POTSDAM — When he's not running up and down the soccer field, Jonathan S. Reeves spends his weekends digging graves.
Unlike most gravediggers, he is not using heavy equipment or even a shovel. The SUNY Potsdam senior is using small flint tools and his fingers.
But it's not just an excuse to play in the dirt. For Mr. Reeves, it is an investigation into Neanderthal lifestyle.
Most Neanderthal populations disappeared about 30,000 years ago, though there has been some recent evidence that points to interbreeding with modern humans, according to Nasser R. Malit, an anthropology professor at SUNY Potsdam.
Mr. Reeves's exercise is an attempt to demonstrate that there was some reason to bury dead Neanderthals, other than simply to keep scavengers away.
"People have often thought that these burials were just a quick way to get rid of the body and get it away from scavengers," said the anthropology and archaeology double major, who plays defense on the soccer team. "So part of my project is to see how long it takes with various groups of people to dig these."
Neanderthals were semi-nomadic; they hunted and foraged across long distances, but did return to camps to sleep. By demonstrating how long it must have taken them to dig these graves — time that could otherwise have been spent finding food — Mr. Reeves says he hopes to prove that there must have been some kind of symbolic reason behind the burials.
"What I'm getting at from my own experience doing this is, if you're going to get rid of a body or bury a body in this way, it takes a lot of time," he said. "You really have to want to do this when burying a body takes this long. If it was purely a functional thing that 'we don't want the scavengers to come around,' then it would be as simple as moving it somewhere else."
Mr. Malit, a paleoanthropologist who teaches a class about human origins, agrees. Cave drawings and ivory pendants that have been found among Neanderthal remains prove that they were something more than animals fighting for survival, he said.
"Most Neanderthal skeletons, they were found in buried conditions," the professor said. "For you to bury somebody, you must have planned to dig some pit or grave. Jon's project is significant."
So far, Mr. Reeves has dug two graves similar to those dug dozens of millennia ago, one small enough for an infant or young child, another that would have fit a grown man curled up in the fetal position.
The first he did by himself in three hours, the second took him and three other people about four hours, he said.
"When you get down to it, you're trying to move as much dirt as you can as fast as you can," he said. "I've found the most effective way is to break up as much dirt as you can and move it out with your fingers."
The flint tools, which he found online, are historically accurate copies of what Neanderthals would have used themselves.
He plans to dig a few more graves, including one that is large enough for a person to lie flat, with the help of some more classmates, most of whom are enrolled in Mr. Malit's class.
He will then present his research to an international paleoanthropology society, and he hopes to be able to continue his research in graduate school.
His interest in the early hominid came about almost by accident; Neanderthals just happened to be mentioned in a class he was taking early on in his time at Potsdam. When he came up empty for a paper topic a few months later, he just happened to remember thinking they sounded interesting.
"I just couldn't think of a topic, and I was taking a class about human origins," the Rochester native said. "I just found it completely fascinating."