The Earliest Burials & What They Can Tell Us

Skull being pulled out of the ground on an archaeological excavation. Mortality Salience: The First Buried

Skull on an archaeological excavation.

Updated December 2013, this is the first in a series about burials and death customs.

Mortality Salience

Mortality salience is a psychological term used to describe awareness of one’s own eventual death. It is impossible to know when humans were first aware that they themselves would die. While many believe that burying the dead grew out of practical necessity, at the very least, interment shows an increase in understanding death and perhaps even an understanding of it’s permanence. Practices revolving around the deceased definitely indicate a mindfulness of mortality. While many search for the earliest evidence of intentional burial, it is extremely difficult to venture a guess for when our ancient ancestors began customs for those who pass away.

Seriously Ancient Dead: The Pit of Bones

Let us take a stab at the question anyway. How long ago were we possibly giving ceremony to the departed? Some think that intentional burial may have occurred fairly early in our timeline. Bones of approximately 28 individuals were discovered in the limestone caves of Atapuerca, Spain in what is now called “Sima de los Huesos (the pit of bones)”.  The discovery of a pink quartzite biface found along with the remains has spurred some thought that the burials were intentional [1]. Is it really possible that the bones were purposefully placed in the pit with a quartzite stone tool for the purpose of “burying” dead? That would mean our predecessors actually began responding to death beyond simple practicality by 400,000* years ago!

The theory of intentional burial at Sima de Los Huesos is disputed however. The competing theory posits that the bones were washed into the pit from completely natural forces. Whether or not the individuals were placed there or nature swept them there, finding the remains is still fabulously exciting. Often remains deteriorate rather quickly. With the right conditions, great preservation does happen, but it is rare. I have seen graves where within less than 100 years little to no remains are left of the body or even the coffin. The puzzle is challanging when most of the pieces have disappeared.

First Undisputed Intentional Burials: Skhul-Qafzeh

From what remains in the earth, it isn’t until approximately 100,000 years ago that we find undisputed evidence of intentional burials. Don’t feel cheated by the huge leap in date: If every generation were 20 years apart throughout time, that would be 5,000 generations ago! These burials are in the Skhul-Qafzeh caves of Isreal. Both children and adults appear to be intentionally buried with lumps of red ochre. Ochre is natural pigment that contains iron oxide that can vary in color from yellow to red to brown. Some archaeologists believe that the use of ochre lumps at Skhul-Qafzeh indicates symbolic thought [2].The question of mortality salience isn’t even close to the only mystery that early burials can provide clues to solve. How smart were we? How advanced were we? Symbolic thought is considered to be along the lines of development of math and language. What is just as interesting to me is that one individual was buried with a boar mandible and another with antlers of a Red Deer. Were those animals representations to them or part of their lives? Any way you evaluate the burials a story begins to unfold a little at a time.

North America: Anzick and Eastern Beringia

“The Clovis complex is by some scientists considered being the oldest unequivocal evidence of humans in the Americas, dating between ca. 11,050 to 10,800 14C yr B.P. Only one human skeleton has been directly AMS dated to Clovis age and found associated with Clovis technology namely the Anzick human remains from Montana.” – A Genomic Sequence of a Clovis Individual by Eske Willerslev [3]. The Anzick burials are widely known for the stone and bone artifacts discovered as well as the remains of two subadults. Thought to be part of a burial assemblage, more than 100 stone bifaces and bone artifacts were recovered. Approximately 90 artifacts were ochre covered. Unfortunately, the site was highly disturbed so analysis remains problematic. [4] It seems logical if 100,000 years ago our ancestors were indeed burying the dead that by the time people began to move to North America only a few thousand years ago that ceremonial practices for the deceased would have been well established.

Differing burial practices most likely point to a variety of cultures emerging among the early North American populations. A cremation was discovered in Alaska along the banks of the Tanana River. The remains date to approximately 11,500 years ago. A child of around three years of age was cremated in a subterranean pit [5]. Ochre was found in the burial. While from the earliest burials, ochre is so often found, it also had many other uses and so archaeologists have not commented on if there is direct association with the burial in this situation. It appears that the child was buried in a family home. It has been suggested that the burial within the house implies careful thought given to the child’s interment even though grave goods were not discovered. I often make the mistake of thinking of early North Americans as simpler than they were. The truth is there are indications of their story, of their humanity, of their art and of their multifaceted lives. The cremation of a child is a glimpse into something more than just academic. It is a glimpse into the complexity of humanity [6].

It is fairly amazing how much information each burial can bestow. Perhaps they create more questions than answers, but knowing the questions is almost as important as the answers we may eventually gain. Once again with technological advances, the amount of information we can extract increases. Can we say when people first achieved an understanding of death or even the knowledge that we would one day die? No. But perhaps some day we will find solid evidence to push the undisputed date for burials back in time.

Update: the Neanderthals in Western Europe

More recently, the debate over whether Neanderthals buried their dead seems to have been put to rest. The first Neanderthal bones were discovered in France in 1908. The Neanderthal remains from the site are approximately 50,000 years old. Since about 1999, a team of international scientists has been using modern archaeological methods to determine if the bones were purposefully buried. The team excavated, found more remains, examined the original Neanderthal remains, and conducted a geological study. The conclusion of the modern team is that the bones were indeed intentionally buried. “‘This discovery not only confirms the existence of Neanderthal burials in Western Europe, but also reveals a relatively sophisticated cognitive capacity to produce them,’ explains William Rendu, the study’s lead author” [7]. The group who conducted the study do believe the reason for burial had to be more than practical since there are other better ways to easily dispose of a body. However, in cases like this, since no artifacts were discovered in association with the bones, it is difficult to know if a burial was for practical reasons or more sentimental ones. Guessing at 50,000 year old motivations is always a difficult endeavour. The more we advance, we gain even more methods for understanding our past.

Thank You:

Keith for helping me find information on the first burials in the United States.

*The number was edited to reflect current news about The Pit of Bones. A DNA sequence was obtained from a femur that was in Sima de Los Huesos. The date provided is 400,000 yo. The new DNA sequencing has revealed some interesting and unexpected finds. Read about it at sci-news

Works Cited:

1) Rincon, Paul. “Evidence of Earliest Human Burial.”  BBC News. 26 March 2003. Accessed 18 November 2013

2)  Whitehouse, David, PhD. “Cave Colours Reveal Mental Leap.” BBC News. 11 December 2003. Accessed 18 November 2013

3) “Clovis Genome in 2013”.  Ahnenkult. 26 November 2012. Accessed 18 November 2013

4) Wilke, Phillip J. “Clovis Technology at the Anzick Site, Montana.” Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology. 13 (2). 1991 Accessed December 2013

5) Potter, Ben. “A Terminal Pleistocene Child Cremation and Residential Structure from Eastern Beringia”. Science Magazine. Vol. 331 no. 6020 pp. 1058-1062.  25 February 2011 Accessed 18 November 2013

6) Maugh, Thomas H. “Ancient Child Burial Site Found In Alaska.”  Los Angeles Times. 26 February 2011

7) “Neanderthals Buried Their Dead New Research Concludes.” New York University. 16 December 2013 Accessed December 2013

Further Reading:

Jones, J. Scott. “The Anzick Site: Analysis of a Clovis Burial Assemblage.” Oregon State University Scholar’s Archive. 28 October 1996 Accessed 18 November 2013

Please feel free to leave a comment or lead me to more information concerning early burial practices.