ERELLA HOVERS AND ANNA BELFER-COHEN
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Burial is a uniquely human behavior. Among the mortuary behaviors of extant soci-
eties, burial constitutes one of many practices concerning the treatment of the dead.
Examples are curation (the carrying around of the dead either of the entire corpse or
of a preserved part); diverse forms of interest in the dead body (e.g., dismembering,
cannibalism, veneration of parts); “abandonment” on the landscape; funerary caching;
and other practices, including variously complex forms of inhumation (formal burial)
(Pettitt 2011, 8–10). e interest of archaeologists specically in burial is a default of the
archaeological record due to the higher likelihood of the preservation of physical evi-
dence when burial has taken place. In the case of mortuary practices, the commonalities
of observable behaviors in cross-cultural ethnographic studies allow anthropologists to
draw analogies between the present and the past. Such inferences are evaluated through
taphonomic studies and contextual analyses of the human fossils. Necessary criteria for
identifying burials include completeness of skeletal remains found within horizons of
human occupation, elimination of natural processes of interment, stratigraphic indica-
ical evidence for treatment of the corpse (Belfer-Cohen and Hovers 1992; Gargett 1999).
Typically, arguments for intentional Paleolithic burials need to be based on a consilience
of several lines of evidence. As an outcome of this epistemological approach, identi-
cations of Paleolithic burials are necessarily carried out on a case-by-case basis rather
than being generated from top-down overarching theory and ensuing hypotheses.
Identication of skeletal remains as intentional burials has in the past been
confounded by views on the cognitive and cultural evolutionary connotations of
this behavior, which was attributed exclusively to modern humans. By default, this
precluded potential instances of such behavior prior to the appearance of Homo
sapiens (Belfer-Cohen and Hovers 1992). Research since the 1990s has undermined
such worldviews by documenting the behavioral variability, exibility, and resilience
of other hominin species. Despite the assumptions linking intentional burials with
behavioral modernity, mostly based on data from the European Upper Paleolithic,
there are no burials associated with the earliest appearance of modern Homo sapiens
therein (Riel-Salvatore and Clark 2001), thus refuting such claims. Additionally, while
it has no direct bearing on the issue, paleogenetic evidence, suggesting a lack of a
reproductive barrier between Homo sapiens and other Upper Pleistocene hominin
taxa, may have contributed to the change of attitude toward burials by hominins other
than Homo sapiens.
e International Encyclopedia of Anthropology.EditedbyHilaryCallan.
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2018 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
A chronological overview of Paleolithic burials
Since not all prehistoric human skeletal remains qualify as inhumations, archaeolo-
gists are justiably conservative in attributing the status of burial to Paleolithic skeletal
the early appearance of mortuary behavior, they are not inhumations. Rather, they may
indicate other mortuary practices, such as cumulative caching (as, e.g., can be seen at
Sima de los Huesos, Spain). e large number of fossils recovered from the Dinaledi
Chamber of the Rising Star cave system in South Africa has also been argued to rep-
resent caching of the dead. Although the fossils’ morphology is arguably primitive,
the nds have been dated to the later Middle Pleistocene (see Berger et al. 2017 for
a summary of Dinaledi nds).
Other forms of early mortuary behavior consist of postmortem anthropogenic
modications of the corpse (Bodo, Ethiopia; Arago, southern France) (Hovers and
Belfer-Cohen 2013; Pettitt 2011). ere are also claims for very early instances of
cannibalism in the Plio-Pleistocene (Sterkfontein, South Africa) and the early Middle
Pleistocene (Gran Dolina TD6, Spain).
Most authorities consider the period between 250,000 and 50,000 years ago to be
the time frame when the rst burials occurred—that is, roughly coinciding with the
Middle Paleolithic (MP) period in Eurasia. Skeletal remains of this time span in Africa
(the Middle Stone Age) are attributed to variable forms of Homo sapiens.Withone
exception (Border Cave 3), these ndings cannot be considered as burials according to
the criteria discussed in the literature (see previous section), yet nonutilitarian post-
mortem modications have been recognized. One of the crania from Herto (Ethiopia,
ca. 160,000 years ago) bears bone-surface modications unlikely to result from nutri-
tional cannibalism. Another skull shows deeshing marks as well as polishing (Hovers
and Belfer-Cohen 2013, and references therein). In Europe, MP burials are associated
with Neanderthals, while in Western Asia they pertain to both anatomically modern
humans (ca. 120,000–100,000 years ago: Qafzeh and Skhul Caves, Israel) and to Nean-
derthals (ca. 80,000–55,000 years ago; Amud, Tabun, and Kebara Caves, Israel; Ded-
eriyeh Cave, Syria; Shanidar Cave, Iraq). Mortuary behaviors show regional variations.
