Love and Death in the Stone Age: What Constitutes First Evidence of Mortuary Treatment of the Human Body?

Abstract

After we die, our persona may live on in the minds of the people we know well. Two essential elements of this process are mourning and acts of commemoration. These behaviors extend well beyond grief and must be cultivated deliberately by the survivors of the deceased individual. Those who are left behind have many ways of maintaining connections with their deceased, such as burials in places where the living are likely to return and visit. In this way, culturally defined places often serve as metaphors of social association and shared experience. Humans are the only kind of animal that buries their dead, and this gesture is preserved in Paleolithic sites as early as 120,000 years ago. Though not the only method of honoring the dead in human cultures, the emergence of burial traditions in the Middle Paleolithic (Mousterian) implies that both Neandertals and early anatomically modern humans (AMH) had already begun to conceive of the individual as unique and irreplaceable. Claims of primitive mortuary behavior in earlier periods than the Middle Paleolithic fall short in that they lack any signs of positive social-spatial associations between the deceased and survivors. The archaeological evidence for burial behavior in the Middle Paleolithic provides the first clear translation of mourning into a stereotypical action. These burials therefore may represent the first ritualized bridge between the living and the deceased in human evolutionary history.

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Acknowledgements

The ideas and arguments presented in this article were developed in two consecutive crucibles. The project began with my participation in the 2015 Downtown Lecture Series on Immortality, sponsored by the College of School of Behavioral Sciences of the University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ). Formative critiques were offered to my first rendition of the arguments and evidence by co-lecturers and organizers of the public lecture series. I am especially grateful to Lydia Breunig, J.P. Jones, Ed Wright, Jerry Hogle, Rachana Kamtekar, and Shaun Nichols for their many insightful criticisms in this context. The presentation went through a second working at an international archaeology-philosophy workshop held in November of 2015 at the University of Sydney entitled “Symbols and Communicative Behaviour in Pleistocene Hominins (Symbols II).” I owe much thanks to organizers Kim Sterelny and Peter Hiscock, the workshop participants, and Steve Kuhn for extended discussions, criticism, and insights for further refinements of this paper. All errors in thinking and fact are my own.

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Stiner, M.C. Love and Death in the Stone Age: What Constitutes First Evidence of Mortuary Treatment of the Human Body?. Biol Theory 12, 248–261 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-017-0275-5

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Keywords

  • Commemoration
  • Early AMH (anatomically modern humans)
  • Fire technology
  • Grief
  • Human evolution
  • Mourning
  • Neandertals
  • Paleolithic burials
  • Residential camps