Burial of the Dead
There are a number of characteristics commonly associated with intelligence, or even with humanity. One of these is mourning the dead and engaging with the body in a series of rituals related to the disposal of the corpse. Today, many cultures bury or cremate their dead, often gathering for a funeral or memorial; other practices have been common throughout history. Evidence from various archaeological sites has shown that the Neanderthal people, at least some of the time, intentionally buried their dead and may have engaged in gatherings to mourn the dead.
The earliest burials may have been simple modifications of natural depressions or pits. These could be used, and covered. For archaeologists, it is relatively easy to determine natural patterns of death or decay versus intentional burial. When a body is left to decay, it will show evidence of weathering and predation. A body that is buried in the soil will not experience predation or weathering, leaving the bones in significantly better condition. This is a relatively simple way to distinguish whether bodies were left to decay in the open air, or buried in some way.
Evidence of Neanderthal burials includes both male and female adults, as well as children. The bodies show the clear influence of a supportive family or social group, in terms of caring for the sick and elderly. The inclusion of children in this practice may provide information about the value of those children to the group; even though they could not yet effectively contribute to well-being of the group, their long-term value was recognized.
Why did the Neanderthals bury their dead? Their reasons may have been purely practical. Decaying bodies would have been unpleasant to live near, and would have attracted predators and scavengers to their living space. Evidence of grave goods and limited evidence for funerary rituals makes a purely practical explanation rather unlikely. Instead, it may suggest that the Neanderthals were fully able to think through the process of burying their dead and engage in the practice for reasons that were personal and spiritual, rather than merely practical.