Prehistoric Burials



The earliest undisputed human burial, discovered so far, dates back 100,000 years. Human skeletal remains stained with red ochre were discovered in the Skhul cave at Qafzeh, Israel. A variety of grave goods were present at the site, including the mandible of a wild boar in the arms of one of the skeletons.

Prehistoric cemeteries are referred to by the more neutral term grave field. They are one of the chief sources of information on prehistoric cultures, and numerous archaeological cultures are defined by their burial customs, such as the Urnfield culture of the European Bronze Age. Read more ...




In the News ...





Broken pebbles offer clues to Paleolithic funeral rituals   PhysOrg - February 9, 2017
Humans may have ritualistically "killed" objects to remove their symbolic power, some 5,000 years earlier than previously thought, a new international study of marine pebble tools from an Upper Paleolithic burial site in Italy suggests. Researchers concluded that some 12,000 years ago the flat, oblong pebbles were brought up from the beach, used as spatulas to apply ochre paste to decorate the dead, then broken and discarded.




Remains Found of 7,000-Year-Old Man Buried Upright   Live Science - February 17, 2016

A Mesolithic site in Germany has revealed the 7,000-year-old remains of a young man buried there in a strange upright position. Placed in a vertical pit, the body was fixed upright by filling the grave with sand up to the knees. The upper body was left to decay and was likely picked at by scavengers. The unique burial was found near the village of Gro Fredenwalde, on top of a rocky hill in northeastern Germany, about 50 miles north of Berlin.




Neolithic tomb reveals community stayed together, even in death   PhysOrg - January 23, 2016

A Neolithic Spanish burial site contains remains of a closely-related local community from 6000 years ago. The Neolithic people are thought to have introduced new burial rituals in the modern-day Europe. This included building megalithic tombs, which were used over an extended period of time as collective burial sites and venues for ritual acts. The authors of this study examined a megalithic tomb at Alto de Reinoso in Northern Spain to build a comprehensive picture of this community using archaeological analysis, genetics, isotope analysis, and bone analysis.

The researchers identified at least 47 adults and adolescents that had been buried in the tomb over a hundred-year period. Based on DNA and isotope analysis, the authors suggest that the tomb contained a series of families from a local close-knit group. The individuals likely farmed cereal crops, and possibly sheep and goats. The tomb comprised three distinct layers. The individuals at the bottom of the tomb were more closely related and on occasion, family members appeared to have been buried side-by-side. Above them, almost all the skeletons exhibited signs of manipulation such as missing skeletal parts, especially skulls, suggesting a shift in the use of the tomb. Although the author's conclusions rely on certain underlying assumptions about the Neolithic society at the time, the authors state that this may be the first study to provide such an in-depth picture of this community in life and death.




Red Lady cave burial reveals Stone Age secrets   New Scientist - March 18, 2015

Some 19,000 years ago, a woman was coated in red ochre and buried in a cave in northern Spain. What do her remains say about Paleolithic life in western Europe? She was privileged to have a tombstone, and her grave may have been adorned with flowers. But the many who, for millennia after her death, took shelter in El Miron cave in northern Spain must have been unaware of the prestigious company they were keeping.

Buried in a side chamber at the back of the cave is a very special Palaeolithic woman indeed. Aged between 35 and 40 when she died, she was laid to rest alongside a large engraved stone, her body seemingly daubed in sparkling red pigment. Small, yellow flowers may even have adorned her grave 18,700 years ago - a time when cave burials, let alone one so elaborate, appear to have been very rare. It was a momentous honour, and no one knows why she was given it.

The Red Lady, as researchers are calling her, was a member of the Magdalenian people of the late Upper Palaeolithic. They would have been anatomically just like us, they had clothes and probably language, too, and belonged to social networks that spread across Europe. But although they lived in large numbers in Portugal and Spain, and archaeologists have been searching for burial sites for nearly 150 years, the Red Lady's grave is the first Magdalenian burial found in the Iberian peninsula.

The Magdalenian age saw a real explosion in the number and abundance of art, and in the realism of the animals represented," says Straus, especially in sites in northern Spain and France. The El Miron cave has its share, including an engraving of a horse and possibly one of a bison too. But most intriguing are the lines scratched upon the 2-metre-wide block of limestone behind which the Red Lady was buried. What looks like a mess of fine, straight lines could actually be far more significant.

