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When Did Humans Start Burying the Dead?

Photo: A skull from the Qafzeh Cave, by Wapondaponda, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

One thing that distinguishes humans from other life forms is that we understand death. Yes, all life forms evade threats to their well-being by a dizzying array of means. But only humans understand death as the inevitable and final reality for all mortal beings no matter what we do. In that sense, death is an abstraction. To grasp death as a finality requires higher order thinking skills. It takes small children a while to come to understand it, and usually only by degrees.

Naturally, paleontologists wonder from what period do we have physical evidence that humans understood this abstraction? One complexity is that evidence of early humans is generally hit or miss, Thus, physical evidence is very unlikely in principle to be “the first instance” of something. It’s more the other way around: We know that whatever type of find we are discussing can be dated to as early as this.

The Qafzeh Cave

University of Arizona anthropology professor Mary Stiner told Live Science recently that the Qafzeh Cave in Israel features burials from 115,000–120,000 years ago:

Researchers like Stiner are confident that these early cave burials were a deliberate human act — not an act of nature like a cave collapse — because the bones are positioned in death postures such as the fetal position, together with human objects, and in some cases it’s evident that older deposits of sediment were disturbed for a burial to take place.


Prior to Peer Review

There have been claims that Homo naledi, discovered in 2015, buried their dead 100,000 years earlier than that but researchers have questioned the claims. It did not help that the claims were made prior to peer review.

As Pester notes at Live Science, the complexity of burials has waxed and waned, doubtless depending on the time, place, and circumstances:

The move toward increasingly complex burials wasn’t necessarily linear. A study published in “The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial” (Oxford University Press, 2013) found that elaborate burials in Eurasia came and went in the Upper Paleolithic (45,000 to 10,000 years ago), and burials were mostly pretty plain, containing objects used in daily life. 


But wait. Why did the burials contain objects at all? Did the mourners think that the deceased would need them in another life? That’s a bit like the ancient Greek practice, for which we have written records, of placing two coins on the eyelids of the deceased to pay the passage to the next world. If so, the idea has a very long history. Mtoto’s grave from 80,000 years ago, found in South Africa, featured a “pierced shell ornament covered in pigment.” Was it intended to establish the child’s identity or status elsewhere?

Placement of the Corpse

Cambridge palaeoanthropologist Emma Pomeroy notes that a revealing feature of these very ancient burials is special placement of the corpse. For example, Shanidar Cave in the Zagros Mountains of northern Iraq was frequently used as a burial site by Neanderthals between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. The fact that some skeletons were buried above others suggests that the cave was a recognized burial spot.

“One way of identifying whether a behaviour is something practical or more symbolic is to look for patterning, Pomeroy says. Shanidar 4 and Shanidar Z are positioned in the same way, and facing the same direction — towards the entrance of the cave.” 


Science writer Shayla Love goes on to suggest at Psyche, “That Neanderthals cared about the placement of their dead in some ways could help to reveal the path by which ancient humans too came to care about and bury their dead.” But do such insights really follow a path? 

Insights in physics build on each other; thus they must follow a path. But the insight that the human body is worthy of respect because it was the home of a human person may be a one off that leads in all sorts of directions. One could say the same for the insight that the human mind is not material and cannot really just die the way the body dies. These insights may lead to a variety of burial customs but, unlike physics, they won’t form a single body of knowledge — more of a repeated discovery or recognition. But then, perhaps humans have always thought this way about death because the human mind sems to have no history.

What About Animals?

True, some animal behaviorists argue that many animals do understand death as an abstraction. For example, a 2012 paper described “scrub-jay funerals.” But, as anthropologist Barbara King pointed out, the “noisy gatherings” around the remains of birds left out by researchers are best interpreted as the birds’ expression of anxiety for themselves rather than a funeral ritual. What about chimpanzees who carry dead babies around for a while or the famous Japanese dog Hachiko, who waited every day at the train station for his deceased human friend to return from the university? These animals certainly care. But they behave that way because they don’t understand the finality in this world of death, not because they do.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters.