cultura muerte neandertales humanos modernos Nohemi Sala culture death neanderthals humans

Does the culture of death predate the Neanderthals and modern humans?

Does the culture of death predate the Neanderthals and modern humans?

The CENIEH researcher Nohemi Sala has been awarded 1.5 million euros by the European Research Council through an ERC-Starting Grant, to scour the fossil record for the roots and evolution of our ancestors' funerary behavior.

cultura muerte neandertales humanos modernos Nohemi Sala
Nohemi Sala, ERC-Starting Grant proyect IP.Credits: N. Sala

All societies existing today possess some kind of funerary culture, and this is one of the behaviors that takes us closest to how complex the human mind is. However, the emergence of this behavior is one of the most controversial topics in the field of human evolution. When did our ancestors start to acquire a culture of death? How was this behavior manifested over time and space? Did this practice appear independently in different species?

There are different ways to tackle these questions, and the more specific one of whether the culture ofdeath precedes Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. To date, analyses in Paleolithic archaeology have centered on the archaeological context: that is, whether skeletons are preserved completely, the existence of a grave cut or whether objects that could be interpreted as symbolic elements or grave goods are present. This vision restricts funerary behavior almost exclusively to burials, something that was exceptionally rare before the Late Pleistocene, which began 127,000 years ago.

Thus, there is a need to find new methodological approaches so that what has been preserved up to our own time is right at the center: human bones. The European fossil record is a fundamental source of information due to the abundance of fossil skeletons. This is where forensic taphonomy, a discipline that can help to shed light on fundamental issues in this field, comes in. Applying this would be something like carrying out “autopsies” of human fossils to try to learn how they died and, above all, what happened to the remains of the individual between death and modern excavation.

This line of research has crystallized in a project entitled DEATHREVOL. The roots and evolution of the culture-of-death. A taphonomic research of the European Paleolithic record, which has been selected to receive financing under the European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program, and which will be conducted over the next five years at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH).

“This is the first large-scale project centering on an exhaustive taphonomic study of the European fossil record”, explains the CENIEH taphonomy specialist Sala, a member of the Atapuerca research team and a researcher under the Juan de la Cierva-Incorporación program, who has obtained 1.5 million euros in funding for this project submitted to the 2020 call.

Carrying this out will require the participation of a large team of academics and a network of methods which include taphonomic analyses, virtual reconstructions for forensic analyses, studying spatial distribution patterns, the overall relations between different sites and mathematical models to interconnect the broad spectrum of data compiled.

Highly competitive projects

The European Research Council (ERC) projects known as “Starting Grants” are aimed at early-career researchers with post-doctoral experience of between 2 and 7 years, who have an outstanding research record and submit an excellent scientific project on the frontiers of knowledge. These are considered the most prestigious awards in the sphere of European research and, therefore, are highly competitive.

In the 2020 call, 436 researchers from 25 countries in the European Union and associated countries were selected, and 23 of the projects will be conducted at Spanish research centers. Of these 23, four are in the field of humanities and only one is centered on Paleoanthropology.


Press release from CENIEH on the Starting Grant for the research about the culture of death preceding Neanderthals and modern humans.

Amud 9 neandertal

Amud 9 is shown to be a Neandertal woman weighing 60 kg who lived in the Late Pleistocene

Amud 9 is shown to be a Neandertal woman weighing 60 kg who lived in the Late Pleistocene

The CENIEH researcher Adrián Pablos co-leads a paper on the morphology of a foot found at Amud Cave in Israel, establishing that this fossil known as Amud 9 can be taxonomically attributed as Neandertal, and obtaining this individual's sex, weight and height.
Amud 9 neandertal
Fósiles de Amud 9. Credits: Osborjn M. Pearson y Adrián Pablos

Adrián Pablos, a scientist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), co-leads a paper published in PaleoAnthropology, the official journal of the PaleoAnthropology Society, looking at the morphology and anatomy of a partial foot recovered over 25 years ago at Amud Cave (Israel), which confirms that the individual Amud 9 was a Neandertal woman from the Late Pleistocene, with a stature of some 160-166 cm and weight of 60 kg.

Over the course of several excavations conducted in the twentieth century at Amud Cave, remains of at least 15 Neandertals were found. A systematic and detailed study of one of these individuals, Amud 9, has found that the fossil possesses the traits usually associated with Neanderthals in the different elements of the foot, tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges, which differ from those of modern humans, both fossil and recent.

