In the first, bones of 28 individuals of different ages of the species Homo heidelbergensis were found, some ancestors of the Neanderthals who lived in this area of the Serra de Burgos 400,000 years ago. In 2012, Juan Luis Arsuaga, one of the directors of the Atapuerca deposit, stated that “it would be the first sanctuary of humanity” and that Sima de los Huesos was “the oldest proof of funerary behavior and collective accumulation” of human fossil remains. The discovery, along with the corpses, of Excalibur, a reddish hatchet made with an infrequent material in the area, was interpreted as a tribute to the dead that would strengthen the hypothesis of burial with symbolic meaning.
The case of the South African deposit is even more surprising. Heidelbergensis are in the line of direct ancestors of Neanderthals and their skull is already large in size. The case of Homo naledi, the species found in Rising Star, is very different. It had a skull of only 500 cubic centimeters, less than half that of a heidelbergensis. In fact, before the remains were accurately dated, their anatomical characteristics led them to think that they had lived two million years ago. The dating revealed that, despite some supposedly primitive characteristics, they existed less than 300,000 years ago, long after the death of the humans found in Sima de los Huesos.
In the Sima de los Huesos, the remains of 28 individuals of different ages who died 400,000 years ago were found
To get to the chamber where the bones were found, it was necessary to walk 80 meters of cave, climb a wall and descend through a narrow crack. A path in the darkness that seems the only one through which the bones of those elders, adults and children were taken there. In addition, none have any signs of having been devoured by any animal, as in the Burgos deposit.
The absence of other samples of symbolic behavior, such as paintings or sculpted figures, that can be associated without any doubt to these two species, puts in doubt that it is a voluntary burial by individuals concerned with the fate of the dead. In addition, this same week an article was published in the PNAS magazine that even suggests that the unexpected accumulation of human fossils may be accidental.
An international team of scientists led by Charles Egeland, from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, used an artificial intelligence system to compare the accumulation of human remains from Atapuerca and Rising Star with other deposits in which there were undoubtedly human burials and accumulations. of animal bones that were casual. Then, “using learning algorithms like those used by Amazon to predict customer behavior or those used in autonomous cars, we ask them to interpret what Sima de los Huesos is and what the naledis deposit is”, explains Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid and co-author of the study.
Frans de Waal considers that if chimpanzees stayed in the same place for a long time, they would also hide the corpses
The results of these cyber simulations indicate that the accumulations of fossils from the Spanish and South African archaeological sites are similar to those of human remains that had been consumed as carrion and to those of baboons that died naturally and whose remains later ended up in a cave. The authors of the paper clarify that their results do not refute the human origin of the accumulations of heidelbergensis and naledis, but suggest that they may be the result of a casual accumulation or partly influenced by animals that have devoured the bodies of the deceased.
“What the study unambiguously highlights is that the current interpretation by Atapuerca’s team that Sima is an anthropic accumulation with minimal impact from carnivores has to be rejected. The study shows that this accumulation is either natural or, if it is anthropic, it has undergone a considerable alteration of carnivores, which forces us to investigate what carnivore it would have been, since bears normally hardly change the bones ”, concludes Domínguez Rodrigo. He considers that “the evidence does not allow to assure that one of the two accumulations was carried out by hominids” and more exhaustive studies will be necessary to confirm if any of these species had an awareness of mortality similar to ours.
Without new discoveries relating these species that lived more than 300,000 years ago with symbolic behaviors, although it can be said with some confidence that it was humans who threw their counterparts into those wells, it will continue to be difficult to ensure that they did so as part of a ritual to facilitate their passage to another world or bring relief to those who stayed in this one. As Frans de Waal recalled in an article on the subject, if animals like chimpanzees were to sit in the same place for a long time, they would realize that corpses attract dangerous predators. “I would not exceed