Archaeologists have discovered that burial practices among early humans in Europe and Asia showed widely varying practices as to ritual and ornament. However, most were fairly plain. "We don't know why some of these burials were so ornate, but what's striking is that they postdate the arrival of modern humans in Eurasia by almost 10,000 years," said Assistant Professor Julien Riel-Salvatore, Ph.D. of the University of Colorado in Denver. He added, "When they appear around 30,000 years ago some are lavish but many aren't and over time the most elaborate ones almost disappear. So, the behavior of humans does not always go from simple to complex; it often waxes and wanes in terms of its complexity depending on the conditions people live under."
The study reveals variations among early human burials, between 10,000 and 35,000 years ago.”There seems to be little rhyme or reason to it," Riel-Salvatore said. "The main point here is that we need to be careful of using exceptional examples of ornate burials to characterize Upper Paleolithic burial practices as a whole."
Experts examined 85 burials from the Upper Paleolithic period, finding that men were buried more often than women. However, babies were buried only sporadically, if at all, in later periods. This is a practice that may be due to changes in the ability to keep infants alive, as well as subsistence and climate. The few ornate burials in Russia, Italy and the Czech Republic dating back nearly 30,000 years are anomalies. According to the study, there are not representative of most early Homo sapiens burial practices in Eurasia. "The problem is that these burials are so rare – there's just over three per thousand years for all of Eurasia – that it's difficult to draw clear conclusions about what they meant to their societies," said Riel-Salvatore.
Most of the burials were fairly plain and included mostly items of daily life as opposed to ornate burial goods. They were similar to Neanderthal graves. Both early humans and Neanderthals put bodies into pits sometimes with household items, such as pottery. During the Upper Paleolithic, this included ornaments worn before death. Often stone ornaments, teeth and shells are often found on the heads and torsos of the dead rather than the lower body, which indicates how they were likely worn in life.
"Some researchers have used burial practices to separate modern humans from Neanderthals," said Riel-Salvatore.
"But we are challenging the orthodoxy that all modern human burials were necessarily more sophisticated than those of Neanderthals." The ability to engage in symbolic behaviour, such as burial rituals, is a marker that distinguishes Neanderthals from later Homo sapiens such as Cro-Magnon. Neanderthals disappeared about 35,000 years ago – near the end of the Paleolithic.
"It's thought to be an expression of abstract thinking" Riel-Salvatore said. "But as research progresses we are finding evidence that Neanderthals engaged in practices generally considered characteristic of modern humans."
In an earlier study, Riel-Salvatore suggested that, contrary to popular belief, early humans did not exterminate Neanderthals but interbred with them and swamped them in a genetic sense. It is likely that the source of Neanderthal genetic material came largely from females. He has also suggested that Neanderthals in southern Italy adapted, innovated and created technology before contact with modern humans, something previously considered unlikely.