was carved from the bone. Cannibalism or ritual defleshing? No one knows. It’s also possible that the burial-like Neanderthal “graves” that have been discovered might simply have been Neanderthals mimicking their far more successful cousins, Homo sapiens, with no clear intent other than a vague idea that copying what they do might lead to more success for their hunts. Of course this gets into another muddy area, why did the Neanderthals eventually get wiped out when they came into contact with Homo sapiens? Current thinking, which is by no means definitive, is that they simply couldn’t compete with Homo sapiens much more sophisticated hunting and food gathering abilities.

In any event there’s no overarching point to this post, other than to point out that what we know about our closest known cousins in the human lineage is still subject to debate. And while the current consensus is that Neanderthals were humans (speaking figuratively,) it’s by no means cut and dry. Complicating the debate about Neanderthal cognizance even further, they had bigger brains than humans. Yet somehow their tool use remained rather simple and primitive right up to the very end. And then of course there is the messy business of humans and Neanderthals breeding with each other. Most people alive today have some Neanderthal genes, and we didn’t get them through cannibalizing Neanderthals. What was up with that?

Maybe someday, a post on recently discovered Neanderthal art as a follow up to this post about a Neanderthal “sculpture.” More posts on weird weapons of war are definitely coming up. And no, not a single person caught the smurf reference joke. I will not be posting about smurfs.

(The above images are claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They aren’t being used for profit and are central to illustrating the post. For the top image, credit and copyright: Shanidar Burial. Image: JohnConnell, Flickr. The second image, I don’t know who holds the copyright, it’s posted all over the web. I’m guessing credit and copyright: Wessex Archeology. For more thinking on Neanderthal cognizance, this is interesting.)


Written by unitedcats

January 14, 2013 at 9:16 am

The Mask of la Roche-Cotard

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Continuing with my “strange old things” theme, here we have the Mask of la Roche-Cotard. Unlike our previous rock, this rock has been shaped by human (well, Neanderthal) hands. It’s a piece of flint about 4 inches (10 cm) tall and wide, and through a natural hole under the “nose” a piece of bone was driven and then wedged in place with two rock splinters. The shape of the original rock was further modified by chipping away to increase its resemblance to, well, something. A human face or an animal face maybe? It was made about 33,000 years ago in France, most likely by Neanderthals of the Mousterian Culture.

Is it really a face? Who knows. It seems pretty clear to me that it was deliberately created, but even that is subject to debate. If one was just throwing useless bits of bone and flint into a pile, something like this could come about by chance I suppose. The bone piece seems pretty deliberate to me though with the wedges holding it in place. And when it was new, the “eyes” would have been whiter and more noticeable. Still, some have claimed that it is not representational at all, and in fact it had some as yet undetermined practical use. In this case the resemblance to a face would have been accidental, and maybe not even noticed by the Neanderthals using the item.

So what is the significance of this discovery? Well, some background. The whole Neanderthal thing is  a mystery. The Neanderthals were our brothers, in fact it was only a few hundred thousand years ago that humans and Neanderthals diverged from a  common ancestor. Humans and Neanderthals didn’t have a whole lot of contact, but in some places we lived in close proximity for thousands of years. They made stone tools, buried their dead, and were really into eating meat. They may have had language, ornamentation such as body paint and jewellery, and music. They definitely interbred with humans, the gentle reader no doubt has at least some Neanderthal DNA in him or her. So the big question remains, could a human have sat down with a Neanderthal and had a philosophical discussion, or were they little more than tool using apes?

And this is what the Mask of la Roche-Cotard may hint at. If it was made by a Neanderthals as a representation of a face, it shows a cognizance of self identity that animals simply don’t possess. In fact I would argue that it shows that Neanderthals were human in every sense of the word. Were they?  My suspicion is that they were human, and this mask is an example of such.  I think it was just kids playing around, or an adult playing with kids, in either case it was someone constructing this to impress, maybe even as a joke, their fellows. It’s also possible that it was made by a single Neanderthal genius, and not representational of the typical Neanderthal.

Will we ever really know? In regards to this particular artifact, probably not. Still, our relationship with Neanderthals is important. They were both our brothers … and aliens. How we related to them may be a harbinger of how we will relate to true aliens if we ever meet them. It’s still not known why the Neanderthal line failed and our line thrived. Their brains were as large as ours, maybe even larger. Yet somehow they never made it out of the Stone Age, the last ones disappearing just as humans were starting to make cave art. The Neanderthals didn’t even cave art, this mask may be the only self portrait of a Neanderthal that we will ever have.

