When Burial Begins
Editor Simon Denison
When Burial Begins
Hundreds of millennia ago, early humans began to ‘bury’ some of their dead. Then burials became more elaborate. Why? Paul Pettitt reports
We are all so accustomed to the idea of burying the dead, that it takes a moment to realise just how peculiar this behaviour really is. Most animals blithely ignore the dead bodies of other members of their pack or herd. What makes us so different? How and when did burial begin?
We can probably assume that a degree of curiosity - at least - about the dead body was common to all archaic human species, as it can be observed among higher primates today. Chimpanzees are certainly aware of the moment of death of their kin, and primatologist Jane Goodall has observed how the attitude of mothers to their sick offspring changes from one of intensive care to carelessness and even disinterest immediately following death. Other chimps have been observed carefully examining the bodies of the dead, and even carrying them around for a few hours.
For some 20 years, Christophe Boesch and Hedwige Boesch-Ammerman have been studying the pygmy chimpanzees (bonobos) of the Taï Forest in Ivory Coast. In 1989, they observed a particularly remarkable example of mortuary behaviour around one corpse - that of Tina, a 10-year-old female who died after being ambushed by a leopard. Several individuals gathered quickly around the corpse, making loud calls. After a brief period 12 adults sat in silence around the body, with some males occasionally showing aggression, making ostentatious 'displays' nearby and dragging the corpse around for short distances.High-ranking females inspected the body, seemingly allowed to do so by high-ranking males who were guarding the corpse, and who chased off individuals of lesser rank. Some 30 minutes after Tina died, two high-ranking males began to groom the corpse - an action that lasted for well over an hour, while lower-ranking adults and infants were at the same time intensively inspecting the spot at which she was killed. Occasionally, the individuals guarding the body would make 'play' faces and laugh, probably to ease tension or confusion.
It is very easy to conclude from this fascinating episode that reverent care for the dead body may have taken place amongst the very earliest hominids, alongside a range of tension-relieving activities and rituals in which social rank governed access to the corpse. But we can only speculate as to why these rituals began. Undoubtedly the higher primates do not like to see themselves killed and eaten by other predators, an event that prompts mourning and worry. Primates must also recognise that the dead individual, formerly part of the social group, has changed in a sudden and irreversible fashion - and has gone. This must inevitably cause confusion and perhaps sorrow.
Among hominids, no evidence is found for treatment of the dead until about 300,000 years ago. But during the preceding hundreds of millennia of human development, we can predict certain types of funeral behaviour over and above that observed among modern chimpanzees. Corpses decay and must be removed from the camp or cave. It seems likely that the bodies of group members would be disposed of in places of significance in the landscape - perhaps in rivers or natural holes, up trees, even on the tops of sacred mountains. We can never prove it, of course. A corpse left in the open air leaves no archaeological trace.
Some of the earliest evidence for the deliberate disposal of the dead was found in Pontnewydd Cave in Wales. According to Stephen Aldhouse-Green the fragmentary remains - teeth - of early Neanderthals suggest that at least five and possibly up to 15 bodies may have been deliberately placed in the dark recesses some 225,00 years ago.
Other examples of this funerary 'caching' - as opposed to burial in the strict sense - can be found in Europe at this time. For example, at the Sima de los Hueso ('Pit of the Bones') at Atapuerca in Spain, over 32 individuals of Homo heidelbergensis dating to over 200,000 years ago were found at the bottom of a deep shaft.
It is possible that these bones and the Pontnewydd teeth all got there accidentally - but I doubt it. Caves and sinkholes are dark, mysterious places; they echo with the strange sounds of wind and water. In later periods they were regarded as gateways to the 'otherworld'. It seems far more likely that early Neanderthals perceived them in a similar way.
I nterestingly, it seems that some selection may have taken place with these earliest 'burials'. Most of the Pontnewydd teeth were from males under 20 years of age. Why the selective treatment of young men? You could joke that young men were the only members of the social group stupid enough to go caving. More seriously, as hunters young men were certainly very important members of the group, deserving special treatment after death. We can age skeletons now with enough accuracy to know that old men practically did not exist in Neanderthal groups. Grandfathers and 'wise old greybeards' were almost unknown. Few lived beyond about 30. It was a young man's world.
Funerary caching continued after these very early examples. Evidence from after about 100,000 years ago includes the fragmentary cranial remains of at least 22 Neanderthals from La Quina in the Charente, and at the fissure site of L'Hortus - also in France - the remains of at least 20 individuals were found in which young Neanderthals were especially common. At Krapina Cave in Croatia, over 70 Neanderthals wound up in deposits of the cave dating to before 100,000 years ago. These remains are highly fragmentary in nature - probably broken up by the weight of overlying sediments - and have achieved notoriety as a number of them clearly bear cut marks left by stone tools.
