Kiona N. Smith

Paleolithic French didn’t let their dead rest peacefully

If you died in Europe 35,000 to 25,000 years ago, you’d probably be buried with parts of your body painted with red ochre and bedecked with beads, carved figurines, and other items. Depending on your social standing, you might have just a little body art, or someone might have taken the time to paint your whole body red; you might be buried with just a few beads or with thousands.

But people in at least one part of southwestern France laid their dead to rest in abandoned bear nests in the deepest recesses of a cave—and then returned once the bodies had decomposed to carefully arrange the bones and take away the skulls.

Both a gallery and a tomb

Bears used to make their homes in Grotte de Cussac, a karst cave in southwestern France. They left behind tracks on the floor, claw marks on the walls, and bear-sized depressions in the cave floor where they’d made their hibernation nests. (Pro tip: if you rent to bears, get a very large deposit.) But the bears left “long before any human incursions,” wrote University of Bordeaux archaeologist Sacha Kacki and his colleagues. Traces of human activity in the cave—footprints, torch marks, artwork, and carefully arranged skeletons—lie on top of the bear traces, and not the other way around.

Around 29,000 years ago, people began coming to the cave to etch pictures into the rock walls and to bury their dead. The images engraved on the walls of Grotte de Cussac depict bison, horses, mammoths, and people—and, inexplicably, human genitalia. It may have been Paleolithic performance art, according to one recent study: “a collective image-making performance, implying performers and an audience.”

Charcoal marks associated with the engravings date to around 29,000 years ago, around the same time as the bones of at least one person buried in the cave. That makes Grotte de Cussac the only Paleolithic site with both cave art and human burials from the same time period.

One man’s skeleton lies in an old bear nest, covered with a thin layer of sediment left behind by a long-ago flood. Based on the position of his bones, it looks as if he was placed in the nest face-down. Sometime later, a flood sent water coursing through the cave, shifting many of the man’s smaller and lighter bones downstream but leaving the larger and heavier ones behind, underneath a light blanket of dirt. Kacki and his colleagues say the people who used the cave may have seen the bear nests, deep underground, as ready-made burial pits.

A bundle of bones

But not all of the dead at Grotte de Cussac were simply laid to rest. In another bear nest, someone carefully arranged the mingled bones of an adult and a child. Atop a layer of red pigment, they shaped “a bed of fragmentary bones mixed with sediment” and then topped it with larger, intact bones. That’s the opposite of how you’d expect to find bones just washed in by floodwaters, which have never reached as high as this particular bear nest in any case. The whole burial is neatly piled at one side of the bear nest, surrounded by open space.

Kacki and his colleagues say the bones may originally have been placed in a bag or container of some kind. The way the bones of two people have been mixed together, but sorted by size, means someone must have bundled them and placed them in the bear nest long after the bodies had decomposed. But that bundle didn’t include either person’s skull; their skulls seem to have sat in another bear nest nearby.

At some point after the bones were placed in one nest and the skulls in another, someone must have walked back into the dark depths of the cave to take the skulls out again. They left just a handful of upper teeth behind. Six of those teeth came from a child around the same age as the one whose bones lie bundled nearby, and the amount of wear on the single adult tooth matches the adult mandible from the nearby bundle. In other words, the skulls were left long enough for the alveolar process—the part that holds the teeth in place—to start breaking down. Then the skulls were carried off.

30,000 years later, we have no way to know whether the man lying prone in the bear nest would ever have gotten the same treatment as his neighbors once he’d finished decomposing. If not, it looks like people were actually burying their dead in two very different ways in the same cave. And people at Grotte de Cussac also seem to have been doing things very differently from the rest of Paleolithic Europe; it’s the only site from this period where people buried their dead deep in the interior of a cave (or in a bear nest), mingled the bones of multiple people, or removed skulls from the dead.

But wait, there’s more

In another area of the cave, the bones of at least one child and two adults lie in clusters around a knot of stalagmites. Whoever placed the bones in the cave didn’t mind mingling the remains of different people, but they sorted out upper body from lower body parts. That helps make it clear that this was a human undertaking because that’s not how predators or floodwater would have sorted the bones.

Predators also wouldn’t have placed the lower body bones of at least two adults in a neat 60cm (2ft) wide pile atop a layer of red pigment in a bear’s nest. Calcite on the ends of their femurs suggests that the bones had been buried for a while before being moved into the room with the stalagmites. Their skulls, like the others, are conspicuously absent.

Archaeologists call this a secondary burial: when people bury or display the dead in one place, then put them somewhere else once they’ve decomposed. Usually, like the burials at Grotte de Cussac, secondary burial involves cleaning, sorting, or rearranging the bones. People living today in many cultures still do similar things, and their beliefs shed some light on what the people at Grotte de Cussac might have been thinking and feeling when they walked the long, dark passage of the cave with their dead.

Kacki and his colleagues suggest that “the loss of individuality after decomposition, through commingling the bones of several individuals” might have been especially important to people burying their dead in the cave. That process might have helped remind the living, in some way, of the connection between the individual and the group. That’s a very general idea, and it could be spot-on, completely wrong, or anywhere in between, but it’s a starting point in trying to understand people we can never ask directly.

At the moment, archaeologists can’t yet explain why some people in Grotte de Cussac got different kinds of secondary burials, while others were just placed face down. It’s also not clear exactly what the art etched on the cave’s walls meant and whether it really had anything to do with the burials. Most puzzling of all, we’re not sure why people at Grotte de Cussac buried their dead so differently from people elsewhere in Europe at the time.

PNAS, 2020 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2005242117  (About DOIs).



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