The depositing of the dead in graves is only known from Homo sapiens and Homo Neandertalensis. Graves belong to the earliest and most important testimonies of human culture. But in many recent cultures, burials do not imply as a necessary accompaniment any kind of grave. The act of burying associated with ritual practices is a universal element of human culture and documents a dimension of human thinking beyond their individual lifespan, an awareness of the afterlife and of the highest social behavior. It manifests the emotional attachment between the living and the dead. Its universality is a strong argument for existing burials in the last common ancestor of all recent human populations. As the dispersal of humans started from the Middle East about 70,000 years ago, it seems plausible that burial practices evolved before that event. This corresponds with the early graves in famous Qafzeh (today’s Israel).
Several criteria must be fulfilled to accept a site as a grave. Graves are defined as the deposition of remains of one or several dead clearly indicating an intentional act independent of specific locations. Graves can be situated close to settlements in caves or abri or far from them in the open field. It should always be possible to assign the cranial and postcranial skeletal remains individually. The mortuary practice is identified by the posture of the corpse, its orientation, any kind of decoration (for example, ocher), or burial objects. Stones or flagstones protect the dead against scavengers but also “prevent” them from returning to the living. Unfortunately, former excavations have very often not reported many of these criteria.
Body position is a significant part of the mortuary program in many recent cultures. Corpses are laid down in mainly two types of posture, stretched out mostly in supine position or in crouch, where the degree of flexion may be different. Various interpretations of the crouch exist: It may adopt a posture close to the natural one during sleep, it may be imposed by the surrounding conditions, or it may prevent the dead from returning. The latter assumption is partly based on corpses found in bonds.
The orientation of the body can follow pragmatic reasons such as the topography of the terrain. Although data on grave orientation are scarce, an east-west orientation is often found already in early burials (Qafzeh, La Ferrassie) following the course of the sun. But other sites containing most burials (Skhul, Shanidar) show no grave orientation.
Burial objects comprise adornment, for example, pierced animals’ teeth or snail shells, and are supposed to indicate a group membership and/or a hierarchical position. Other objects are animals’ remains, for example, bone or antler tools, or stone tools. Burial objects serve as support or nourishment of the dead in the other world, have magical purposes, or are oblations for the powers that be. Whenever the graves are excavated close to previous settlements, burial objects may also be just simple leftovers. Half of the burials of the Middle Paleolithic contained grave goods, while the vast majority of the Early Upper Paleolithic seems to have already contained such goods.
There is an ongoing debate whether humans of the Middle Paleolithic have already buried their dead or whether this only begins after the “symbolic explosion” characterizing the Early Upper Paleolithic period. At the end of the 19th century graves were denied because the Paleolithic humans were considered to be too primitive, but recent views challenge the idea by arguing that all early graves can be explained in terms of natural processes. Accepting the idea of early graves does not necessarily mean to accept an early “Homo religiosus” but to accept that taking care of dead may be a cultural constituent.
The site of Qafzeh has revealed that the oldest known graves dated to 100,000-90,000 years. Altogether, remains of 21 individuals were discovered, babies, children, and adults. It is a burial site of Homo sapiens, which also contains a 13-year-old Neandertal. All skeletons were oriented along a common axis. Qafzeh also contained ocher, which is only found in a few graves in the Middle Paleolithic but common in Upper Paleolithic graves. From the Middle Paleolithic, around 20 graves are unambiguously known that contain Homo sapiens and Homo Neandertalensis. In the Early Upper Paleolithic, the overwhelming majority of graves are Homo sapiens. Lake Mungo in Australia includes an ocher burial and the first recorded cremation already at about 40,000 years ago.
Though the subject of Neandertal burial is a hotly debated topic, the archaeological evidence indicates that Neandertals indeed buried their dead. About two dozen unambiguous examples of Neandertal burial are known dating from after about 70,000 years ago. These burials are found in southern France, the northern Balkans, the Middle 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. A famous example is “Moshe,” a skeleton missing his head and most of his lower limbs. It was found in the Kebara Cave (today’s Israel) dated to 60,000 years. The grave also contained stone tools, like the one at Qafzeh.
Intriguingly, the earliest burials were all of modern humans. This has led to speculations that the chronologically later burial of Neandertals may have been a cultural assimilation. Another important aspect is that burials were never the norm for “ordinary” people. From the scarcity of graves and from the principle of actualism taken from all later cultures, it seems convincing that graves are privileged burial sites. It is worth mentioning that only since less than 200 years a grave with the personal name is accessible for everyone in Europe.
- Akazawa, T., Aoki, K., & Bar Yosef, O. (Eds.). (1998). Neandertals and modern humans in Western Asia. New York: Plenum Press.
- Riel-Salvatore, J., & Clark, G. A. (2001). Middle and Early Upper Paleolithic burials and the use of chronotypology in contemporary Paleolithic research. Current Anthropology, 42 (August-October), 449-479.