“Most of these traits are related to the typical, exceptional robustness of the postcranial skeleton, that is, from the neck down, observed in the majority of Neandertals”, explains Pablos.

Sex, weight and height

Sex, weight and height estimates in fossil populations are normally based on the dimensions of the large leg bones. However, in the case of Amud 9, only a fragment of tibia, the talus or ankle bone, one metatarsal or instep bone, and several phalanges are conserved.

As no long leg bones have been found, the researchers applied different mathematical estimates based upon the foot bones, thus obtaining an approximation to important paleobiological parameters.

“Knowing parameters such as the body size and sex of this individual helps us learn a bit more about what the Neandertals were like”, he says.

The participants in this paper, entitled A partial Neandertal foot from the Late Middle Paleolithic of Amud Cave, Israel, are researchers from Spain (the CENIEH), the United States (University of New Mexico and Arizona State University), and Israel (Tel Aviv University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

Full bibliographic information

Pearson, O.M., Pablos, A., Rak, Y., Hovers, E., 2020. A partial Neandertal foot from the Late Middle Paleolithic of Amud cave, Israel. PaleoAnthropology 2020, 98-125.
Press release from CENIEH

The settlement of Europe could be the result of several immigration waves by a single population

The settlement of Europe could be the result of several immigration waves by a single population

The CENIEH conducts the morphological and metric analysis of the lower molars in the mandible from Montmaurin-La Niche (France) using micro-computed tomography, to study the origin of the Neanderthals.
settlement Europe immigration population
Montmaurin-La Niche mandible/M. Martínez de Pinillos

The Dental Anthropology Group of the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), in collaboration with the paleoanthropologist Amélie Vialet of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) in Paris, has just published a detailed external and internal study of the molars in the mandible from the French site of Montmaurin-La Niche in the Journal of Human Evolution, whose results strengthen the hypothesis that the settlement of Europe could have been the result of several waves of migration at different times by a common source population.

The aim in this paper, led by the researchers Marina Martínez de Pinillos (CENIEH) and Laura Martín-Francés (CENIEH and PACEA-University of Bordeaux), is to shed light on the origin of the Neanderthals. The latest data obtained from paleontological and geomorphological studies place the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible in a chronologically intermediate position between the fossils of the Middle Pleistocene and the Neanderthals.

The micro-computed axial tomography (microCT) technique has enabled the molars in this mandible to be compared with the external and internal structures of over 400 other molars from the European, Asian and African Pleistocene and Holocene.

This exhaustive metric and morphological analysis has revealed that, while the mandible is more closely related to African and Eurasian populations from the Early and Middle Pleistocene, the enamel and dentine morphology and pulp cavity proportions are similar to those in Neanderthals. “Nevertheless, the absolute and relative enamel thickness values (2D and 3D) show greater affinity with those exhibited by certain Early Pleistocene hominins”, says Martínez de Pinillos.

Possible hybridization

Over recent decades, finds of human fossil remains from the European Middle Pleistocene have prompted the debate on the evolutionary scenario of the genus Homo on that continent to be reopened. “The great variability we find among the European Middle Pleistocene fossils cannot be ignored in studying human evolution on our continent”, states Martín-Francés.

This variability in European Middle Pleistocene populations could indicate different migrations at different times and/or fragmentation of the population, thought it might also be due to possible hybridization between residents and new settlers.

Montmaurin-La Niche mandible/M. Martínez de Pinillos

Full bibliographic information

Martínez de Pinillos, M., Martín-Francés, L., Bermúdez de Castro, J. M., García-Campos, C., Modesto-Mata, M., Martinón-Torres, M., & Vialet, A. (2020). Inner morphological and metric characterization of the molar remains from the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible: the Neanderthal signal. Journal of Human Evolution, 145, 102739. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2019.102739.
Press release on the settlement of Europe due to immigration waves from a common source population from CENIEH

A study proposes the low genetic diversity of the Neanderthals as the principal cause of their extinction

New data support the theory of low genetic diversity of Neanderthals as the main cause of their extinction

Atles (Kr.98) recovered from the Krapina site that presents the anatomical variant known as Unclosed Transverse Foramen

What caused the disappearance of Homo neanderthalensis, a species that apparently had as many capabilities as Homo sapiens? There are several theories that try to explain it: climate, competition with Homo sapiens, low genetic diversity... A study in which the Universitat de València is participating analyses the first cervical vertebra of several Neanderthals and confirms that the genetic diversity of the population was low, which made it difficult for them to adapt to possible changes in the environment and, therefore, to survive. The research has been published in the Journal of Anatomy.

