In the current (September 21:1443) Science, it is reported that the previously accepted assumption that the Neandertals buried their dead has itself been disinterred and brought back into question. “A core issue in the debate is the criteria that should be used to define a deliberate burial, and how well they are fulfilled at the approximately 20 Neandertal sites where burial has been claimed.” Archeologists Alain Turq and Harold Dibble are re-examining this question at La Ferrassie, where over 100 years ago the skeletons of seven Neandertals, including the most complete adult skull ever, were found. The issue is whether they were deliberately buried or simply “disposed” in a natural depression.
The re-opening of this debate is of interest to me because it disinters yet another issue that is even more deeply buried in the academic tomb of “that which is accepted.” It is assumed without questioning that burying the dead—particularly with artifacts or, as in prehistoric humans, red ochre or beads—connotes a “symbolic act.” I will not take the time to define the concept of a symbol except to point out that refers to a capacity in the cognitive sphere.
I believe that Turq and Dibble will be proven correct because the act of burial has nothing to do with symbolic capacity but with a new awareness of self which is the hallmark of Homo sapiens. As I have been espousing in this blog, pre-human hominids, including Neandertals, had no awareness of their individual selves, but rather spent their lives immersed in a communal consciousness that existed only in the awareness of its (His) immediate collective pursuits. Individuals viewed themselves just as the cells of your body view you: they are part of you for a while and then are regularly sloughed off to be replaced. No one is going around ceremonially burying their dead cells.
I have discussed in previous posts that early Homo sapiens are primarily distinguished by neoteny (the selection of juvenile characteristics) indisputably by means of sexual selection. The arrival of sexual display as a central motivation is the hallmark of modern man. The individual body-self was (and still is) the focus of this new consciousness, exemplified by decorating it with beads and red ochre. These were not symbolic acts but emotional expressions of a new consciousness of self. Similarly, the burying of the dead was an expression of this new self-awareness that, unlike the immortality of the underlying (and still present) ancient hominid consciousness, was now newly mortal— and naturally evoked sentiments arising from empathy for a deceased individual.
The first true symbols were linguistic and arose as a “side effect” of this new consciousness of self. When sexual selection arose as a major evolutionary force in early Homo sapiens it was this novel emotion and motivation that was first evolved, which then created a new “field” of social ecology wherein novel cognitive capacities (such as symbols) could be naturally selected.
Wylie’s Law: Emotion Precedes Cognition in the Evolution of Hominid (social) Behavior.