Fossil profile: Guattari 1 and the history of mortuary archaeology

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An opening to the Grotta Guattari was uncovered by workmen in 1939. In this hidden cave, they found a chamber with bones, which included the skull of a Neandertal. The archaeologist Alberto Carlo Blanc studied the site and concluded that the Neandertal skull had been the subject of a ritual, placed within a circle of stones with other animal parts left as offerings. He judged that the blackened and brown patches of color on the skull were evidence of burning, and its broken cranial base reflected ritualized cannibalism. Blanc’s argument was based on the similarity between the breakage on this skull and that on skulls that had been part of rituals in parts of Indonesia and Melanesia.

Guattari 1 calvaria

These ideas all turned out to be wrong. The bone assemblage was likely accumulated in part or in total by hyenas, the staining on the Neandertal cranium was likely a natural product of decomposition, not burning, and close examination of the breakage on the cranium finds no evidence of human manipulation or handling. We don’t fully understand the assemblage and may not ever, since many potential clues require data collection from the very beginning of excavation. But thanks to many scientists’ reanalysis of the material, the Grotta Guattari is no longer seen as evidence of Neandertal ritual behavior.

From today’s vantage point, it is useful to think about the reasons why ritual explanations were on the minds of archaeologists during the early twentieth century. An interest in ritual carried through from ethnography, seen as an important part of human cultures around the world. Ritual in those days was much more a part of the world and life experience of many scientists.

The 1960s and 1970s changed archaeology by ingraining a series of naturalistic assumptions into the analysis of sites, artifacts, and bones. Some would say that the development of taphonomy—the science of understanding processes that affect skeletal remains and sites after death—was the most important methodological change, and that is partly true. But beyond that, archaeologists changed the way they conceived of site formation and the relationship of artifacts and bones to human behavior. Many phenomena once attributed to human agency were found to be equally well or better explained by non-human processes.

For many Holocene and terminal Pleistocene sites, these changes provided a new scientific basis for the study of ritual behavior. For the Neandertals, where behavioral evidence was much more sparse, the new naturalistic ideology set up a very high bar for examining any kind of intentional marking, symbolism, or ritual. Only within the last fifteen years have archaeologists really gotten started establishing data that surmount that high bar.