Dozens of researchers have been excavating El Miron since 1996, with around 20 working on the Red Lady's grave since it was found. When they began digging, they discovered the jawbone (see picture) and shin bone (tibia) almost immediately. Both were bright red although they have since faded a sign that the woman had been covered in red ochre, a specially prepared iron oxide pigment that humans appear to have slathered on their dead for thousands of years. "It goes back to pre-Homo sapiens," says Straus. "This is a color that in their lives must have been very spectacular," he says, suggesting that its blood-like hue may have symbolized life and death.

The people who buried her used a special form of ochre, not from local sources, that sparkled with specular hematite, a form of iron oxide. It may have been applied to her corpse or clothes as a preservative or as a ritual. The regular use of red ochre at burials throughout the Upper Paleolithic elsewhere in Europe implies this formed part of a burial rite, says William Davies of the University of Southampton, UK. "It is certainly possible that these people held spiritual beliefs," Davies says.

But the skeleton is incomplete, a fact that may be linked to gnaw-marks on the tibia left behind. The pattern of black manganese oxide, which forms on bones as bodies rot, shows that a carnivore about the size of a dog or wolf took to the tibia some time after the flesh had decomposed. After this incident, a number of large bones, including the cranium, seem to have been removed, perhaps for display or reburial elsewhere. Many of the remaining bones, including the tibia and jawbone, were treated once again with red ochre, possibly to resanctify them




Prehistoric Grave May Be Earliest Example of Death During Childbirth   Live Science - February 4, 2015

Archaeologists say they've made a grim discovery in Siberia: the grave of a young mother and her twins, who all died during a difficult childbirth about 7,700 years ago. The finding may be the oldest confirmed evidence of twins in history and one of the earliest examples of death during childbirth, the researchers say. The grave was first excavated in 1997 at a prehistoric cemetery in Irkutsk, a Russian city near the southern tip of Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. The cemetery has been dubbed Lokomotiv because it was exposed in the base of a hill that was being carved out during construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1897.




Prehistoric Cemetery Reveals Man and Fox Were Pals   Live Science - February 3, 2011

Before dog was man's best friend, we might have kept foxes as pets, even bringing them with us into our graves, scientists now say. This discovery, made in a prehistoric cemetery in the Middle East, could shed light on the nature and timing of newly developing relationships between people and beasts before animals were first domesticated. It also hints that key aspects of ancient practices surrounding death might have originated earlier than before thought.




Bronze Age People Left Flowers at Grave   PhysOrg - December 16, 2009

Archaeologists from the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen have found proof that pre-historic people laid flowers at the graves of their dead. Experts believe the discovery of a bunch of meadowsweet blossoms in a Bronze Age grave in Forteviot, Perthshire is the first recorded example of such a ceremony.




4,600-year-old grave yields genetic evidence of family life (and death)    NBC - November 18, 2008

A Stone Age burial in central Germany has yielded the earliest evidence of people living together as a family. The 4,600-year-old grave contained the remains of a man, woman and two youngsters, and DNA analysis shows they were a mother, father and their children. While tools and remains from the Stone Age have long been studied, there are few clues to the social relationships between people. By establishing the genetic links between the two adults and two children buried together in one grave, we have established the presence of the classic nuclear family in a prehistoric context in Central Europe - to our knowledge the oldest authentic molecular genetic evidence so far. The researchers studied four multiple burials at Eulau, Saxony-Anhalt, all dated to the same time and containing adults and children carefully buried facing each other. Several of the skeletons showed evidence of injuries, suggesting a violent attack. There was a stone projectile point in the vertebra of one woman, and another had a skull fracture. Several had forearm and hand injuries, indicating attempts to protect themselves, the researchers said.