Professor Juan Alberto Sanchis Gimeno, from the Department of Human Anatomy and Embryology of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry of the Universitat de València; the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN-CSIC), and the National Centre for Research on Human Evolution (CENIEH) have participated in the study. Three vertebrae from the Krapina site (Croatia) have been analysed and material from other sites has been reviewed.

Neanderthals inhabited the European continent until barely 30,000 years ago and their disappearance remains a mystery. In order to know their genetic diversity, work has been done to decipher their genome, but also to analyze different anatomical characteristics of the fossil record of the species. "In this study we have focused on the anatomical variants of the first cervical vertebra, known as the atlas. The anatomical variants of this vertebra have a high relationship with genetic diversity: the higher the prevalence of this type of anatomical variants, the lower the population genetic diversity", explains MNCN researcher Carlos A. Palancar.

In Homo sapiens the anatomical variants of the atlas have been widely studied in recent years. In the case of modern humans, the atlas shows some of the different anatomical variants in almost 30% of cases. "However, probably due to the poor preservation of this cervical vertebra and the little material recovered in the fossil record, the atlas of Neanderthals have hardly been observed under this magnifying glass," says Juan Alberto Sanchis Gimeno, a researcher at the Universitat de València.

Recently, researchers from the MNCN Paleonanthropology Group determined the presence of different anatomical variants in the atlases of the Neandertals from the El Sidrón site (Asturias). In order to confirm the high prevalence of anatomical variants of this species, they thoroughly analyzed the fossil atlases of the Neandertals from the Krapina site (Croatia). "Krapina is a site of about 130,000 years old, compared to about 50,000 years old in El Sidrón. It is the site from which the largest number of Neanderthal remains have been recovered, which makes it a sample of special interest in the analysis of the genetic diversity of this species since potentially all the individuals belonged to the same population," points out Daniel García-Martínez, researcher at the CENIEH.

The study of the anatomy of the three atlases recovered in this site has revealed the presence of anatomical variants in two of them (66%). One of them, known as Unclosed Transverse Foramen, UTF, has a prevalence of only 10% in modern humans. "Checking the presence of these anatomical variants in Krapina, together with the review of other atlases presented to the scientific community that have not been analyzed under this perspective until now and that yield similar data (more than 50%), suggests that the number of variants in Neanderthals is significantly higher than that of current humans," says Palancar.

"These data support the theory that their genetic diversity was very low and confirm that this could be one of the causes of their disappearance," concludes MNCN researcher Markus Bastir.

Press release from Asociación RUVID; Source: Universidad de Valencia

A study proposes the low genetic diversity of the Neanderthals as the principal cause of their extinction

The CENIEH has participated in a paper published in the Journal of Anatomy on the first cervical vertebra, atlas, of several Neanderthals from the Krapina site (Croatia), which confirms that the genetic diversity of these populations was low

Neanderthals extinction
Atlas from Neanderthals found in Krapina site. Credits: Carlos A. Palancar et al

What caused the disappearance of Homo neanderthalensis, a species which apparently possessed as many capacities as Homo sapiens? There are several theories attempting to explain this: the climate, competition, low genetic diversity… Daniel Garcia Martínez, a researcher at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has participated in a study published in the Journal of Anatomy, on the first cervical vertebra of several Neanderthals, which confirms that the genetic diversity of the population was low, thus hampering their capacity to adapt to possible changes in their environment and, therefore, their survival.

The Neanderthals inhabited the European continent until barely 30,000 years ago, and their disappearance continues to be a mystery. Work to decipher their genome has been carried out to determine their genetic diversity, as have analyses of different anatomical characteristics in the fossil record of the species.

“We have centered on the anatomical variants of the first cervical vertebra, known as the atlas. The anatomical variants of this vertebra are tightly bound up with genetic diversity: the greater the prevalence of this kind of anatomical variant, the lower the population genetic diversity", explains Carlos A. Palancar, a researcher at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales.

In H. sapiens, the anatomical variants of the atlas have been extensively studied over recent years. With regard to modern humans, the atlas presents one or more of the different anatomical variations in almost 30% of cases.

El Sidrón

In this study, in which researchers from the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid (MNCN-CSIC) and the Universidad de Valencia also participated, three vertebrae from the Krapina site (Croatia) were analyzed, and the material from other sites such as El Sidrón (Asturias) was reviewed.

