Paleolithic mortuary rituals

PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES—Remains of hunter-gatherers found in a French cave offer fresh insight into Paleolithic mortuary rituals, according to a study*. Around 30,000 years ago, before the Last Glacial Maximum, the Gravettian culture was known for its prolific cave art, Venus figurines, and elaborate burials. Sacha Kacki, Sébastien Villotte, Erik Trinkaus, and colleagues describe the details and dynamics of burials at the Grotte de Cussac, a cave discovered 20 years ago in southwestern France. The authors used photographs and 3D photogrammetric models due to restrictions on direct contact with cave surfaces or remains. In one area deep in the cave, the authors observed a complete male skeleton in the shallow bowl-like depression of a former bear nest and bones from at least two individuals sorted anatomically in other former nests. Additionally, the authors observed bones from at least three individuals sorted into hollows along the wall. The bones appeared to be sorted roughly by lower and upper anatomy. The authors report that the burial sites at Cussac were farther inside the cave than is typical. The authors also found elaborate cave art, with more than 800 engravings—another feature unusual for burial sites. According to the authors, the mortuary practices at Cussac offer rich insight into the social diversity and complex interactions between the living and the dead in this foraging culture.


The disarticulated skeletal remains of an adult male deposited in a bear nest. Pascal Mora


Photogrammetric model of the bones of an adult and an adolescent, clustered on one side of a bear nest. Pascal Mora



*”Complex mortuary dynamics in the Upper Paleolithic of the decorated Grotte de Cussac, France,” by Sacha Kacki et al.



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