Earliest Known Nuclear Family Found; Died in Massacre?   National Geographic - November 18, 2008

The oldest known burial of a nuclear family, which includes a mother, father, and two boys, has been unearthed in Germany. The 4,600-year-old family, which was buried together in a deliberate huddle, may have died during a violent massacre. The find also gives scientists clues about the social organization of the late Stone Age period, which started around 10,000 B.C. The skeletons were uncovered in 2005 in a group of graves at an archeological site in the Eulau region. The excavation revealed four separate graves containing 13 bodies - 5 adults and 8 children. Within the group, DNA analysis confirmed a family of four, with the two children between 4 to 5 and 8 to 9 years old, respectively. Multiple burials occurred during the Neolithic, but individuals were usually buried at different times, sometimes years apart, Haak added.




Oldest nuclear family 'murdered'    BBC - November 18, 2008
The oldest genetically identifiable nuclear family met a violent death, according to analysis of remains from 4,600-year-old burials in Germany. Writing in the journal PNAS, researchers say the broken bones of these stone age people show they were killed in a struggle. Comparisons of DNA from one grave confirm it contained a mother, father, and their two children. The son and daughter were buried in the arms of their parents. In total, the four graves contain 13 bodies, eight children aged six months to nine years and five adults aged 25 to 60. In two graves, DNA was well preserved, which allowed comparisons between the occupants. One of these contained the nuclear family, while the other grave contained three related children and an unrelated woman. The researchers suggest she may have been an aunt or stepmother. These stone age people are thought to belong to a group known as the Corded Ware Culture, signified by their pots decorated with impressions from twisted cords. In their burial culture all bodies usually face south. In the family grave the adults did face south, but the children they hold in their arms face towards them. The researchers say an exception to the cultural norm was made so as to express the biological relationship.




Ancient Cemetery Found; Brings "Green Sahara" to Life   National Geographic - August 14, 2008

Paleontologist Paul Sereno and his team were scouring the rocks between harsh dunes in northern Niger in 2000 when they stumbled across the graveyard, on the shores of a long-gone lake. The scientists eventually uncovered 200 burials of two vastly different cultures that span five thousand years - the first time such a site has been found in one place. Called Gobero, the area is a uniquely preserved record of human habitation and burials from the Kiffian (7700 to 6200 B.C.) and the Tenerian (5200 to 2500 B.C.) cultures, says a new study led by Sereno of the University of Chicago. The "watershed" find also offers a new window into how these tribes lived and buried their dead during the extreme Holocene period, when a grassy Sahara dried up in the world's largest desert. One of the most striking discoveries was what the research team calls the "Stone Age Embrace": A woman, possibly a mother, and two children laid to rest holding hands, arms outstretched toward each other, on a bed of flowers.




Prehistoric Graves Reveal Americas' First Baby Boom   National Geographic - January 9, 2006
A new study of prehistoric cemeteries in North America is adding weight to the theory that the development of agriculture helped fuel baby booms around the world. According to the theory, populations swell when societies shift from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one based on the more sedentary routine of farming. Staying put allows women to have more babies, and a farming economy provides more food to support the growing population, explained Jean-Pierre Bocquet-Appel, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. North America's first baby boom is reflected in the number of skeletons of children ages 5 to 19 found in ancient cemeteries across the continent, he said.




Discovery Of The Oldest Remains Of A Woman Who Died In Childbirth   Science Daily - October 7, 2004

In ancient times, female death rates were particularly high and generally related to problems in maternity, such as complications during pregnancy, childbirth or the period of breast-feeding. However, in most cases this link has only been established from indirect data, such paleodemographic data and ethnographic references, or based on the poor health conditions normally attributed to ancient human groups. There also exists direct archaeological evidence of the high rate of female mortality in the child-rearing period. However, it has not always been possible to establish the cause of death in females and whether or not there was any relation to obstetric complications.




Evidence of earliest human burial BBC - March 23, 2003

Scientists claim they have found the oldest evidence of human creativity: a 350,000-year-old pink stone axe. The handaxe, which was discovered at an archaeological site in northern Spain, may represent the first funeral rite by human beings. It suggests humans were capable of symbolic thought at a far earlier date than previously thought. Spanish researchers found the axe among the fossilized bones of 27 ancient humans that were clumped together at the bottom of a 14-metre- (45 feet) deep pit inside a network of limestone caves at Atapuerca, near Burgos. It is the only man-made implement found in the pit. It may confirm the team's belief that other humans deposited bodies in the pit deliberately.




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