Recently, researchers from the Paleoanthropology Group at the MNCN determined the presence of different anatomical variants in the atlases from the El Sidrón Neanderthals. With the objective of confirming the high prevalence of these anatomical variants in the species, they conducted exhaustive analyses of the Neanderthal fossil atlases from Krapina.

“Krapina is a site around 130,000 years old, compared with the age of 50,000 or so for El Sidrón. This is the site from which the highest number of Neanderthal remains has been recovered, which makes these a sample of particular interest when analyzing the genetic diversity of this species, as all the individuals may potentially have belonged to the same population”, says García-Martínez.

Full bibliographic information

Palancar C.A., García-Martínez D., Radovčić D., et al. (2020) Krapina atlases suggest a high prevalence of anatomical variations in the first cervical vertebra of Neanderthals. Journal of Anatomy DOI:
Press release from CENIEH

Neanderthals: pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals ate mussels, fish, and seals too

International research team with participation from University of Göttingen find it wasn't just Homo sapiens who sourced food from the sea -- impact on cognitive abilities suspected

Neanderthals marine
View on the Figueira Brava cave with its three entrances. Credits: João Zilhão

Over 80,000 years ago, Neanderthals were already feeding themselves regularly on mussels, fish and other marine life. The first robust evidence of this has been found by an international research team with the participation of the University of Göttingen during an excavation in the cave of Figueira Brava in Portugal. Dr Dirk Hoffmann at the Göttingen Isotope Geology Department dated flowstone layers - calcite deposits that form like stalagmites from dripping water - using the uranium-thorium method, and was thus able to determine the age of the excavation layers to between 86,000 and 106,000 years. This means that the layers date from the period in which the Neanderthals settled in Europe. The use of the sea as a source of food at that time has so far only been attributed to anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Africa. The results of the study were published in the journal Science.

Cracked-open and burnt fragments of pincers of the edible crab (cancer pagurus). Credits: João Zilhão

The cave of Figueira Brava is located 30 kilometres south of Lisbon on the slopes of the Serra da Arrábida. Today it is located directly on the waterfront, but at that time it was up to two kilometres from the coast. The research team, coordinated by the first author of the study, Professor João Zilhão from the University of Barcelona, found that the Neanderthals living there were able to routinely harvest mussels and fish, and to hunt seals. Their diet included mussels, crustaceans and fish as well as waterfowl and marine mammals such as dolphins and seals. Food from the sea is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other fatty acids that promote the development of brain tissue.

Until now, it has always been suspected that this consumption increased the cognitive abilities of the human populations in Africa. "Among other influences, this could explain the early appearance of a culture of modern people that used symbolic artefacts, such as body painting with ochre, the use of ornaments or the decoration of containers made of ostrich eggs with geometric motifs," explains Hoffmann. "Such behaviour reflects human's capacity for abstract thought and communication through symbols, which also contributed to the emergence of more organised and complex societies of modern humans".

Neanderthals marine
Horizontal exposure of a mussel shell bed. Credits: João Zilhão

The recent results of the excavation of Figueira Brava now confirm that if the habitual consumption of marine life played an important role in the development of cognitive abilities, this is as true for Neanderthals as it is for anatomically modern humans. Hoffmann and his co-authors previously found that Neanderthals made cave paintings in three caves on the Iberian Peninsula more than 65,000 years ago and that perforated and painted shells must also be attributed to the Neanderthals.


Original publication: J. Zilhão et al., Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers, Science, 10.1126/science.aaz7943




Press release from the University of Göttingen


Science publishes study on Neanderthals as pioneers in marine resource exploitation

Neanderthals marine
Cracked-open and burnt fragments of Cancer pagurus pincer? Credits: José Paulo Ruas © João Zilhão

The journal Science has published a study led by the ICREA researcher João Zilhão, from the University of Barcelona, which presents the results of the excavation in Cueva de Figueira Brava, Portugal, which was used as shelter by Neanderthal populations about between 86 and 106 thousand years ago. The study reveals fishing and shellfish-gathering contributed significantly to the subsistence economy of the inhabitants of Figueira Brava. The relevance of this discovery lies in the fact that so far, there were not many signs of these practices as common among Neanderthals.

