Earliest burial ritual >300,000 years ago

Glenn Morton (grmorton@psyberlink.net)
Sat, 28 Jun 1997 21:16:52 -0500

It is often stated that the advent of intentional burial marks the advent of
religious belief. Bruce Dickson writes:

"The death of others recalls our own fate to us and forces us to prepare for
it in some fashion. For these--and a thousand other reasons--we cannot
allow the death of those close to us to pass unmarked. Therefore, these
middle Paleolithic period burials are prima facie evidence that, at least on
this very fundamental topic, the Neanderthals thought as we think and acted
as we act. As Freeman notes: 'Whatever their interpretation, these burials
suggest a concern for the proper treatment and well-being of members of
society byond death's frontiers and the beginnings of complex ideological
and social practices like those of fully modern man'" Bruce Dickson, The
Dawn of Belief, (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1990), p. 49-50

One important aspect of burial is that it increased the odds of a body being
preserved for the archaeologist to find. Birdsell writes:

"The distribution of human fossils is very uneven in both time
and space. Dental fragments of perhaps three individuals are
known from the Pliocene. Owing to changes in the chronology in
the Pleistocene which arose in 1971, in this chapter that period
will be divided into simply Early, Middle and Late segments. In
the Early Pleistocene, a period covering about two million years,
the record improves, and fragments of about a hundred individuals
are known, although they are almost entirely limited to Africa
south of the Sahara. In the Middle Pleistocene, fossil remains
again become scarce, although they are fairly widely scattered,
occurring in Africa, Europe, China and Java. Coming into the
Upper Pleistocene which may have lasted about one hundred
thousand years, the record remains scanty until the final glacial
period in Europe. Then the appearance of intentional burial and
better preservation add greatly to our store of fossils. During
the Upper Pleistocene, the finds again exceed one hundred
individuals, primarily concentrated in Europe, but with a few
scattered in the rest of the Old World."~J. B. Birdsell, Human
Evolution, (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1972), p. 229-230

So, the better preservation of bodies disposed of via mortuary practices may
explain the abundance of fossils found at a Spanish site called Sima de los
Huesos. Paul G. Bahn relates,

"Atapuerca is not a site, not even a series of sites, but an
entire sierra filled with Neolighic and Bronze Age cave
settlements and burials, Roman and medieval material, and cave
art of various periods. Yet the sierra's most important remains
are far more ancient, for it is the world's largest known
repository of fossil humans from the Middle Pleistocene, between
780,000 and 127,000 years ago, some thrown into a deep pit in
what may be the world's oldest known burials. Now even more
ancient human bones, some perhaps a million years old have been
found."~Paul G. Bahn, "Treasure of the Sierra Atapuerca",
Archaeology, January/February, 1996, pp 45-48, p. 45

The ritual treatment of the bodies has resulted in this single site
providing 90 percent of all pre-Neandertal bones ever found in Europe. 1600
bones have been recovered from the pit and only 2% of the material has been
removed so far. The remains of between 32 and 50 bodies so far recovered
average between 5 foot seven inches to over 6 feet tall and would have
weighed an average of 140 pounds. One of the skulls has a cranial capacity
of 1,390 cubic centimeters which is close to the modern average. Bahn writes,

"Studies of teeth indicate that the human bones here come from at
least 32 individuals, possibly 50. The bones are mixed up, but
all parts of the skeleton are present, and males and females are
equallly represented. Most are from adolescents and young adults
aged between 13 and 22, and more than 30 percent are between 17
and 19; the youngest is about four and the oldest 35. Since less
than a quarter of these individuals lived beyond their early
twenties, they cannot represent a full pupulation, and it is
likely the older people were disposed of elsewhere. Arsuaga
believes that over several generations bodies were carried into
the cave from an entrance, now lost, near the pit and tossed into
the shaft in a form of mortuary ritual that may point to some
embryonic religious belief. The absence of herbivore bones and
stone tools indicates that this was not an occupation site, and
the lack of carnivore damage(apart from a few inevitable cave
bear claw- or tooth-marks) suggests that the bones were not left
there by carnivores."~Paul G. Bahn, "Treasure of the Sierra
Atapuerca", Archaeology, January/February, 1996, pp 45-48, p. 48

The Sima site dates to sometime greater than 300,000 years old. (J.L.
Arsuaga et al, "Three New Human Skulls from the Sima de los Huesos Middle
Pleistocene site in Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain," Nature April 8, 1993, p 534.

While some apologists like Hugh Ross and David Wilcox prefer to exclude
these men from humanity preferring to have a young Adam, their behavior,
certainly suggests a recognition that death must be dealt with. This is the
same issue each of us must face as sinful beings before an almighty God. If
they were struggling with these issues, as we do, why is this not evidence
of spirituality, more than 300,000 years ago, among the pre-Neanderthal
populations, like the Sima people?

There are only three logical choices to deal with this type of data: reject
the historicity of the Scriptural account, have Adam and Eve NOT be the
parents of all living humans, or move Adam way back in time as I have often
I can think of no other possibilities.


Foundation, Fall and Flood