Funerary practices are those actions taken with the remains of deceased human beings.When referring to such ancient history, it is prudent to speak of funerary gestures or practices rather than rituals, attempting to analyse verifiable facts such as the marks on bones from which the flesh has been removed, the treatment of the body before inhumation or other perimortem handling of the bodies. Our current state of knowledge makes it impossible to confirm or rule out any of the current hypotheses regarding their origin (anthropophagy, ritual cannibalism, symbolic or ritual treatment of the remains, etc.).
It appears obvious from the act of interring the body that the deceased person was considered to be important to the community, which concerned itself with ensuring their journey to the next life after their earthly body had ceased to be of use.
The inhumations documented to date are in caves and tend to be individual, although some collective graves are known.
The Neanderthal groups have left us evidence of this relationship with those who have gone on to the afterlife. At Kebara in Israel the pit burial of a person in anatomical connection is documented; in France, three individuals are documented in the Abri de La Ferrassie, and a woman is documented at Chapelle-aux-Saints or Regourdou. Neanderthal burials have also been documented in Germany, Russia and Iraq, the last of which is the location of the very well-known tomb of Shanidar.
On the Iberian Peninsula there are more than 25 archaeological sites with documented Neanderthal human remains. In terms of the documented number of individuals, of particular note are the cave archaeological sites at Sidrón (Asturias) and Las Palomas (Murcia). In the latter, the remains of at least four individuals were documented. In the former, a minimum of eight individuals has been confirmed among the more than 1,400 documented remains. They show a high rate of bone fracturing caused both by post-depositional movement and anthropic action; according to their researchers, they show evidence of cannibalism.
A case that is both interesting and complex is that of the remains of infant individuals found in the Cova Negra in Xàtiva (Valencia). They are from an old excavation, with all the documentation challenges that entails. According to their researcher (Villaverde, 2010) “it is not easy to explain the conservation of such fragile infant remains, unless they had been protected by earth. In this respect, it is well known that one of the most reiterated arguments used in attempting to resolve the controversy of whether or not the Neanderthals buried their dead is the difficulty of explaining how a relatively large number of skeletons of immature or newborn individuals could have been preserved if they had not been protected from carnivores and scavengers by burial”.
Picture: Remains of infant skulls. © V. Villaverde