Regarding the consequences of this study, João Zilhão notes that "an influent model on our origins suggests the common consumption of water resources -rich in Omega3 and other fatty acids that favour the development of brain tissues- would have increased the cognitive skills of modern anatomy humans. That is, those humans who, in Africa, were contemporaries of Neanderthals and are usually regarded as the only ancestors of the current Homo sapiens". But the results of the excavation of Figueira Brava state that, if this common consumption of marine resources played an important role in the development of cognitive skills, it did so on the entire humanity, including Neanderthals, and not only the African population that spread later".

Zilhão member of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP-UB), lists the research study in the line of "proof that accumulated over the last decade to show Neanderthals had a symbolic material culture". Two years ago, in 2018, the journals Science and Science Advances published two studies co-led by João Zilhão which showed that more than 65,000 years ago, Neanderthals made cave paintings in at least three caves in the Iberian Peninsula: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales (Science). Furthermore, more than 115,000 years ago, they used perforated marine shells and with ocher remains, such as the ones from Cueva de los Aviones (Murcia, Spain), as pendants and shell containers with residues of complex mixes of pigment (Science Advances). These findings, the most recent one being the one in Figueira Brava, "support a view on human evolution in which the known fossil variants, such as Neanderthals' in Europe and its African anatomy contemporaries -more similar to ours-, should be understood as remains from our ancestors, not as different higher-lower species", notes Zilhão.

Pieces of clam Ruditapes decussatus, found in the site. Credits: Mariana Nabais © João Zilhão

A 50% of the diet of the inhabitants in Figueira Brava was built by coastal resources: molluscs (limpet, mussel and clams; crustaceans (brown crab and spider crab); fish (shark, eel, sea bream, mullet); birds (mallard, common scoter, goose, cormorant, gannet, shag, auk, egret, loon), and mammals (dolphin, seal). This was completed with the hunt of deer, goats, horses, aurochs and other small preys such as tortoises. Among the other carbonised plants were olive trees, vines, fig trees and other Mediterranean climate typical species, among which the most abundant was the stone pine -its wood was used as combustible. Pine forests were exploited as fruit tree gardens: mature pines, albeit closed, were taken from the branches and stored in the cave, where the fire could open them so as to take the pines.

The study also provides other results, such as the idea of the concept of Neanderthals as cold and tundra peoples, experts on hunting mammoths, rhinos, buffalos and reindeers, is biased. "Most Neanderthals would have lived in southern regions, specially in Italy and in the Iberian Peninsula, and its lifestyle would have been very similar to those in Figueira Brava", notes Zilhão.

Another important affirmation in the study is the familiarity of humans with the sea and its resources as something older and wider than what was thought. "This could probably help explain how, between 45,000 and 50,000 years ago, humans could cross the Timor Sea to colonize Australia and New Guinea, and then, about 30,000 years ago, the closest islands to the western Pacific", says Zilhão.


Article reference:

J. Zilhão, D. E. Angelucci, M. Araújo Igreja, L. J. Arnold, E. Badal, P. Callapez, J. L. Cardoso, F. d'Errico, J. Daura, M. Demuro, M. Deschamps, C. Dupont, S. Gabriel, D. L. Hoffmann, P. Legoinha, H. Matias, A. M. Monge Soares, M. Nabais, P. Portela, A. Queffelec, F. Rodrigues, P. Souto. "Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers", Science, 367, March 27, 2020.


Press release from the University of Barcelona


Neanderthals: Pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals slurping seashells by the seashore? This scene may startle those accustomed to imagining Homo neanderthalensis as a people of cold climes who hunted large herbivores. Yet an international team including scientists from three laboratories affiliated with the CNRS and partner institutions* have just demonstrated that Neanderthals hunted, fished, and gathered prodigious volumes of seafood and other marine animals: they discovered remains of molluscs, crustaceans, fish, birds, and mammals in a Portuguese cave (Figueira Brava) occupied by Neanderthals between 106,000 and 86,000 BCE. The diversity of marine food resources found there even exceeds that observed at other, much more recent Portuguese sites, dated to 9,000-7,500 BCE. The team's findings, published in Science (27 March 2020), suggest that many Neanderthal groups--living in Mediterranean climates far from the mammoth hunts of the frigid steppes--shared these dietary habitats.


Researchers from Centre de recherche en archéologie, archéosciences, Histoire (CNRS/Université de Rennes), from De la préhistoire à l'actuel : culture, environnement et anthropologie laboratory (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Ministère de la Culture) and Travaux de recherches archéologiques sur les cultures, les espaces et les sociétés laboratory (CNRS/Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès/Ministère de la Culture).


Press release from the CNRS