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Two accumulations of human fossils of more than 300,000 years were the work of humans with symbolic intent?
For millennia, human beings believed themselves to be the center of the universe, the chosen people who had inherited the Earth. Then the story began to change. Evolutionary theories showed that we shared ancestors with all the animals that populate the planet and astronomers placed us on the periphery of one of billions of galaxies. But after taking us out of the center of creation, scientists, who do not dislike the human ego, on the contrary, tried to understand what separates us from the rest of living beings, what makes us special.
Our reaction to death seems to be one of those characteristics. There are other animals that lament when someone close to them dies, that takes comfort and knows that what happened is irreversible. But none honor their dead with complex human rituals. For now, in addition to our species, only Neanderthals seem to enjoy (or suffer) the capacity for abstraction and sufficient prediction to assume their mortality and that of their counterparts and act with the solemnity that this knowledge requires.
The first to speak of funerary rituals performed by a species other than Homo sapiens were the brothers Jean and Amédée Bouyssonie, two Catholic priests who in 1908 discovered the remains of a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal in the La Chapelle-aux-Saints grave in France . According to the Bouyssonies, the fetal position of the body and the tools that accompanied it in the ditch where they found it indicated an intentional burial. Speculating, they suggested that the authors of that ritual had symbolic capacity and believed in an afterlife. The brothers’ priestly condition and doubts about their excavation techniques made other scientists of greater prestige disdain their hypothesis. However, an article published in 2013 in PNAS magazine suggested that, at the very least, the relatives of that old Neanderthal buried him intentionally and carefully.
In 1908, two Catholic priests found the remains of a Neanderthal who, according to them, had been buried according to beliefs in life beyond death
At the beginning of the last century, Neanderthals were still seen as brute, oblivious to the intellectual glories of humanity. Since then, archaeological finds have revealed them as a species very close to ours, to which the first work of art in history is attributed. At the moment, the only animals capable of doing something similar to what we would consider a funeral are the humans and Neanderthals of the last 100,000 years.
In the tasks of defining the human family, it seems difficult to reject Neanderthals, but when it comes to going beyond that, doubts increase. In this cloudy territory are two surprising archaeological sites, the Sima de los Huesos de Atapuerca, in Burgos (in northern Spain), and the Rising Star cave, 50 kilometers from Johannesburg (South Africa).