Solving a long-standing mystery, researchers have demonstrated that a Neanderthal child was buried, probably around 41,000 years ago, suggesting that burial of the dead was practiced even by our ancestors.
"These new results provide important insights for the discussion about the chronology of the disappearance of the Neanderthals, and the behavioural capacity, including cultural and symbolic expression, of these humans," the authors wrote in the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.
For the study, a multi-disciplinary team led by researchers at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of the Basque Country in Spain analysed a human skeleton from one of the most famous Neanderthal sites in France: the La Ferrassie rock shelter, Dordogne.
After six Neanderthal skeletons were discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, the site delivered a seventh between 1970 and 1973, belonging to a child of around two years old.
For almost half a century, the collections associated with this specimen remained unexploited in the archives of the National Archaeological Museum, France.
Recently, a team assembled by paleoanthropologists Antoine Balzeau of CNRS and Museum national d'histoire naturelle in France and Asier Gemez-Olivencia of University of the Basque Country reopened the excavation notebooks and reviewed the material.
The study revealed 47 new human bones not identified during excavation and undoubtedly belonging to the same skeleton.
The scientists also carried out a thorough analysis of the bones: state of preservation, study of proteins, genetics, dating, etc.
The researchers showed that the skeleton had been buried in a sedimentary layer which inclined to the west -- the head, to the east, was higher than the pelvis -- while the other stratigraphic layers of the site inclined to the north-east.
The bones, which were relatively unscattered, had remained in their anatomical position.
Their preservation, better than that of the bison and other herbivores found in the same stratum, indicates a rapid burial after death, said the study.
Furthermore, the contents of this layer proved to be earlier than the surrounding sediment.
At around 41,000 years old, this makes it one of the most recent directly dated Neanderthal remains.
This new information proves that the body of this two-year-old Neanderthal child was purposefully deposited in a pit dug in a sedimentary layer around 41,000 years ago, said the study.
However, the researcher believed that further discoveries will be necessary to understand the chronology and geographical extension of Neanderthal burial practices.