“REST IN PEACE”
THE FIRST BURIALS
90,000 years ago
|Reconstruction of an early burial by a group of Homo sapiens.
Credit: Illustration by John Sibbick, courtesy of John Sibbick Illustration. This illustration used with permission. All rights reserved.
Many human societies bury their dead today. It is a way of paying respect for the deceased, and giving them a “final resting place”, as well as a way of disposing of a decomposing body that could be a health hazard or attract scavenging animals. The first evidence of such intentional burials can be seen with Neandertals and early modern humans starting around 90,000 years ago in the Near East and Europe.
It appears that, in a number of caves and rockshelters, graves were intentionally dug for these individuals and they were subsequently buried. The human remains tend to be the only articulated skeletons (in their anatomical position), unlike the animal bones which tend to be food refuse. It is not impossible that these early burials are ritualistic in nature and also denote some concept of an afterlife and perhaps a fear of the dead or ghosts (as we see in many recent human societies as well).
|On September 17, 1909, the skeleton of this and seven other Neanderthal individuals were found by Louis Capitan and Denis Peyrony at La Ferrasie rock shelter in Dordogne Valley, France. The Neanderthal skeletal material are estimated to be about 70,000-50,000 years old.
Credit: Photo by Louis Capitan and Denis Peyrony.
HOW DO WE KNOW?
Human skeletons found in articulated position in hollows dug into the cave or rockshelter sediments strongly suggests intentional burial. Occasionally “grave goods” were also placed in the grave, as in the case of a boar’s lower jaw held in the arms of an early modern human burial at Skhul in Israel about 90,000 years ago. Such grave goods become much more common with the rise of the Upper Palaeolithic in the last 40,000 years.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Burial of the dead is another hallmark of the modern human condition, likely showing reverence for the dead and perhaps a belief in the afterlife. As such, this may indicate the foundations of a concept of religion.
This is an article about a hand axe found at one of the earliest human burial sites.
This is a discussion of the first graves.
This is a Free Library article, “Evolving in their graves: early burials hold clues to human origins.”
This is an article about early human rituals, including the making of a stone snake.