Life during the stone age is often characterised as “nasty, brutish and short”. But that doesn’t mean ancient humans had no creature comforts. In fact, a Greek cave reveals that Neanderthals tried their best to keep their homes clean1.
These Neanderthals burnt food waste to prevent it from attracting pests and spreading disease. They also regularly cleaned out their hearths, dumping any waste far away from where they were living1.
As well as giving us a glimpse into the lives of house-proud Neanderthals, could this also explain one of the biggest mysteries about them: why they buried their dead?
Not for ritual or religion, but because they made the place look dirty.
The cleanest cave in Greece
The clean cave in question is Lakonis and you can find it at the bottom of Greece, although you may have some trouble recognising it. See, the Lakonis Cave is more of an ex-cave, having collapsed millennia ago1.
Of course, that doesn’t deter archaeologists, who love an excuse to dig up stuff. So in 1999, they began excavating the rubble to study the site. It turns out that cave was actually several, with different caves occupied by different human species at different times1.
The one we’re interested in today is the oldest cave, Lakonis 1, where Neanderthals lived. It’s dated to ~43,000 years ago; which is shortly before modern humans arrived on the continent1.
At that time the cave would have been much further from the sea than it is now. It would have also been, you know, an actual cave. The main feature within it was a large hearth, perhaps up to 2 metres large, towards the front centre of the cave (HC on the pictures)1.
This appears to have been the focal point of Neanderthal life there. There’s evidence of food preparation and tool making near it1.
It was also the focus of their cleaning efforts.
These Neanderthals were not unusual in focusing their lives around the hearth. It’s not uncommon to see stone age fires that contain bits of burnt rock and bone2. These were likely accidentally dropped in by ancient humans doing something too close to the fire. However, sometimes it was deliberate, with the inhabitants chucking bones into the fire for fuel3.
However, this wasn’t the case at Lakonis 1. Whilst there were small bones and stone fragments in the hearth, confirming activities were taking place there, larger pieces were surprisingly absent. Particularly when compared to elsewhere on the site, with larger burnt bones and rocks being found towards what would have been the wall of the cave1.
In other words, it looks as though Neanderthals were cleaning out their hearths and moving the rubbish elsewhere on the site. They were likely using a rake or other tool, which missed the smaller bits of material still found on the hearth1.
Another interesting phenomenon at Lakonis 1 is that the burnt bone hasn’t been burnt as thoroughly as when it’s used as fuel at other sites. Perhaps then, it wasn’t being used as fuel. Instead, maybe these Neanderthals were burning the bone to clean up the mess1.
So if you were a Neanderthal living at Lakonis 1 you would have had quite a few chores. Bone fragments would have to be thrown in the fire to clean them up. Afterwards, you’d have to clean out the hearth, pushing all that detritus away from where you were living.
But a clean cave is its own reward.
Does this explain burials?
Now we know there were some clean-freak Neanderthals out there. So what? Well, another interesting fact about Neanderthals is that they had a fondness for burials.
In fact, for a good chunk of prehistory Neanderthal burials outnumbered human ones. But even then, they make up the minority of fossil Neanderthals found4. Indeed, in some regions, Neanderthal fossils are surprisingly absent from habitation sites5.
It seems that Neanderthals sought to remove their dead from their living area. If, for some reason, that wasn’t done, then they seem to have resorted to burial. Could this behaviour by driven by the same desire to keep the cave clean we see at Lakonis 1? It’s hard to say, given we’re trying to extrapolate from a single site here. But it is a fascinating possibility.
Hundreds of articles have been written about why ancient humans buried their dead. Perhaps the answer is actually as simple as “they stunk up the place”.
- Starkovich, B.M., Elefanti, P., Karkanas, P. and Panagopoulou, E., 2018. Site Use and Maintenance in the Middle Palaeolithic at Lakonis I (Peloponnese, Greece). Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology, pp.1-30.
- Shahack-Gross, R., Berna, F., Karkanas, P., Lemorini, C., Gopher, A. and Barkai, R., 2014. Evidence for the repeated use of a central hearth at Middle Pleistocene (300 ky ago) Qesem Cave, Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science, 44, pp.12-21.
- Théry-Parisot, I., 2002. Fuel management (bone and wood) during the Lower Aurignacian in the Pataud rock shelter (Lower Palaeolithic, Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne, France). Contribution of experimentation. Journal of Archaeological Science, 29(12), pp.1415-1421.
- Stiner, M.C., 2017. Love and Death in the Stone Age: What Constitutes First Evidence of Mortuary Treatment of the Human Body?. Biological Theory, 12(4), pp.248-261.
- Pettitt, P., 2002. The Neanderthal dead: exploring mortuary variability in Middle Palaeolithic Eurasia. Before Farming, 2002(1), pp.1-26.