First last rite

Published: Wednesday 30 April 2003

Spanish researchers say a hand-axe, recently found at an archaeological site in northern Spain, may have been used in the world's first funeral. According to them, the discovery implies that humans were capable of symbolic thought much earlier than was previously assumed.

The axe was found among the fossilised remains of 27 ancient humans located in limestone caves at Atapuerca, near Burgos. It was the only human-made object found in the pit. Eudald Carbonell of the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, says: "It's a great discovery. This is an interpretation, but in my opinion the axe could be the first evidence of ritual behaviour and symbolism in a human species."

The researchers think the human remains belong to Homo heidelbergensis, which is considered the ancestor of both the Neanderthals and modern humans (Homo sapiens).

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