It was originally thought that Neanderthals practised cannibalism at Krapina, but recent analyses have demonstrated that the cut marks and 'scrape' marks were created instead by the defleshing of the dead - the marks exactly match those on defleshed bones known from the ethnographic record, rather than on bones butchered for meat. This defleshing took place possibly after a period of excarnation, and prior to burial.
Defleshing, the scraping away of all the flesh from a dead body to reveal the clean bones, is - to the modern mind - an outlandish practice. Why do it? Why mutilate the body of a loved one?
Again we can only speculate. In later prehistory and the historical period, bones were sometimes treated as sacred relics. We see pretty clear evidence of this as far back as the mid-Upper Palaeolithic (or Gravettian period), after about 27,000 years ago, when individual skulls or long bones were heavily ochred and separately buried. It seems reasonable to assume that the origins of sacred relics may be found in the Neanderthal period. Defleshing was a means to this end.
Traces of defleshing and removal of body parts have been found at several other Neanderthal sites in France and Belgium. At Moula Guercy Cave in South-East France at least six Neanderthals were either defleshed or possibly cannibalised, and at Kebara Cave in Israel an adult male buried in the centre of the cave had his skull removed shortly after burial. So the evidence is certainly mounting that Neanderthals, at least on occasion and in some areas of Eurasia, practised a variety of mortuary activities before and alongside burial.
The earliest true burials, however, are of anatomically modern humans. They are found from some time before 100,000 years ago at the gates of Europe - in Israel and in the Nile Valley. In Skhul and Qafzeh caves on Mount Carmel a number of men, women and children were buried, a few apparently with simple grave goods. At Taramsa in Egypt a child was apparently lain against the side of a cobble extraction pit and covered up between 40,000 and 80,000 years ago.
Even as far away as Lake Mungo in Australia, an adult was buried in a sand dune in the same broad period as Taramsa. Intriguingly, these earliest burials are all of modern humans, which has led some scholars to suggest that the chronologically later burial of Neanderthals in Europe may be an idea that spread from our own species to the last archaic humans. We simply cannot tell, but given the non-burial mortuary activity of earlier Neanderthals, it is likely that Neanderthals came up with the idea of burial of their own accord.
The picture of burial itself only becomes clearer with the rise of the Neanderthals in Eurasia. At least two dozen unambiguous examples of Neanderthal burial are known dating from after about 70,000 years ago. All are found within four geographical areas - with no convincing evidence of burial anywhere else. These burials are found in southern France, the northern Balkans, the Near East (Israel and Syria) and possibly from Central Asia, including the possible burials of infants at Mezmaiskaya Cave in the Caucasus and at Teshik Tash cave in Uzbekistan near the Afghan border.
In these areas Neanderthals placed their dead in simple graves, with apparently no concern for grave goods or elaborate markers. On occasion we find limestone blocks within or atop the graves, possibly representing some form of marking of the grave - but this is difficult to prove.
Many of the Neanderthal remains found in caves are those of infants. Infant mortality was especially high among Neanderthals, and it appears that the young were often placed in small pits, possibly after their soft tissues had rotted away. An infant buried in a pit within the Dederiyeh Cave in Syria, for example, seems to have been placed after its joints had become disarticulated, but with some concern that bodily parts were placed in their correct anatomical order.
An illuminating late parallel to this Neanderthal behaviour was seen last year with the discovery in France of the mass-grave of the First World War soldiers known as the 'Grimsby Chums'. The soldiers had been carefully buried in a line with linked arms. Some, however, had been blown to pieces - but such limbs as could be recovered for burial were laid in the 'correct' anatomical position, just like those of the Neanderthal infants so many thousands of years before.
While our chronological handle on Neanderthal burial is poor, the latest burial we have - at St. Cézaire in France - was placed around 35,000 years ago. After this we have a gap in the archaeological record for some 6,000 or 7,000 years, as there are no convincing burials from the earliest occupation of Europe by our own species. In many respects, in fact, the Aurignacian period between about 35,000 and 28,000 years ago reflects only part of the 'human revolution' that is said to accompany the demise of Neanderthals and the spread of our own species.
It is not until the mid-Upper Palaeolithic, or Gravettian, that clear examples of burials can be found from Iberia and Wales to north-east of Moscow. Until recently, only a broad chronology was known for these, but now, a more precise picture has emerged through the direct dating of the burials by the radiocarbon laboratory at Oxford. The results show that the burials were placed in a relatively short period between about 27,000 and 23,000 years ago.
All these burials incorporate the heavy use of red ochre, and include the bones of large herbivores such as aurochs, mammoth, bison or reindeer - totemic animals often depicted on cave walls in this period. The earliest of the group are the 'Red Lady' of Paviland (BA, October 2001) and three young adults buried together at Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic. A little later come the burial of a small child at Lagar Velho in Portugal, wearing a periwinkle shell, and a young adult male at Brno in the Czech Republic. His heavily weighted clothing, marionette or doll, and possible drumstick have led some scholars to see him as a shaman.
