SUNY Potsdam Student Digs Burial Pits with Neanderthal Tools

10.15.10

Jonathan-Reeves
Jonathan Reeves poses with his Neanderthal-style Stone Age flint tools near one of the covered-over burial pits he recently dug in SUNY Potsdam’s Lehman Park.

SUNY Potsdam senior archaeological studies major Jonathan Reeves is going positively Stone Age for his Presidential Scholars project: The Rochester, N.Y. native is spending his fall weekends digging burial pits with stone tools like those used by Neanderthals in the College’s Lehman Park.

Through the Presidential Scholars Program, motivated & talented SUNY Potsdam students are given the opportunity to create their own independent project and to more fully develop their interests and intellect.

Reeves, who is also a member of the SUNY Potsdam men’s soccer team, hopes to demonstrate evidence of ritual in Neanderthal burials by trying to dig graves in the same method and style himself here on campus.

Neanderthals are extinct members of the Homo genus classified either as a separate species or as a subspecies of humans, Homo sapiens. By finding out more about the effort and thought put into the method used to dispose of the dead, Reeves hopes to find out more about the mindset of Neanderthals. 

“I wanted to look at how long it would actually take to bury one of these individuals. Is it that exhaustive? Can it be done by one person, or do you need multiple people? I wanted to put a number behind this effort,” he said. “The second thing I wanted to do was see how that number fit in with the rest of the stuff that we know about the Neanderthal lifestyle.”

Reeves ordered special flint tools made just like those used during the Neanderthal period. Called scrapers, the rock implements had a variety of simple uses—one of which was freeing soil while digging a grave. The student uses several sizes of scrapers to dig, and then uses his hands to remove the dirt from his hole.

He has dug two burial pits so far, based on the dimensions of sites where Neanderthal remains have been found in the past. One was a smaller rounded grave like one that archaeologists found the remains of a Neanderthal child in. That burial pit took Reeves three hours to dig. He solicited the help of three other students to dig a large deep rectangular pit like one that a Neanderthal adult was found in as well.

Reeves records his heart rate throughout the digging, and that of his volunteers, so he can mark how much time and effort it took.

“My arm gets really tired, and I get a bruise on my hand from holding the scraper. The first time, I got a half an hour in and realized I’d barely gotten anywhere,” Reeves said. “My thought is that for the Neanderthals, they’d really have to want to do this, even if they really just wanted to bury the body to cover it up and keep predators away. It takes a huge part out of the day for a hunter-gatherer, and there would be easier ways to dispose of a body.”

Since Neanderthals had a semi-nomadic lifestyle, leaving their various campsites to hunt during the day and returning only to sleep and eat, Reeves found it interesting that they would choose to bury a body in that location. He also wonders, since other Neanderthal bodies have been found that were not buried, if there was a symbolic choice involved for those that were.

“I can’t say that they believed in an afterlife, but it seems there definitely was a social component, that the group members felt that this was an important loss. The burials say something about the connection that individual had to the group,” Reeves said.

Reeves is also an anthropology major and is earning his minor in geology. He hopes to attend graduate school to further his studies in archaeology.

SUNY Potsdam has been training students in archaeology for more than 40 years. The College’s interdisciplinary program includes coursework in archaeological methods, history, art and geology.

For more information about SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Anthropology, visit www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/Anthro/index.cfm.

Founded in 1816, and located on the outskirts of the beautiful Adirondack Park, the State University of New York at Potsdam is one of America’s first 100 colleges. SUNY Potsdam currently enrolls approximately 4,350 undergraduate and graduate students. Home to the world-renowned Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam is known for its handcrafted education, challenging liberal arts and sciences core, excellence in teacher training and leadership in the performing and visual arts.