The Earliest Mortician

Glenn R. Morton (
Tue, 11 Aug 1998 21:28:18 -0500

Only humans bury their dead and engage in mortuary practices. The
following is the oldest proven case of human burial and it is very old. Two
citations for this activity.

" In 1986 Tim White, of the University of California at Berkeley, and
one of Don Johanson's collaborators on, for example, the 'Lucy' skeleton,
published a detailed analysis of the scratch marks on the Bodo skull. He
found marks around the orbital and nasal regions, on top of the brow
ridges, and along the back of the preserved skull cap. White considered
every possibility he could think of to account for the marks: natural
weathering of the specimen, rodent or carnivore gnawing, even abrasion or
trauma before the skull became buried in the ground. After ruling out all
of these possibilities, White was left with the possibility that these
scratches were, indeed, cut marks. And if , he reasoned, they were cut
marks, it probably meant that the skull had been defleshed. In fact White
found that the patterning and locations of these cut marks were virtually
identical to cut marks taxidermists made while defleshing the chimpanzee
and gorilla skulls housed in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
White kept open the question of why the Bodo skull might have been
defleshed, but it would certainly seem reasonable to assume that the
defleshing had been done after the Bodo individual had dies. Furthermore,
we are left with the very real possibility that, whatever species of
hominid the Bodo skull represents, this species' social behavior included
some kind of mortuary practice.
"At present, the Bodo skull represents the oldest example of any hominid
giving special treatment to the body or skeleton of a comrade. Even if
this was not a widespread activity for this hominid, the Bodo skull and the
Krapina and Shanidar Neandertal skeletons raise the possibility that tow
distinct, non-sapiens species of Homo had had rituals and cultural
practices that we have assumed are only within the capacity of members of
our own species." ~ Jeffrey H. Schwartz, What the bones Tell Us, (New York:
Henry Holt, 1993), p. 19

"A cranium from Bodo, Ethiopia, belonging to Homo heidelbergensis displays
diagnostic stone tool cut marks around the eye sockets, on the cheekbone,
on the forehead, and on the top and back of the cranium. It shows no sign
of chewing by carnivores. Because the bone had not begun to heal around
the grooves sliced into it and because the marks pass under the rock matrix
sticking to the skull, the cut marks were made either while this hominid
lived or just after he died. Around 600,000 years ago, this individual was
intentionally defleshed, in the earliest such incident known. But whether
the butcher ate any of this flesh cannot be answered." ~ Donald Johanson
and Blake Edgar, From Lucy to Language, (New York: Simon and Schuster,
1997), p. 93

Now lest anyone think that this is something that modern humans don't
engage in, (i.e. the defleshing of human bones) medieval monasteries are
filled with bones of monks, primates and saints whose bones were treated
EXACTLY as those of the 600,000 Bodo man. On the same page of Johanson and
Edgar is a discussion of one even earlier possible defleshing of bones at
780,000 years ago from the Gran Dolina near Atapuerca, Spain.

No longer is it the case that modern humans or Neanderthals are the first
people who treated their dead specially.

Adam, Apes and Anthropology
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