A little later still are the spectacular burials of two adolescents and an adult male at Sunghir, Russia, which were all accompanied by several thousand mammoth ivory beads, several hundred fox teeth pendants and a panoply of ivory artefacts. At Arene Candide Cave in North-West Italy a young male - the Italians call him 'The Prince' - was buried in the mid-Gravettian period with typical splendour. In addition to the usual red ochre staining, yellow ochre was used to cover a bite that had been taken out of his neck - presumably the wound that killed him. He was buried with a cap of mammoth ivory beads; four enigmatically-shaped, holed and incised antlers known as 'batons', a flint blade sourced from over 100 km away, and several other valuable possessions.
These Gravettian burials are an odd bunch. With the exception of the 'Red Lady' of Paviland, all have pathological features and some of them may have been in considerable pain for much of their lives. For example, three individuals buried together in Barma Grande Cave in North-West Italy all had deformed spines caused by the degeneration of their vertebral discs, similar to two individuals from Dolni Vestonice. The Brno male had severe periostitis (bone disease) for many years, which may even have caused some neurological disorders.
The young boy from Lagar Velho may have looked odd. His hyperarctic body proportions - short limbs - have been seen by some as indicating that he is a Neanderthal-modern human hybrid, but it may be that he simply looked a bit odd to his compatriots. The pathological disorders found among almost all individuals buried in the Gravettian are surely too common to be coincidental. It may well be that the disabled nature of these men - for with one or two exceptions they are all male - marked them out as somehow special. Perhaps they were all shamans or medicine men.
Tim Taylor has suggested that they may all have been murdered. If something goes wrong for the community, the shaman is called upon to fix it. If he cannot, he is killed. A similar rationale may survive thousands of years to explain Iron Age bog bodies. It is an attractive idea. What is clear, however, is that burial was never the norm for 'ordinary' people. We have to assume that most people were disposed of - as perhaps they had been for hundreds of millennia - in ways that were reverent and ritualistic but which are now archaeologically invisible.
At around the same time as the Gravettian burials we have the floruit of the 'venus figurines' - generally female carvings on mammoth ivory, steatite and other materials. Most of these were excavated in the infancy of archaeology; but where we have information, it seems that many were tucked away in the backs of caves or buried in pits. This is an interesting contrast - almost all buried people were male, but almost all buried figurines were female. If these figurines represent females in general, rather than a female goddess, this would seem to provide a shadowy glimpse into the social dynamics of Upper Palaeolithic society.
It suggests, at the very least, a social differentiation between males and females. Remarkably, some of the Russian figurines were deliberately broken; while the 'Black Venus' of Dolni Vestonice had been repeatedly stabbed by some sharp implement. Perhaps these figurines, too, like the buried males, had been 'murdered'?
The murder of important figures in the community seems strange to the modern mind. However, it may have been a fairly common characteristic of pre-industrial societies. In dynastic Egypt, pharaohs celebrated the 'Sed' festival at Karnak in which the king was ritually killed and reborn, symbolising the replenishment of his energies. The 14th century BC pharaoh Akhenaton's experience of Sed is well-depicted on reliefs. Some Egyptologists have suggested that Sed reflects a much earlier practice of actually killing rulers. The idea seems to have been to keep power young and fresh.
After the Gravettian, there is apparently another gap of several thousand years before we find convincing mortuary activity in the Late Upper Palaeolithic of 15-10,000 years ago. But ancient traditions seem to have lived on. For example in Italy, over 20 men, women and children were buried in the same cave in which 'The Prince' was buried well over 10,000 years beforehand.
All these graves are delineated by the cave walls and large limestone blocks. The burials are very similar to each other, and share a number of characteristics - ochre, shell and mammoth ivory jewellery - that go back to The Prince. Some burials are double, comprising an adult male with a juvenile male buried by his side. This is clearly a 'cemetery' in a fully modern sense. The redigging and moving of previous burials to make way for the new is common, and where this occurred bones were often gathered together and stowed at each end of the newer grave cuttings. Just as people today leave vases of flowers by the graves of relatives, a pair of ochred antlers may have been set up on poles within the cave. Large stones may have acted as grave markers.
We often forget that it is only in the modern, Western world that burial of the dead has been a more or less universal and commonplace practice. Not only in the earliest periods but throughout prehistory, humans disposed of the bodies of their loved ones by a variety of means, most of which have left no traces and can be only be guessed at by scholars today.
Yet in some ways modern societies are turning full circle and returning to the varied rituals of the past. In recent decades cremation has become palatable once again in the Christian world; and we tend to scatter the ashes of the deceased in 'significant' places in the landscape - not so much sacred rivers or mountains nowadays, but more likely a home town, a cherished picnic spot, or the stadium of the dead person's favourite football team.
Paul Pettitt is a Research Fellow at Keble College, Oxford
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005