Paleolithic Humans Buried Their Dead in Bear Nests 30,000 Years Ago, Scientists Discover

Analysis of a cave in France containing the remains of prehistoric hunter-gatherers who died some 30,000 years ago has shed new light on the burial rituals of Paleolithic humans.

First discovered 20 years ago, the Grotte de Cussac cave, located in the southwest of the country, was frequented by members of the Gravettian culture of the European Upper Paleolithic, which appeared around 33,000 years ago leaving evidence of their existence across the continent.

This culture is notable for its prolific cave art, "Venus" figurines portraying voluptuous female figures and elaborate burial rituals.

For a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of researchers analyzed the cave and its remains using photographs and 3D renderings, concluding that the site provided a setting for the dead that is "unique" in the Palaeolithic.

While previous papers had reported the presence of human remains inside the cave, the latest study is the first to provide a detailed description of all of them and a comprehensive analysis of the mortuary behaviors that led to the particular distribution of the bones. Researchers had to use indirect techniques to examine the cave because direct contact with its surfaces or the human remains is prohibited.

According to the researchers, the cave contains two areas of human remains. The first includes the skeleton of a young adult male in a shallow depression that was once a bear nest, as well as the fragmentary remains of at least two other individuals spread across two other former bear nests.

The second area, located deeper in the cave, contains the remains of at least three individuals—two adults and an adolescent—in hollows along a wall, which appear to be sorted largely by lower and upper anatomy. Some of the bones and underlying sediments feature a red pigment that the researchers have linked to the remains.

While some of the characteristics of the burials are similar to other Gravettian sites, the authors of the study say that others are unique for this ancient culture. For example, the researchers said the remains are found much further inside the cave than is typical and, furthermore, they are associated with abundant rock art—an usual feature for Gravettian burial sites—with the cave containing more than 800 engravings

"These human remains are located deep in the cave, which is a unique finding for this period—all previously known Gravettian burials are located in open air sites, rockshelters, or cave entrances," Sacha Kacki, with the French National Center for Scientic Research, told Newsweek.

"The Grotte de Cussac is not only a burial place, but also a decorated cave. It is quite rare that Gravettian human remains are found close to [cave] art, and the Grotte de Cussac is the first discovered cave where the mortuary rites and the art are very likely contemporaneous," he said.

human remains, bear nest
The remains of an adult male deposited in a bear nest in the cave. Pascal Mora

Distributing bodies or body parts on the floor instead of in a grave was relatively common in the Gravettian culture of southwestern France, but is rare elsewhere in the continent, the authors said. Furthermore, Cussac is one of the only examples in the Gravettian culture where many of the remains are located in bear nests.

According to the authors, the findings shed new light on the burial practices of Gravettian hunter-gatherer, providing evidence of significant social complexity during the Upper Paleolithic (roughly 50,000 to 12,000 years ago.)

"Most of the human remains in Cussac are disarticulated due to human manipulations of bones or body parts after or during decomposition. Although post-mortem manipulations of human remains has been previously documented for other Gravettian sites, some types of manipulations at Cussac are unknown elsewhere, including the removal of crania and the deliberate commingling of the remains of several individuals," Kacki said.

"These observations indicate diverse and complex mortuary behaviors during the Gravettian, which provides a window onto the social complexity of human groups from the Upper Paleolithic."

Kacki said the findings provide direct evidence that burial rites and art were somehow linked in the beliefs of these people.

"What is surprising is that the bone assemblage and the art show some similarities: skeletons were deliberately commingled, and it was also the case for many artistic figures. Art was likely done as a performance, with an audience, and the same may be true for funerary rites as well," he said.