In the mid-1950’s, a team of researchers from Columbia University found Neanderthal remains inside Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan (Figure 1). The main excavations of the site were done in Shanidar cave from 1956 to 1961, and 11 Neanderthal remains have been found that date back to 35,000 to 65,000 years (Sissakian, 2019). One of the skeletons, known as Shanidar 4, was debated to have been buried in a “flower burial”. Another skeleton known as Shanidar 1 displayed evidence of disabling injuries, which suggested care for group members with debilitating injuries. Though there is debate about the burial of Shanidar 4, Shanidar Cave still shines a light on the behavior of Neanderthals and our knowledge of the species (Pomeroy, 2020).
Figure 1: A photo of the entrance to Shanidar Cave. Retrieved from https://www.science.org.
Another discovery of the burial of a small child in a cave in Kenya (Figure 2) has been thought to have been the oldest human burial in Africa, dating back to roughly 78,000 years ago. The child was thought to be about 3 years old at the time of death, and was buried curled up in a shallow grave. Portions of the child’s skeleton have been found in 2013, however, the actual burial site wasn’t discovered until 2017. It was also discovered that the child had been tightly shrouded in its position, showing deliberate preparation. The site was dated using a method known as luminescence dating (Ronen, 2012). Luminescence dating is a method used in archaeology and the earth sciences and has an age range of about a century or less to over one hundred thousand years (Aberystwyth University, 2008).
Figure 2: Photo of Panga ya Saidi Cave in Kenya. Retreived from https://www.indiatoday.in.
Despite being the oldest human burial in Africa, the oldest burial was found in Israel, dating back to about 130,000 years ago. Two populations, modern humans and Neanderthals, are associated with the total of about 40 individuals found buried. The practices of the two populations are similar, consisting of placing the corpse in a prepared pit, occasionally alongside grave goods, then filling the pit. There are also signs of the protection of the corpses from scavenging animals. Occasionally, stones were placed on the skeleton or on top of the pit after it had been filled in. The two most common types of objects used as grave goods were animal parts and symbolic objects. The fact that these individuals were buried intentionally occasionally with objects shows that these burials were not just to dispose of a dead body, but were intentionally done out of respect, as it had no clear benefit in the material world of quest for food, shelter, or defense (Ronen, 2012).
Overall, there are many different ways that humans have buried their dead over the years, as we have been practicing the act of burying the dead for hundreds of thousands of years. Early humans bury their dead despite it costing resources that could be used to prolong the survival of the group. This shows that early humans and even Neanderthals had the same if not similar capability to feel as we do now.
Biovin, Nicole. “Oldest Human Burial in Africa.” Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 5 May 2021, https://www.mpg.de/16809187/0429-wisy-oldest-human-burial-in-africa-9347732-x.
Culotta, Elizabeth. “New Remains Discovered at Site of Famous Neanderthal ‘Flower Burial’.” Science, 22 Jan. 2019, https://www.science.org/content/article/new-remains-discovered-site-famous-neanderthal-flower-burial.
Guidelines on Using Luminescence Dating in Archaeology. 2008, https://www.aber.ac.uk/en/media/departmental/dges/pdf/english_heritage_luminescence_dating.pdf.
Pomeroy, Emma, et al. “New Neanderthal Remains Associated with the ‘Flower Burial’ at Shanidar Cave: Antiquity.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 18 Feb. 2020, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/new-neanderthal-remains-associated-with-the-flower-burial-at-shanidar-cave/E7E94F650FF5488680829048FA72E32A.
Reuters. “Child’s Grave at 78,000-Year-Old Burial Site Tells of Early Man’s Emotional Life: Kenyan Archaeologist.” India Today, 13 May 2021, https://www.indiatoday.in/science/story/child-grave-at-kenya-oldest-burial-site-tells-of-emotions-1801960-2021-05-13.
Ronen, Avraham. “The Oldest Burials and Their Significance (Chapter 27) – African Genesis.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 5 Apr. 2012, https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/african-genesis/oldest-burials-and-their-significance/1B10F74654E37D2BC17D34C79E819134.
Sissakian, Varoujan K. “Shanidar Cave – an Interesting Archaeological Site in the Kurdistan …” Shanidar Cave – An Interesting Archaeological Site in the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, UKH Journal of Science and Engineering, 27 Dec. 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338205868_Shanidar_Cave_-_An_Interesting_Archaeological_Site_in_the_Kurdistan_Region_Iraq.