Well, in the wake of the announcements of the Leti discovery, I found this old paper I wrote years ago, before getting really involved with Paleoanthropology, and thought it would be interesting, in retrospect to see my thoughts on this topic then, vs. what we see now in the Leti discovery, which you can learn about here.
The Case for the First Human Burial
When one considers a burial, the most basic thing that comes to mind is someone or something being buried in the ground. While this is true, when viewed from an anthropomorphic point of view, there is alot more to it.
A burial goes from being dropped into the ground, to ritualized intent, where there is care given to the individual not only for its physical body but for its afterlife as well.
Today we are the only known species of, well any animal that buries it’s dead. It’s something that marks us as unique. But it has not always been this way.
We have evidence that before us, or alongside with us, Neanderthals ( a close human relative) buried their dead as well. We have substantial proof of these burials from sites in the middle east.
The oldest modern human burial that we know of today comes from Qafzeh, Israel. Here modern human individuals were found stained with Red Ochre and were discovered with various burial goods, which one would assume could only be for the afterlife. These finds date to about 100,000 years ago.
So that is it right? There is the case for the first true human burial, in Skhul Cave, At Qafzeh. Well not necessarily. There is in fact evidence and a high probability that these are not the first human burials we know of. At least as of 2013.
But I guess it all goes back to the idea of what you consider human. If we are only speaking of Modern Humans or Neanderthals then the picture becomes more clear, despite how fuzzy it remains.
But what is a human? If we are talking about us, Homo sapiens it can be more obvious. But we are but one of many human, or hominid species that have existed thorough out time. In 2013 Dr. Lee Berger and his team announced the discovery of a never before seen hominid species. Dubbed H. naledi, this would be a ground breaking discovery. In fact it is what we rated as the top discovery of the last decade.
What was so amazing about this find? Well, there are many reasons, and if you have read our posts before or know the stories you will know what we are talking about. In short, we have new hominids, in a new area, doing new things, and a large collection of them.We found over fifteen individuals, in various forms of completeness, and suddenly there was so much to study and learn!
The hominins were found deep, and we mean deep in a cave system called Rising Star. They were found in a chamber within the cave system, somewhere that would be very hard for any animal to access with the current, and predicted geological features found at the site. There is only one way in, and it seems to have been that way for millions of years.
With no other animal deposits in the cave it was clear this place was not accessed on the frequent, at least not just by anyone. With no signs of predation, habitation, flooding, or accidental deposition, how did all of these individuals get there? And so we have the dilemma.
Was Homo naledi, which has been dated to about 250k years ago, burying its dead? Millenia before modern humans or neanderthals? Lee Berger and his team would like us to believe so.
And to be honest, it’s hard to argue against, there is a counter to every argument that has been presented thus far leaving nothing but some sort of intentional disposition. Most likely, the dropping of these individuals down a narrow shoot used to access the chamber.
So, what do you think now? It seems the idea for Naledi interring its own dead with some sort of intent! Once the plausible is ruled out, there is only the impossible!