I think that’s both amazing and sad.

(The above image is claimed as Public Domain under US copyright light, the original creator of the work having been dead some 30,000 years.)



Written by unitedcats

April 12, 2011 at 8:03 am

The Mysterious Nazca Lines, both an Enduring Archeological Mystery, and an Inspiration for Crackpot Thinkers Everywhere

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I’m really having trouble finding ancient historical and earth mysteries to write about. So so so many of them turn out to be not so mysterious. The Coso Artifact, a million year old spark plug? Nope, a 1920s spark plug. The Kensington Stone, proof Vikings made it to Minnesota before Columbus? Nope, proof Scandinavian hoaxers were active in Minnesota in the nineteenth century. It’s depressing, especially when so many web sites repeat incredible and long refuted claims as if they were fact. Still, there is some wheat amid the chaff. And some of that wheat is the Nazca Lines. The lines are real, they were made by a pre-Columbian peoples, and they are mysterious.

OK, what are the Nazca Lines? Well, there’s this big dry desert in Peru. It’s covered with rocks. One scrapes away the rocks and exposes the white soil, and voila, a Nazca Line. And since it only rains a few minutes a year there, the lines have lasted over 1,000 years. They depict all sorts of things, plants, animals, geometric forms. Above is a dog or dog-like thing. The artists were clearly not striving for verisimilitude, the drawings tend to be very stylized. And for the record, there’s nothing mysterious about their construction, they were easily made by modest numbers of people using the simplest of tools. Nor is there anything unexplained about what the lines depict, there are no dinosaurs, aliens, or high technology depicted.

What is mysterious is why they were made. The people making them couldn’t fly so they had no way of “seeing” they animals and such they were drawing. Were they drawing meant to be seen by Gods? That’s about the best anyone has come up with so far. And the attendant idea that there may have been rituals involved. In other words, they were big outdoor churches or something along those lines. Works for me. At least one archaeologist has claimed the lines functioned as some sort of observatory. Few if any experts in archeoastronomy agree, so that idea didn’t get off the ground so to speak. After that the ideas get a lot fringier a lot faster. Yes, Von Däniken popularized the idea that UFOs had something to do with the Nazca lines. Since there’s no evidence for this, and no mysteries about how the lines were constructed, I think we can safely rule UFOs out.

It’s also been suggested that the Nazca had hot air balloons, and thus could see the lines from the sky as they were supposed to be seen. On the one hand, the Nazca people did have fabrics that would have been suitable for making balloons. And it’s not exactly rocket science to build a hot air balloon. However, the complete absence of anything even remotely resembling a balloon depicted anywhere in South America’s archaeological record makes that idea pretty hard to swallow. Not impossible, but until we find a rock carving of a balloon or one preserved in a  tomb or some such, I think the balloon idea  can safely be ruled out.

Finally, the question remains, why go through all that trouble? I mean, these figures and lines cover a huge area, tens of square miles. Did people really need to go through all that trouble for ritual purposes? Well, they thought so. Here I can only point to the fact that it’s not unusual in many ancient cultures for there to have been huge construction projects with little or no practical purpose behind them. And it’s not hard from there to conclude that the real purpose was to keep the unwashed masses busy so they didn’t have time to sit around and wonder why the priests and leaders got all the good stuff while the peasants laboured. Granted, this may not have been the conscious plan, the priests may have actually believed that they were guaranteeing that the crops would grow and the Sun would rise by having these figures and lines etched into the land.

Can people really be that illogical? Yes, yes they can. For example, tens of millions of Americans, a modern people with a modern educational system (or so we are told,) literally believe that the Earth is just 7,000 years old and that people and dinosaurs co-existed. And they believe this because it says so in the Bible., despite the overwhelming incontrovertible evidence that it just aint so. In other words it’s perfectly normal for huge segments of even “modern” cultures to believe in superstitious nonsense, so there’s no reason to get too worked up if it appears to be what happened in some ancient culture. It follows then  that superstition is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the Nazca lines, even if we don’t know the exact details of their beliefs.

My theory, after seeing the dog above, is that the Nazca were trying to make God laugh.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, it is central to illustrating the post, and the original artist has been dead for over 1,000 years. I apologize for not getting a post out Monday, I was delayed on a business trip. Coming next, maybe some nice history posts as I munch popcorn and wait for the fireworks to begin in Iran.)

Written by unitedcats

July 13, 2010 at 6:44 am