Evolving in Their Graves: Early Burials Hold Clues to Human Origins

By Harder, Ben | Science News, December 15, 2001 | Go to article overview

Evolving in Their Graves: Early Burials Hold Clues to Human Origins


Harder, Ben, Science News


Sometime within the past 40,000 years, Neandertals disappeared from Europe, modem-looking people replaced them, and a wave of cultural change washed over the region. New techniques for fashioning tools from bone and stone came into use. Artistic expression increased markedly: Paintings appeared for the first time on cave walls, and sculpted figurines and objects of personal adornment became widespread. Other cultural practices, such as honoring the dead, either arose or grew more complex.

If an abrupt flowering of new cultural practices in Europe clearly coincided with the first appearance of modern humans, it would suggest that the newcomers represented a species that was different from Neandertals and had distinct behavioral capacities. On the other hand, evidence that cultural innovations stemmed from continual, gradual refinements of behavior would suggest that Neandertals, perhaps by interbreeding with other groups, evolved into modern people.

Whether Neandertals were evolutionary dead ends, as the first hypothesis suggests, or our ancestors is a major controversy in the study of modern human origins.

Anthropologists are digging for answers in the debate between these two ideas. Determining how and when prehistoric people began to bury their dead--and whether symbolism and ritual were involved in those first burials--could produce important insights into the development of modern humans.

But the scientists studying burials don't agree on how to read the clues they've found. Some researchers see archaeological support for the idea that modern humans introduced intentional burial into Europe. If this behavior turns out to be unique to modern people, it would add weight to the two-species model.

Others, in contrast, maintain that the complexity of burial practices in Europe developed gradually from the time when Neandertals occupied the region into the era when modern humans dominated it.

Many remains recovered in Europe from the Upper Paleolithic, the period from approximately 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, are widely recognized as products of intentional burial. These corpses were found mostly in caves, often alone but sometimes in groups that had been buried simultaneously or over a period as long as several millennia. Remains, sometimes along with manufactured objects and personal effects, had been put into earth mounds or burial pits in or outside the caves.

Less clear, however, is whether Neandertals or human populations buried their dead during the Middle Paleolithic, which immediately preceded the Upper Paleolithic and began 150,000 to 250,000 years ago. Even among the anthropologists who hold that there was intentional burial during the Middle Paleolithic, debate flares over whether hominids of the time attached symbolic importance to the act or it was only a rudimentary, utilitarian routine.

A handful of anthropologists, including Robert H. Gargett of the University of New England in New South Wales in Australia, contends that human fossils recovered from the Middle Paleolithic show no clear evidence of intentional burial. Gargett has hypothesized that all alleged intentional burials from the time could be explained by natural processes that could cover a body with rocks and soil.

Gargett and other anthropologists study a fossil's archaeological context--bones' and objects' positions in the earth relative to each other--to determine how the remains came to be preserved and arranged as they were found. This analysis can help determine whether contemporary people had handled the corpse in some way or whether processes such as animal scavenging and weathering could explain the state of the remains.

Many excavations conducted before about 1960, however, lacked a systematic approach to recording aspects of remains' archaeological context. Only a handful of sites has been discovered and carefully excavated since that time. …

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