The Stone Age: Burials & Tombs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Humans are unique in our treatment of the dead, which we take very seriously. So, how did people handle this in the past? In this lesson, we'll examine Stone Age burials and see what they tell us about our ancient ancestors.

Why do humans bury our dead? When you think about it, it's a really interesting (if morbid) question. From what we can tell, an awareness of death and desire to somehow treat the dead with respect is as old as our species, and a fundamental part of what makes us human. Ben Franklin once said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Well, even before taxes, humans were aware of death, and sought ways to deal with it through their funerary practices.

Paleolithic Burials

Humans of the Stone Age sought to deal respectfully with the remains of deceased loved ones, but the ways they did this changed greatly over time. Let's start by looking at burial practices of the Paleolithic era, or Old Stone Age. This time period encompasses most of human history, starting with the evolution of humans as a species, and lasting a few hundred thousand years until the development of agriculture. Paleolithic humans were genetically identical to us, intelligent, and capable. They lived (for no more than 35 years on average) in small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, following food resources throughout the year.

So, what happened when one of them died? We have evidence from around the world that Paleolithic people had burial customs, but these customs are wildly inconsistent. In some cases, bodies were buried in shallow graves and covered by boulders to protect them. Others were buried with grave goods like beads, while others were so hastily or poorly buried that the bones were soon scattered by scavengers.

The Sunghir burial site of Russia. This 30,000-year old Paleolithic person was covered in ivory beads as grave goods
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Paleolithic people lived on the move, had limited material resources, and limited tools for digging. It's likely that cremation was an important part of many Paleolithic cultures, although this is based more on assumption than actual evidence. We can tell that Paleolithic people did try to create graves and had funerary rituals, but considering their lifestyles and resources, it's not surprising to see so many inconsistencies, even within a single culture.

Neolithic Burials

Eventually, several human groups realized that they could plant seeds to create a constant food supply in one place, rather than needing to move around for food. This was the beginning of agriculture, which led to the New Stone Age, or Neolithic period. Neolithic people lived in settled, permanent societies. Having permanent villages meant that, for the first time, they could also develop permanent cemeteries and burial grounds.

We see a wide range of burial practices as Neolithic people experimented with new ways to dispose of and honor the dead. Since they had more time, many were able to dig better graves, deep enough to be undisturbed by scavengers. Since people who lived in one place could develop stronger material cultures, it also became much more common to start burying important material items within these graves. There is some evidence of grave goods in Paleolithic burials, but this practice really took off in the Neolithic era as material goods became a greater part of people's lives.

While this site was created slightly after the Stone Age, the tradition of burying people in ceramic vases first appeared in Japan in the Neolithic era
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Every Neolithic culture developed its own burial practices, but there are some common traits that we see around the world. One of the most substantial is the rise of burial mounds. Known as barrows or cairns in the UK, but generally referred to as tumuli around the rest of the world, burial mounds were some of the first large-scale architectural accomplishments of the Neolithic.

The Newgrange site of Ireland is a massive, late Neolithic grave mound
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