Among the MP Neanderthals in Europe, corpse modication and/or cannibalism have
been documented (at the sites of El Sidron, Spain; Krapina, Croatia; and Moula-Guercy,
Post-MP intentional burials are all associated with Homo sapiens.eearliestknown
modern human burials are reported from the Lake Mungo site (Australia), in a shallow
pit (as well as cremated remains of another individual), dated to around 40,000 years
late Aurignacian remains (Mladeˇ
c Caves, Czech Republic, ca. 31,000 years ago). e
burials of Cro-Magnon, considered synonymous with “modern humans,” are somewhat
later, at around 28,000 years ago (Cro-Magnon rockshelter, France). It is of interest to
note a putative “hybrid” (of Neanderthal and modern human) burial at Abrigo do Lagar
Velho, Portugal, dated to around 25,000 years ago.
In Western Asia there seems to be a break in the burial record. Human remains
in archaeological sites are scarce, and the practice of burial appears to reemerge in
BURIALS, PALEOLITHIC 3
the Late/Final UP (Nahal Ein Gev I and Ohalo II, Israel, ca. 24,000 years ago). ese
are followed by several instances of burial in the Early and Middle Epipaleolithic
(ca. 20,000–15,000 years ago; e.g., Ein Gev I and Neve David, Israel; Ain Qassiya,
’Uyyun al-Hammam, and Wadi Mataha, Jordan; Moghr al-Awal, Lebanon). e Late
Epipaleolithic period (ca. 15,000–12,000 years ago) provides the richest evidence for
Paleolithic burials, both in sheer numbers as well as in the variety and complexity of
funerary practices (as in the Natuan culture, discussed in the next section).
In North Africa, the Nazlet Khater (Egypt) burial is dated to 35,000–30,000 years
(Morocco), dated to around 25,000 and 16,000 years ago, respectively. A large number
of burials are known from the Iberomaurusian culture (ca. 20,000–12,000 years ago;
e.g., Taforalt, Morocco). In eastern and southern Africa, known Later Stone Age burials
are of a Holocene age.
Characteristics of Paleolithic burials
the earliest inhumations consist of the interment of a single body without standardized
is unique. In contrast, the number of multiple primary burials increases in time from
the UP onward (e.g., the triple burial at Dolní Vˇ
estonice, Moravia, ca. 25,000 years ago;
the double burial at Sunghir, Russia, ca. 28,000–26,000 years ago; and the later double
burial at Romito cave, Italy, ca. 10,000 years ago).
A number of the MP and UP sites contain several burials each, within distinct strati-
graphic horizons, located at small distances from one another. Given the resolution of
dating and the time spans involved, it is dicult if not impossible to argue for real-life
contemporaneity, or that special areas of sites were designated for the disposal of the
burials were spatially clustered. Although the term “cemetery” has been used in relation
to MP sites such as the Skhul and Qafzeh Caves, a parsimonious explanation of discrete
and unrelated burials may be more appropriate.
It seems that real cemeteries (i.e., locations within habitation sites designated for con-
tinuous use as burial grounds as well as exclusive burial sites) appear quite late in the
Paleolithic record, either in the Late Epipaleolithic in Western Asia and North Africa or
in the European Mesolithic. e number of buried individuals in such sites rises dra-
matically compared with the MP and UP records, in some cases representing hundreds
of individuals (e.g., the Iberomaurusian and Capsian in the Maghreb, the Natuan in
the Levant, and the Lepenski Vir culture in Central Europe). rough time there is also
the appearance of secondary burials, either on their own or added to primary burials,
involving the reopening of previous graves (e.g., the Natuan burials at Hayonim Cave,
as grave markers (e.g., Nahal Oren Terrace, Israel).
