Evidence for a likely 50,000-year-old Neanderthal burial ground that includes the remains of at least three individuals has been unearthed in Spain, according to a Quaternary International paper.
The deceased appear to have been intentionally buried, with each Neanderthal's arms folded such that the hands were close to the head. Remains of other Neanderthals have been found in this position, suggesting that it held meaning.
Neanderthals therefore may have conducted burials and possessed symbolic thought before modern humans had these abilities. The site, Sima de las Palomas in Murcia, Southeast Spain, may also be the first known Neanderthal burial ground of Mediterranean Europe.
"We cannot say much (about the skeletons) except that we surmise the site was regarded as somehow relevant in regard to the remains of deceased Neanderthals," lead author Michael Walker told Discovery News. "Their tools and food remains, not to mention signs of fires having been lit, which we have excavated indicate they visited the site more than once."
Walker, a professor in the Department of Zoology and Physical Anthropology at the University of Murcia, and his colleagues have been working at the site for some time. So far they have found buried articulated skeletons for a young adult female, a juvenile or child, and an adult -- possibly male -- Neanderthal.
"We cannot say whether these three individuals were related, though it is likely," he said, explaining that DNA has been denatured due to high ambient temperatures. "Surely the child was related to one of the others, though."
The three skeletons represent some of the best-preserved, and most methodically excavated remains of Neanderthals.
"Such discoveries are extraordinarily uncommon," Walker said.
The Neanderthals were found covered together with rocks burying their remains. The researchers believe it's likely that other Neanderthals intentionally placed the rocks over the bodies from a height. While it cannot be ruled out that an accident killed the three individuals, the scientists believe that wasn't the case.
"I think there is just enough evidence at Sima de las Palomas to think that three articulated skeletons are unlikely to have been the result of a single random accident to three cadavers that somehow escaped the ravages of hyenas and leopards, which were present at the site," Walker said.
Unburnt bones of two articulated panther paws were embedded in rock "in an area where the rest of the animal's skeleton was conspicuous by its absence notwithstanding its proximity to the human skeletons," the authors write.
The researchers speculate that a Neanderthal cut off the panther paws and kept them. It is also possible that the paws were added to the bodies before burial, perhaps holding some ritual significance.
The remains of six to seven other Neanderthals, including one baby and two juveniles, have also been excavated at the site. The tallest individual appears to have been an adult who stood around 5'1".
Erik Trinkaus, a professor of physical anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, is one of the world's leading experts on Neanderthals. He told Discovery News that "it is certainly possible that they (the Neanderthals at Sima de las Palomas) were buried."
He said a few dozen documented Neanderthal burials from Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia have already been documented.
Trinkaus added that the Neanderthal remains from Spain will "provide us with our first glimpse of overall Neanderthal body form in Southern Europe, as well as additional specimens for a number of aspects of Neanderthal biology."
© 2012 Discovery Channel