Along with fishing, creating art and using blades as tools, burying the dead was once considered one of the defining characteristics separating Homo sapiens from our now-extinct human ancestors. But for more than a century, the archaeological discoveries of what appear to be the graves of early hominins have challenged the idea that the practice is exclusive to modern humans, and sparked an ongoing debate as to when and where it began.
This was the case this week, when a team of scientists claimed to have unearthed the earliest known examples of human burials. Here’s what to know about the controversial findings, and why it’s so difficult to determine just when human ancestors started burying their dead.
Prehistoric Cave Burials?
In 2013, a pair of spelunkers exploring the Rising Star cave system about 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa discovered the remains of Homo naledi, a previously unknown hominin with short arms and a brain one-third the size of a modern human’s, thought to live between 240,000 and 500,000 years ago. Soon after, Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, led a team of scientists on multiple excavations of the underground caves, during which they found bones from at least 27 individuals.
When Berger and his colleagues published their initial findings in the journal eLife in 2015, they noted that the skeletal remains covered the ground of a chamber deep inside the cave, and hypothesized that Homo naledi moved the bodies there, deliberately disposing of their deceased.
Following additional trips underground, the discovery of two near-complete corpses, and analyses of sediments and rock from the chamber, the team concluded that Homo naledi didn’t simply deposit corpses to this location: they buried their deceased in the cave, then carved artwork on its walls to mark the graves. Their findings were released in a preprint on June 5, 2023, with the expectation that it would also be published in the journal eLife following peer review.
But experts like Paul Pettit, a professor of paleolithic archaeology at Durham University and expert on hominin funerary practices, aren’t yet sold on the claims.
“I’m not convinced that the team have demonstrated that this was deliberate burial, [meaning] the excavation of a shallow grave, deposit of a corpse in it, and subsequent covering of that corpse with the sediment excavated,” he says, citing a lack of clear evidence consistent with a burial, like visible “cutting” around the edges of supposed grave.
Along the same lines, Pettit says Berger and his colleagues haven’t done enough to rule out the possibility that the gradual, low-energy movement of water in the surrounding environment brought the remains into the cave, ultimately noting that the findings are “intriguing, but a little premature.”
When Did Burial Practices Begin?
Given that skeletal remains can shift or even be transported to another location over the course of thousands of years, determining when human ancestors began burying their dead is an exceptionally difficult task. It doesn’t help that many of the rituals associated with the deliberate burial of the deceased—like singing or storytelling—are “archaeologically invisible,” as Pettit pointed out in a 2018 journal article.
Though multiple Neandertal (Homo neanderthalensis) burials have been uncovered over the past 150 years, there isn’t a consensus as to which was the first to take place intentionally. However, between some of the more recent excavations, and reexaminations of earlier discoveries, there is strong evidence suggesting deliberate Neandertal burials in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, Shanidar cave in Iraq, and the La Ferrassie rockshelter in Dordogne, France.
What is considered to be the oldest intentional human burial took place approximately 100,000 years ago in a cave in Qafzeh, Israel, where the remains of up to 15 early Homo sapiens were discovered during excavations in the 1930s and 1960s. More recently, the oldest deliberate human burial in Africa was unearthed in 2013 near the coast of Kenya, where, roughly 78,000 years ago, a small two-and-a-half- or three-year-old child was placed in the fetal position and laid to rest in a shallow grave.
These burials are intriguing not only for their age, but also because they’re early examples of a familiar ritual that we continue to practice today. But according to Pettit, the act itself isn’t as remarkable as many people might think.
Marking Rituals, Not Just Burials
“I have no problem whatsoever with the possibility of other—and even small-brained—hominins burying their dead,” he explains, referring to Berger’s conclusion that Homo naledi took part in the practice. “One only has to think of chimpanzee mothers carrying the naturally dried corpses of their dead infants, or termites ‘burying’ dead conspecifics with sediment to understand that there is nothing special about the simple process of burial per se.”
Instead, Pettit suggests that we look beyond burial to better understand the nuances of how early humans responded to and commemorated death.
“If there is one practice that is special, and apparently unique to later Homo, I would argue that it is not burial per se, but the cultural delineation of specific areas for the disposal of the dead,” he wrote in 2018. Similarly, Pettit recommends that experts consider when early hominins began demonstrating attachment to the deceased, as well as when activities and rituals marking someone’s death also served a social function.