In the earliest (MP) burials, there are only a few instances of associated ndings
Figure 1 e Amud 7 infant, Amud Cave, Israel. Middle Paleolithic (ca. 55,000 years ago). e
skeleton was lying on bedrock near the cave wall (in the background). e skull and mandible
with teeth germs are preserved (though the former is collapsed); one clavicle bone and the ver-
tebrae can be seen. Note the maxilla of the red deer lying on the small fragment of the pelvis (far
right). e large stone artifact lying near the skull is a burin, the deposition of which is probably
unrelated to the burial itself.
remains—bones and antlers—similar to those found as dietary residues) that are asso-
ciated spatially with burials. ey occur as complete specimens, unlike the typically
or as exceptionally rare anatomical elements (e.g., the deer antlers atop Qafzeh 11). Over
nize archaeologically. ey are present in the burials as personal jewelry made of shells,
stone, bone, and teeth; decorated garments and headgear; bone tools, bone spears, and
polished stone pebbles; and so on (e.g., Sunghir, Russia, and Predmost, Czech Repub-
lic, both dated to ca. 26,000–24,000 years ago; Dolní Vˇ
estonice, Czech Republic, and
Krems, Austria, both dated to ca. 27,000–26,000 years ago; Arene Candide Cave, Italy,
ca. 23,000 years ago; La Madeleine, France, ca. 10,000 years ago).
At the same time, there is evidence for increased, more elaborate investment in
grave architecture. Graves were dug to create pits, sometimes lined with stone slabs
BURIALS, PALEOLITHIC 5
and plaster, and the burials were either laid upon or covered with stone slabs, mostly
plain but sometimes painted or engraved (e.g., Riparo Tagliente, Italy, ca. 13,000 years
ago). Grave markers are also recognized, whether as monoliths, stone cairns, or even
breached deep stone mortars (e.g., Dar es Sultan, Morocco; Riparo di Villabruna, Italy;
and Riparo Tagliente, Italy, all dated to ca. 13,000–12,000 years ago; Natuan Nahal
Oren and Raqefet Cave, Israel, 14,000–12,000 years ago). On occasion, bodies were
smeared or decorated with red ochre (notable examples are from Paviland, England,
ca. 28,000 years ago; Sunghir, Russia, 28,000–26,000 years ago; and Dolní Vˇ
Czech Republic, 26,000–24,000 years ago).
The possible meaning(s) of Paleolithic burials
e concept of purposeful treatment of the bodies of dead conspecics may have been
ingrained in the behavioral repertoire of Middle Pleistocene human ancestors. An alter-
native evolutionary scenario suggests that the emergence of burial occurred indepen-
dently in Eurasia and in Africa as unrelated processes of convergent evolution. It can
also be explained as a slow diusion of social practices. Possibly all of the above played
a role in modifying and shaping burial practices throughout the Paleolithic. A feasible
scenario for how this happened links the repeated caching of dead bodies during the
Middle Pleistocene (as observed, for example, at Sima de los Huesos, Spain) with the
evolution of a derived behavior of individual burials.
Demonstrating the occurrence of intentional burials hinges on archaeology; inter-
preting their cultural, social, or cognitive signicance is a separate issue. Empathy is a
characteristic of many species in the animal world, including primates. e evolving
cognitive abilities of Homo enabled humans to express their empathy in unique ways.
us the physical remains of dead group members were taken care of (buried) aer the
event of death, transferring empathy for living individuals to dead ones. Accordingly,
burial by itself does not necessarily bear symbolic meaning (Hovers and Belfer-Cohen
2013; Pettitt 2011).
Indeed, the ethnographic data provide ample evidence of emotional and spiritual
bonds between living and dead group members, evidenced through treatment of
the corpse. Of interest is that there are no examples of burial practices originating
from sanitary concerns, contrary to such suggestions raised in connection with early
Still, Paleolithic burials are considered tohavesymbolicaspectsbasedontheirasso-
ciation with other nds within the sites in which they are found and in the context of
the sites themselves, as best illustrated by post-MP record.
