Soul Beliefs, Grave Goods & Foxes

In many books and articles addressing the origins of “religious” behavior, one will find the assertion that deliberate burials are indicative of soul beliefs and that because people began burying the dead approximately 100,000 years ago, this marks the beginning of what we today call religion. As I noted in this post, there are several problems with this categorical assertion, including: (1) many alleged burials may not be deliberate, and  (2) if burials are deliberate, there are practical reasons for burying for the dead. Deliberate burials, without something more, could indicate soul beliefs but do not require such beliefs. That something more is critical: grave goods.

Deliberate burials that include grave goods — such as the spectacular double burial from Sunghir, Russia (~25,000 years ago) — strongly suggest that the people involved believed the body was inhabited by a soul or spirit. Such beliefs are nearly universal among humans and are known as commonsense dualism. Although some of the many suggested “deliberate burials” from 100,000 to 45,000 years ago include items that might have been grave goods, the finds are often equivocal. The alleged grave goods could either be refuse or may have been associated with the skeleton due to burrowing rodents or similar kinds of intrusions. It is not until the Upper Paleolithic, approximately 45,000 years ago, that archaeologists begin seeing unequivocal burials that include grave goods.

In a recent article published in PLoS One (open access), Lisa Maher and colleagues report on several burials from Jordan that have been dated to approximately 15,500 years ago. This is an especially interesting time in human history because it marks the transition toward greater social complexity and immediately precedes the semi-sedentary Natufian culture, which is widely seen as the precursor to the culture(s) that first domesticated plants and animals. In this assemblage there are eight burials or graves, two of which included fox remains that the authors find significant:

We suggest that, rather than the fox being treated as a “grave good” (e.g., personal adornment) it had a special relationship (i.e., companion) to the humans in these graves. Just as the skull of Burial B was removed during a later disturbance of this grave, and a skull placed into Grave VIII, the fox skull was removed from Grave VIII and re-buried with an individual in Grave I. It is possible that the link between fox and human was such that when the human died the fox was killed and buried alongside. Later, when the graves were re-opened, these links were remembered and bones moved so that the dead person would continue to have the fox with him or her in the afterlife.

This is a reasonable assessment that is perfectly consistent with the ethnohistoric and ethnographic record. Hunter-gatherers everywhere have special or “spiritual” relationships with animals, regardless of whether such animals were ever domesticated (the fox was not). The fox is widely seen as potent, as is evidenced by the many historically known Native Americans whose name included the word “Fox” — an indication that the person had received supernatural power or potency from a fox while seeking a vision.

While Maher and colleagues are primarily interested in the human-fox association, they observe that this assemblage is distinctive in other ways:

The Middle Epipalaeolithic burials discussed here clearly belong to a formalized burial ground and the graves exhibit complex and elaborate treatments of the dead. Prior to the discoveries at ‘Uyun al-Hammam, few burials dating to this period have been found in the southern Levant. Thus, the importance of the burials at ‘Uyun al-Hammam goes beyond simply their rarity and the richness of represented mortuary treatments. The burials, and similarities in mortuary practices demonstrated between ‘Uyun al-Hammam and the succeeding Natufian and Neolithic has central bearing on broad cultural developments in the region.

The mere fact that this site has eight burials or graves (and perhaps more, given the apparent reburials) says something significant about social organization and the ways in which it was possibly changing in this culture area during this time period. Hopefully, the authors will test these ideas and publish on them in the future.

Reference: Maher, L., Stock, J., Finney, S., Heywood, J., Miracle, P., & Banning, E. (2011). A Unique Human-Fox Burial from a Pre-Natufian Cemetery in the Levant (Jordan) PLoS ONE, 6 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015815

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