Study casts doubt on belief that Neanderthals held burial rituals for their dead

A new study has suggested that Neanderthals did not hold burial rituals as previously thought.

Over recent decades the scientific community has learned that Neanderthals were far more culturally advanced than many first realised and some studies suggested that they held burial rituals for their dead. But a new paper co-authored by a Keele psychologist has called this theory into question.

Archaeological evidence has shown that the distant human ancestor Homo neanderthalensis was capable of more complex cognitive and cultural thought than previously realised, and the most famous example of a burial ritual is a skeleton found in modern day Iraqi Kurdistan which had been buried with flowers.

But in a new theoretical paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biology, Keele’s Dr Rohan Kapitany and his co-authors have examined the current evidence and cast doubt on the suggestion that Neanderthals held these burial rituals, despite being capable of ritualistic behaviour.

The authors - experts from the fields of archaeology, cultural and developmental psychology - have examined the current archaeological evidence from the perspective of modern cognitive psychology, to judge how accurate it is to suggest that Neanderthals behaved in this way.

After studying the evidence, Dr Kapitany and his colleagues concluded that although they may have had a capacity for ritualistic behaviours, Neanderthals were unlikely to have actually held collective rituals as we would perceive them today, with the researchers noting that “rituals” and “burials” are two separate things.

Dr Kapitany said that although much of the research into Neanderthal culture has attempted to expand their cultural and cognitive capacities, he and his colleagues believe that social rituals like burials were something that evolved later in Homo sapiens and are therefore a uniquely human construct, which raises the question of why these behaviours arose so much later in our evolution.

However, they also argue that Neanderthals’ capability for ritualistic action was essential for their ability to make and use tools, which has implications for understanding how human and human-like minds created tools, thereby advancing their own welfare as a result.

Dr Kapitany said: “The distinction between ritual and ritualistic is not always clear. Neanderthals didn’t hold cultural rituals with complex symbologies, but it’s likely they exploited ritualistic action to make actions more salient and memorable, and thus their technologies more transmissible. It would be fantastic if we could find clear cut evidence of rituals in Neanderthals, but so far I’m not sure we can say we have.”