“Grave goods” may be of a symbolic nature on various levels, extending from a tribute
to the buried individual to honoring the social or ritual status of the deceased (e.g., war-
riors, shamans; Figure 2) to exhibiting the wealth and social standing of the ones who
perform the burial (whether individuals or a community). e same is true as regards
that the growing investment in graves and funerary gis became a form of costly sig-
naling and reects the emergence of structured rituals. However, the archaeological
Figure 2 ApartialviewoftheshamanburialatHilazonTachtitCave,Israel,fromtheNatuan
culture (12,000 years ago). Note the unique items associated with the human remains: articu-
lated forearm (radius and ulna) of a wild boar directly aligned with the woman’s le humerus,
bone tool, tortoise carapaces, and the small pebble abrader resting on the woman’s pelvis. See
Grosman et al. (2008) for an artist’s rendition.
Source: Reproduced with permission from Leore Grosman. Photo: Naali Hilger. © Leore
evidence is meager and circumstantial. Perhaps the most convincing archaeological
indications for funerary rituals is the evidence for “feasting,” occurring in association
with graves in the Natuan and Neolithic in the Near East.
Caching and interment of the dead seem to have been associated throughout time
practice of repeated burials may have been related to the need for some expression of a
group–land association or territorial claim, given that territoriality is a social as well as
an ecological phenomenon. Burial and territoriality are linked in many ethnographic
reports (e.g., among the San in Southern Africa and among Australian Aborigines).
Such interpretations accord with the fact that the increased degree of sedentism seems
to have emerged in tandem with cemeteries and with the practice of secondary burial.
It seems that bringing complete or partial corpses for reburial signies the evolving role
of sites on the landscape vis-à-vis group territoriality and claims of ownership, demon-
strating yet another aspect of burial practices.
SEE ALSO: Archaeological Approaches in Anthropology; Dating, Archaeological;
Death and Burial; Empathy, Evolution of; Material Culture; Modernity, Behavioral;
Symbolic Culture, Origins of
BURIALS, PALEOLITHIC 7
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Belfer-Cohen, Anna, and Erella Hovers. 1992. “In the Eye of the Beholder: Mousterian and Natu-
an Burials in the Levant.” Current Anthropology 33 (4): 463–71.
Berger, Lee R., John Hawks, Paul H. G. M. Dirks, Marina Elliott, and Eric M. Roberts. 2017.
“Homo naledi and Pleistocene Hominin Evolution in Subequatorial Africa.” eLIFE.doi:
Binford, Lewis R. 1971. “Mortuary Practices: eir Study and Potential.” In Approaches to the
Social Dimensions of Mortuary Practices, edited by James A. Brown, 6–29. Washington, DC:
Society for American Archaeology.
Deeur, Alban. 1993. Les sépultures mousteriénnes [e Mousterian Burials]. Paris: CNRS Edi-
Gargett, Robert H. 1999. “Middle Paleolithic Burial Is Not a Dead Issue: e View from Qafzeh,
Saint-Césaire, Kebara, Amud and Dederiyeh.” Journal of Human Evolution 37: 27–90.
Goring-Morris, A. Nigel, and Anna Belfer-Cohen. 2013. “Dierent Strokes for Dierent Folks:
Near Eastern Neolithic Mortuary Practices in Perspective.” In Religion at Work in a Neolithic
Society: Vital Matters, edited by Ian Hodder, 35–57. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Grosman, Leore, Natalie D. Munro, and Belfer-Cohen, A. 2008. “A 12,000-Year-Old Shaman
Burial from the Southern Levant (Israel).” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
USA 105 (46): 17665–69.
Hitchcock, Robert K., and Laurence E. Bartram. 1998. “Social Boundaries, Technical Systems,
edited by Miriam T. Stark, 12–49. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Hovers, Erella, and Anna Belfer-Cohen. 2013. “Insights into Early Mortuary Practices of Homo.”
In e Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, edited by Sarah Tarlow and
Liv Nilsson-Stutz, 631–42. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pettitt, Paul. 2011. e Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial. London: Routledge.
Riel-Salvatore, Julien, and Georey A. Clark. 2001. “Grave Markers: Middle and Early Upper
Paleolithic Burials and the Use of Chronotypology in Contemporary Paleolithic Research.”
Current Anthropology 42 (4): 449–79.