(CNN)Is burying the dead a practice unique to Homo sapiens? Or did other early humans such as Neanderthals lay their loved ones to rest under the earth?
It's a topic of long-standing debate among archaeologists. Now, evidence of funerary behavior could shed light on the cognitive abilities and social customs of Neanderthals and whether, like modern humans, they were capable of symbolic thought.
Dozens of buried Neanderthal skeletons have been discovered in Europe and parts of Asia over the course of 150 years. The most well-preserved ones, however, were found at the beginning of the 20th century and weren't excavated using modern methods. This has led to skepticism about whether Neanderthal burial practice was deliberate.
A new analysis of a 41,000 year-old skeleton of a Neanderthal child, found in a French cave in the 1970s, provides fresh evidence that the Stone Age hominins intentionally buried their dead.
French and Spanish researchers re-examined the remains using modern high-tech methods, re-excavated the original archaeological site where the bones were found in La Ferrassie, southwestern France, and reviewed the notebooks and field diaries from the original dig.
Their conclusion? The corpse of a 2-year-old Neanderthal was deliberately laid in a pit dug in the sediment.
The absence of marks from carnivores who may have tried to scavenge an uncovered body and the fact that the bones were relatively unscattered with little weathering suggested that the body was rapidly covered, the researchers said. The remains were also well preserved (better than the bones from animals found in the same layer of earth) despite belonging to a child. Children's skeletons typically have more delicate bones.
The position of the skeleton also suggested the child had been placed there intentionally. The head, which pointed to the east, was raised higher than the rest of the body even though the land inclined to the west.