Did Homo naledi “Bury” their Dead?

Coauthored with the New Bing.

Did Homo naledi bury their dead? This question has fascinated paleoanthropologists since discovering this new human species in 2013. The fossils of Homo naledi were found in a hidden chamber of the infamous Rising Star Cave System in South Africa, where no other animals or sediments were present. The researchers who made the discovery suggested that this could be evidence of deliberate disposal of the dead by Homo naledi. This behavior is usually associated with complex cognition and symbolism.

However, not everyone agrees with this interpretation. Some critics have argued that alternative explanations exist for how the fossils ended up in the cave, such as accidental falls, floods, or predation. Others have questioned whether Homo naledi had the cognitive abilities to perform such a ritual, given their small brain size and primitive anatomy. (Does Brain Size Relate to intelligence or the ability to form a society?- Learn more).

One of the keywords that has sparked debate is “burial”. This term implies intentionality, respect, and possibly belief in an afterlife. But can we use this word to describe what Homo naledi did? Or is it too soon to make such a claim? What evidence is there to support the use of the word burial?

One way to approach this question is to compare Homo naledi with other hominins known or suspected to have buried their dead. The most obvious example is Neanderthals, who lived alongside modern humans for hundreds of thousands of years and left behind numerous burial sites across Europe and the Middle East. The oldest confirmed burial by Neanderthals dates back to about 100,000 years ago, but some researchers have suggested that they may have practiced this behavior as early as 250,000 years ago. Neanderthal burials often include grave goods, such as animal bones, tools, or flowers, which indicate some form of symbolism and ritual.

Another example is Homo sapiens, our species, who buried their dead in various ways and places throughout history. The oldest known burial by modern humans dates back about 120,000 years in Israel. Still, some researchers have argued that they may have started this practice even earlier, around 160,000 years ago in Ethiopia. Modern human burials also show evidence of symbolism and ritual, such as ochre pigments, ornaments, or art.

A third example is Homo heidelbergensis, a possible ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans, who lived between 700,000 and 200,000 years ago. There is only one possible burial site attributed to this species, in Atapuerca, Spain, where several skulls were found in a pit with stone tools. However, this site is controversial, and some researchers have suggested that it could be a result of cannibalism or natural accumulation rather than intentional burial.(Some, such as Prof. Chris Stringer argue the H. heidelbergensis should be now referred to as a “Basal Neanderthal”, or the species that eventually turned into Neanderthals, and shared extremely similar features.)

Based on these examples, we can see that burial is not a simple or straightforward concept. It can vary in location, frequency, style, and meaning. It can also evolve within the same species or culture over time and space. Therefore, it may not be appropriate to apply the same criteria or expectations to Homo naledi as we do to other hominins. Instead, we should try to understand their behavior in context and perspective.

What significance does this have for Paleoanthropology? The discovery of Homo naledi has challenged many assumptions and stereotypes about human evolution. It has shown more diversity and complexity among our ancestors than previously thought. It has also raised new questions about the origins and development of human cognition and culture. By studying Homo naledi and their possible burial practices, we can learn more about what makes us human and how we became who we are today.

Published by sethchagi

I am a Paleoanthropology Student, so far with two degrees, in Anthropology and Human Behavioral Science, pursuing my B.A and then my PhD I love to read (like a lot) and write, I love my family, and I adore anthropology! Remember, never stop exploring and never stop learning! There is always more to learn!

One thought on “Did Homo naledi “Bury” their Dead?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: