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Rabbit Burrowing Churns Claims about Neanderthal Burials

By Fazale Rana - February 7, 2018
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As a kid, watching cartoons was one of the highlights of my afternoons. As soon as I arrived home from school, I would plop down in front of the TV. Among my favorites were the short features produced by Warner Brothers. What a wonderful cast of characters: Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety, Yosemite Sam, the Tasmanian Devil, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. As much as I loved to watch their shenanigans, none of them compared to the indomitable Bugs Bunny. That wascally wabbit (to quote Elmer Fudd) always seemed to create an upheaval everywhere he went.

Recently, a research team from France has come to realize that Bugs Bunny isn’t the only rabbit to make a mess of things. These investigators learned that burrowing rabbits have created an upheaval—literally—at Neanderthal archaeological sites, casting doubt on claims that the hominins displayed advanced sophisticated cognitive abilities.1

Researchers from France unearthed this problem while studying the Regourdou Neanderthal site in Dordogne. Neanderthal bones and stone artifacts, along with animal remains, were recovered from this cave site in 1954. Unfortunately, the removal of the remains by archaeologists was done in a nonscientific manner—by today’s standards.

Based on the arrangement of the Neanderthal remains, lithic artifacts, and cave bear bones at the site, anthropologists initially concluded that one of the Neanderthals found at Regourdou was deliberately buried, indicating that these hominids must have engaged in complex funerary practices. Many anthropologists consider complex funeral activities to reflect one of the most sophisticated examples of symbolic behavior. If so, then Neanderthals must have possessed similar cognitive abilities to modern humans, undermining the scientific case for human exceptionalism and, along with it, casting aspersions on the biblical view of humanity.

Questions about Neanderthal Burials

Yet, more recent analysis of the Regourdou site has raised questions about Neanderthal burial practices. One piece of evidence cited by anthropologists for the funerary burial at this French cave site was the recovery of bear remains associated with a nearly complete Neanderthal specimen. Some anthropologists argued that Neanderthals used the cave bear bones to construct a funerary structure.

But anthropologists have started to question this interpretation. Evidence mounts that this cave site functioned primarily as a den for cave bears, with the accumulation of cave bear bones largely stemming from attritional mortality—not the deliberate activity of Neanderthals.

Rabbits at Regourdou

Anthropologists have also recovered a large quantity of rabbit remains at the Regourdou site. At first, these rabbit bones were taken as evidence that the hominids had the cognitive capacity to hunt and trap small game—something only modern humans were thought to be able to do.

One species found at the Regourdou cave site is the European rabbit (Ochotona cuniculus). These rabbits dig interconnected burrows (called a warren) to avoid predation and harsh climatic conditions. Depending on the sediment, the warren architecture can be deep and complex.

Because the researchers discovered over 10,000 rabbit bones at the Regourdou site, they became concerned that the burrowing behavior of these creatures may have compromised the integrity of the site. To address this issue, they used radiocarbon dating to age-date the rabbit remains. They discovered that the rabbit bones were significantly younger than the sediments harboring them. They also noted that the skeletal parts, breakage pattern of the bones, and surface modification of the rabbit remains indicate that these creatures died within the warrens due to natural causes, negating the claim that Neanderthals hunted small game. This set of observations indicates that the rabbits burrowed and lived in warrens in the Regourdou site, well after the cave deposits formed.

Perhaps of greatest concern associated with this finding is the uncertainty it creates about the integrity of sedimentary layers, because the rabbit burrows cross and perturb several layers, resulting in the mixing of bones and artifacts from one layer to the next. This bioturbation appears to have transported artifacts and bones from the upper layers to the lower layers.

Upheaval of the cave layers caused by the rabbits means that grave goods associated with Neanderthal skeletons may not have been intentionally placed with the body at the time of death. Instead, they may just have happened to wind up next to the hominin remains due to burrowing activity.

Such tumult may not be limited to the Regourdou cave site. These creatures live throughout France and the Iberian Peninsula, raising questions about the influence that the rabbits may have had on the integrity of other archaeological cave sites in France and Spain. For example, it is not hard to envision scenarios in which rabbit burrowing caused mixing at other cave sites, resulting in the accidental association of Neanderthal remains with artifacts initially deposited in upper cave layers made by modern humans who occupied the cave sites after Neanderthals. If so, this association could mistakenly lead anthropologists to conclude that Neanderthals had advanced cognitive abilities, when in fact they did not. While Bugs Bunny’s antics may amuse us, it is no laughing matter to consider the possible impact rabbits may have had on scientific findings.

Only Human Beings Are Exceptional

Even though some anthropologists assert that Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive abilities like those of modern humans, ongoing scientific scrutiny of the archaeological evidence consistently fails to substantiate those claims. This failure is clearly the case with the Regourdou burial. No doubt, Neanderthals were fascinating creatures. But there is no compelling scientific reason to think that their behavioral capacity threatens human exceptionalism and the notion that human beings were created to bear God’s image.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. Maxime Pelletier et al., “Rabbits in the Grave! Consequences of Bioturbation on the Neandertal ‘Burial at Regourdou (Montignac-sur-Vezérè, Dordogne)” Journal of Human Evolution 110 (September 2017): 1–17, doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2017.04.001.

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  • Human Uniqueness
  • Human Origins
  • Hominids
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  • Neanderthals
  • Human Origins
  • Human Exceptionalism
  • Hominins
  • Cave Sites
  • Burials
  • Archaeology
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