Do Hominid Burials Indicate a Belief in Spirits or Souls?

In light of yesterday’s post regarding the widespread and naturally explicable belief that humans have spirits or souls, I thought it would be appropriate to continue on a related topic.  It is often claimed, by enthusiastic archaeologists and anthropologists, that deliberate burial of the dead is a symbolic practice related to belief in the spirit or soul.  On occasion, one will even encounter the more brazen assertion that deliberate burial of the dead suggests the presence of “religion.”  Before coming to these kinds of conclusions, we should adhere to the rule of parsimony and examine exactly what is — or is not — indicated by deliberate burial practices.

The same rule should be applied before we conclude that a hominid — whether it be Homo sapiens or Homo neanderthalensis — was deliberately buried.  One of the earliest alleged burials for Homo sapiens comes from the Qafzeh site in Israel, which has been dated to approximately 100,000 years ago.  Several Neanderthal burial sites have been suggested, including the famous Shanidar Cave site in Iraq which is usually dated at ~80,000 years ago, and the Kebara Cave site in Israel which is usually dated to ~60,000 years ago.

These finds and sites aside, there have numerous other claims for the deliberate burial of hominids in the general time frame of 100,000 to 40,000 years ago.  Not everyone agrees that all these alleged burial sites are in fact the result of deliberate burial (much less “ritual” burial).  For decades, Robert Gargett has been examining these claims and urging caution before concluding that a full or partial body was deliberately buried.

In a 1999 article published in the Journal of Human Evolution, Gargett closely examined most of the claims for deliberate Paleolithic burials and concluded that several were not burials, whereas others could just as easily be explained — or even better explained — by other taphonomic and depositional processes.  In a 1968 article, Sally Binford urged similar caution and noted that imaginative story-telling regarding burials had a long history:

Once it became generally accepted that burials did indeed exist in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, various attempts were made to explain the form they took.  Luquet (1926) wrote a monograph on the religion of fossil man in which he attempted to trace continuity in a “cult of the dead” from the Mousterian through the Upper Paleolithic.  In 1948 a paper appeared by Paul Wernert dealing with a “skull cult”  . . . which developed in an ever-elaborating fashion through the Mousterian and Upper Paleolithic.

In a 1989 Current Anthropology article on alleged Neanderthal burials, Louwe Kooijmans aptly commented:

For one thing, we should try to discriminate between the burial or covering of corpses for very practical hygienic reasons and burial with ideational motivation.  Burial in itself does not say very much about Paleolithic man’s ideas or level of abstract thinking, and it is precisely here that some of the basic and most challenging questions lie.

One should first distinguish intentional burials and then try to identify burials with “symbolic meaning,” and while it is difficult to identify precise archaeological correlates for the latter that work in the Paleolithic, one should try.  Intentionally placed grave goods (other than adornment) seem to be the best [indicator of ritual burial].

We should,  in other words, consider simpler explanations before we consider more complex ones.  If we are fairly confident that a human or Neanderthal was buried 85,000 years ago, and this is all the information available, we cannot jump to the conclusion that the burial involved a “ritual mortuary practice” or that the deceased’s clan believed he or she had a spirit or soul, and that is why the burial was deliberate.  We have even less justification asserting that deliberate burials represent a “cult” or “religious” practice.  We simply have no way of knowing what these hominids were thinking.

Fairly soon after death (especially when temperatures are above freezing), bodies begin to bloat, rot, and stink.  They turn ghastly colors and begin decaying in revolting ways.  Dead bodies may also attract dangerous predators and bothersome scavengers, and they certainly attract insects, bacteria, and vermin.  It may simply be the case that bodies were buried to avoid these unpleasantries and keep the home-base or camp-site clean.  This is most plausible and parsimonious explanation for deliberate burials.

It is of course always possible that bodies were buried because the clan was concerned about the deceased’s spirit or soul and wanted to show respect of some sort.  However, we should be careful about projecting our own practices and sensibilities into the Paleolithic.  There is no particular or necessary connection between the spirit/soul on the one hand and burial in the ground on the other.  There are different mortuary practices that do not involve burial, including burning of the body, placing the body on a scaffold, immersing the body in water, etc.

Kooijman’s assertion that the presence of grave goods (other than simple body adornment) is the best indicator of symbolic or ritual behavior surrounding death has considerable merit.  All historically and ethnographically known peoples that use grave goods in their mortuary practices have indicated that such goods are provided for the benefit of the deceased, and that such goods in some way serve the spirit or soul of the deceased.  Significantly, grave goods have not (to my knowledge) been found in any alleged Neanderthal burial sites and such goods do not begin appearing in Homo sapiens burial sites until approximately 40,000 years ago.

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6 thoughts on “Do Hominid Burials Indicate a Belief in Spirits or Souls?

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