Is Burial a Modern Human Behaviour?

By Josephine Mills, on 16 January 2018

Both the Grant and the Petrie Museums contain regular reminders of death, burial, and what comes after. The animals and skeletons preserved in the Grant continue to contribute to studies of comparative anatomy, education, and public outreach in the museum. In the Petrie, there are many examples of how Ancient Egyptians treated death and the afterlife, including the wooden coffin of Nairetisetnefer on display at the back of the main room (figure 1).

Figure 1: The wooden coffin of Egyptian woman Nairetisetnefer, which is covered in gesso and painted with religious scenes and inscriptions. It was found in the Besenmut family burial(s) at Thebes. Petrie accession number: UC14230

Burial and mourning have long been associated with human-ness. Historically, we’ve thought of the process of understanding death, and what may come after, as something that can only be conceptualised by Homo sapiens. However recent observations of mammals (like the elephant) suggest that mourning, or observation and reaction to death, are not unique to humans as a species.

From an archaeological perspective, burial is generally classed within the suite of ‘advanced’ behaviours (alongside personal adornment, symbolic behaviour etc.) that appear in the archaeological record around 40,000 years ago, coinciding with the widespread dispersal of anatomically modern humans (aka H. sapiens). The timing and proliferation of these burials means that they are generally associated with a period called the Upper Palaeolithic.

Some Upper Palaeolithic burials are easy to recognise in the archaeological record as the individual(s) is interred in a well-cut grave alongside grave goods, like the burials found at Sungir in Russia (figure 2). These well-known burials are probably not representative of widespread mortuary practice instead representing high-status individuals. Types of burial varied substantially across the Upper Palaeolithic world, for an overview of the diversity of burials in Eurasia check out Riel-Salvatore and Gravel-Miguel (2013).

Figure 2: These images show the burial of a male individual known as Sungir 1. The skeleton is incredibly well preserved and although the outfit the individual was buried in has not survived you can see the mammoth ivory beads that would have adorned it. Image credit: Trinkhaus, E., Buzhilova, A. P. 2012. “The Death and Burial of Sunghir 1.” International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 22: 665-666

Did other hominins further back into the past practice burial? One of the most important things to consider is what the word ‘burial’ means. In a way, it can be a loaded term indicating direct intention to preserve or honour an individual, hinting at aspects of the deceased’s relationship with the living and perhaps thoughts for their journey into something like an afterlife. This process demonstrates a whole lot of complex thoughts and ideas. However, from a practical perspective the idea of burial also encompasses things like the removal of deceased from occupation sites, thereby minimising the risk of disease and attraction of dangerous carnivores, a behaviour Pettit (2013) calls ‘funerary caching’. This would make some burials in the past a slightly more practical option.

In an archaeological (particularly a Palaeolithic context) how do you tell when somebody has been deliberately buried?

  • Bones in the skeleton remaining in the correct anatomical location and still being attached to one another indicating a high degree of skeletal articulation, which suggests that the deceased was interred relatively rapidly after death and was not disturbed post-mortem. The preservation state of the bones can also hint at deliberate burial as they are less likely to be broken by disturbance if the individual has been protected by a grave-like structure or set aside in a specific place. This is seen in the articulated burial of a two-year-old child Neanderthal child (Dedriyeh 1) in Syria (Pettit 2013; figure 3).
  • Association of grave goods with burials, such as flint arrowheads or inclusion of animal remains, like the red deer maxilla associated with Amud 7 Neanderthal burial (Pettit 2012). These items are particularly important if they are unusual or uncommon in the surrounding excavated area, making it more likely that they were placed with the deceased on purpose.
  • Looking for some sort of grave-like depression, a hollow dug into the ground or an area to the side of a cave where a body is placed under a rock or in a natural shelf.


Figure 3: This reconstructed skull belongs to a Neanderthal child known as Dederiyeh 1, who was around two years old. I think one of the most striking features of this skull is the presence of so many teeth! Image credit:http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/fossils/dederiyeh-1


Figure 4: This image shows the burial of a Neanderthal child known as Amud 7, excavated from Amud Cave in Israel. Although it is relatively difficult to see from the photo the skeleton was found alongside several items that have been interpreted as grave goods, for example flint tools and a red deer bone. Image credit: Hovers, E., Ullman, M., & Rak, Y. (2017). Palaeolithic Occupations in Nahal Amud. In Y. Enzel & O. Bar-Yosef (Eds.), Quaternary of the Levant: Environments, Climate Change, and Humans (pp. 255-266). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316106754.029

I study Neanderthals and have written in the past about how they are often given a tough time in popular media for being brutish, unintelligent and lacking in the advanced behaviours of modern humans. The burials mentioned above were made by Neanderthals, however all post-date 70,000 years ago meaning they occurred relatively late in the Middle Palaeolithic (the time when Neanderthals were around); they are also not found consistently across the Neanderthal world (Pettit 2013). From the available evidence, it seems that burial was not a ubiquitous behaviour; however, a preservation bias probably exists because the further you get into the past the more likely archaeological remains are disturbed. Equally Neanderthals were highly mobile hunter gatherers so the chance of finding and excavating their occupation and burial sites is rare and finds are generally seen in cave systems. This is both due to the shelter from environmental processes provided by caves and their recognised potential as archaeological sites, meaning they are excavated more often than open-air sites.

Neanderthal burial is a controversial topic and some of burials are contested, particularly if the term is defined by modern human standards, e.g. the deceased is found interred in a dug grave alongside grave goods. It’s likely that the origin of burial, as suggest by Pettit (2013) who has written in detail about the subject, is in the Palaeolithic but it is improbable that somebody somewhere in the past woke up and invented the concept of burial as we understand it today. It is more plausible that mortuary practice evolved in various places at separate times and has some roots in the practicalities of death for living populations.

For a final thought, although excavated burials generally post-date around 70,000 years ago (late in Neanderthal evolution), new discoveries like the structures in Bruniquel Cave (Jaubert et al. 2016), which have been reliably dated to 170,000 years ago, reveal a deepening complexity in observed Neanderthal behaviour; alongside finds like this, it doesn’t seem out of this world to think that some form of mortuary behaviour was seen earlier in the human record.

Incidentally there’s also rather a lot of evidence for excarnation by Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans, but that’s for another blogpost!


Jaubert, J., Verheyden, D., Genty, D., Michel, Soulier., Cheng, H., Blamart, D., Burlet, C., Camus, H., Delaby, S., Deldicque, D., Edwards, R. E., Ferrier, C., Lacrampe-Cuyaubère, F., Lévêque, F., Maksud, F., Mora, P., Muth, X., Régnier., E., Rouzaud, J., Santos, F. 2016. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature 534:111–114

Pettitt, P. (2013). The Palaeolithic origins of human burial. Routledge.