WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 (Xinhua) -- Neanderthals, forerunners to modern humans, may bury their dead intentionally in an ancient funerary practice, an international team of archaeologists said Monday after a 13-year study of remains discovered in southwestern France.
Their findings, published in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirmed that burials took place in western Europe prior to the arrival of modern humans.
"This discovery not only confirms the existence of Neanderthal burials in Western Europe, but also reveals a relatively sophisticated cognitive capacity to produce them," William Rendu, the study's lead author and a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences in New York, said in a statement.
The findings focused on Neanderthal remains first discovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France.
According to the researchers, the well-preserved bones led its early 20th-century excavators to posit that the site marked a burial ground created by a predecessor to early modern humans. However, their conclusions have sparked controversy in the scientific community ever since, with skeptics maintaining that the discovery had been misinterpreted and that the burial may not have been intentional.
Beginning in 1999, Rendu and his collaborators, including researchers from the University of Bordeaux and Archeosphere, a private research firm, began excavating seven other caves in the area.
In this excavation, which concluded in 2012, the researchers found more Neanderthal remains, including two children and one adult, along with bones of bison and reindeer.
While they did not find tool marks or other evidence of digging where the initial skeleton was unearthed in 1908, geological analysis of the cave in which the remains were found suggests that it was not a natural feature of the cave floor, the researchers said.
As part of their analysis, the study's authors also re-examined the human remains found in 1908. In contrast to the reindeer and bison remains at the site, the Neanderthal remains contained few cracks, no weathering-related smoothing, and no signs of disturbance by animals, they said.
"The relatively pristine nature of these 50,000-year-old remains implies that they were covered soon after death, strongly supporting our conclusion that Neanderthals in this part of Europe took steps to bury their dead," said Rendu. "While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic, the discovery reduces the behavioral distance between them and us."