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Cave remains offer new insights into Paleolithic mortuary rituals

Researchers found the organized remains of ancient humans in abandoned bear nests inside a cave in southwestern France. Photo by Sacha Kacki, et al./PNAS
Researchers found the organized remains of ancient humans in abandoned bear nests inside a cave in southwestern France. Photo by Sacha Kacki, et al./PNAS

June 15 (UPI) -- Ancient human remains found in a French cave have offered researchers new insights into the mortuary rituals of humans during the Paleolithic period.

The cave, found in southwestern France at the end of the last century, was originally occupied by members of the Gravettian culture, approximately 30,000 years ago.

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The hunter-gatherers were prolific cave artists; scientists have found more than 800 engravings inside the Grotte de Cussac cave. These early humans also carved Venus figurines and performed elaborate burial rituals.

Now, paleontologists have gained new insights into the ways the Paleolithic people handled the deceased prior to burial, detailing their discoveries in a new paper published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Because contact with the remains inside the cave is forbidden, researchers analyzed photographs and 3D photogrammetric models.

Deep inside a branch of the cave, scientists found a male skeleton placed in the bowl-like depression of a former bear nest. In another two abandoned bear nests, researchers found the remains of two more ancient humans, their bones sorted anatomically.

The team of paleontologists also observed the bones of at least three other individuals, sorted and place in hollows along the cave walls. Their analysis suggests the bones are sorted by lower and upper extremities.

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"Gravettian mortuary practices provide a key perspective on social complexity during the Upper Paleolithic," researchers wrote in their paper. "Such inferences have been drawn mostly from the formal burials relatively abundant for this period."

Burials themselves can only offer so much insight into the ways ancient humans processed the dead. The latest research revealed the ways members of the Gravettian culture processed the dead prior to burial.

"These bone accumulations correspond to several forms of deposition -- a whole body, body parts on the surface, and dry bones in bear nests -- plus displacement and removal of elements that indicate diverse and complex mortuary behaviors," scientists wrote. "The exceptional preservation during millennia of these surficial deposits illustrates steps of a mortuary landscape that are beyond reach in more usual Upper Paleolithic burial sites."

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