Essay, Research Paper: Burial Ceremonialism


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the course of human history, anthropological findings have assisted
archeologists in creating an excellent archeological record. Findings such as
burial ceremonialism and certain behaviors that accompany this humanlike ritual
are factors that may aid archeologists in the creation of past records. Through
the ritual of burial ceremonialism of our ancestors we are able to determine
certain behaviors that may have been expressed by the participants. Such
examples are our ancestors’ view of death, its significance, and the mere fact
that they exhibited humanlike practices. Thus, helping determine how similar
they may have been to us. Archeologists have determined that the first group of
ancestors to show any type of ritual burial ceremonialism was the Neandertals.
“At sites such as Le Moustier, La Chapelle-aux-Saints, and La Ferrassie in
France; Teshik-Tash in Uzbekistan; Shanindar in Iraq; and Amud, Tabun, and
Kebara in Israel, there is evidence that shows that the Neandertals buried their
dead in the ground” (175). It would have been much easier for the Neandertals
to discard of their dead by ignoring it or leaving it in the woods or forest to
be decomposed by natural processes and scavenging animals. This would then have
shown that the Neandertals did not recognize the significance of death, but
instead, Neandertals took it upon themselves to ceremonially bury their dead.
Not only were the dead buried in the ground, but a certain position was assumed,
which consisted of a flexed form in which their knees were drawn up to their
chest and their arms bend in an upward position (175). One postulate as to why
the Neandertals used this position was to “mimic the position of the fetus in
the womb, which may have been used to symbolize death as the end of the circle
of life (176).” Other forms have been found as well. An example of this is a
skeleton of a Neandertal male, which was found in Kebara Cave in Israel. “This
skeleton was intentionally buried, having been laid on his back in an east-west
orientation, his head facing west” (182). Excavators found that his right arm
was laid across his chest and his left arm on his stomach. Throughout the cave,
animal bones showed evidence of gnawing by carnivorous animals, but the skeleton
on the other hand showed no evidence of such damage what so ever. This lead
excavators to believe that he was buried there by companions of some sort. It
was completely intact with the exception of a missing cranium, which to this day
still remains a mystery. This skeleton further proves to archeologists that our
Neandertal ancestors recognized the significance of death. In addition to the
fact that Neandertals recognized the significance of death, the skeleton
provided additional insight into their culture. The Kebara skeleton, located in
Kebara Cave in Israel, provided information to archeologists that Neandertals
possessed the ability to speak due to a certain position of the hyoid bone in
the throat. Excavators also found that the pelvic inlet size of a Neandertal
differs from that of a modern day human. Before this finding in Kebara Cave, it
was believed that the gestation period of a Neandertal female was greater than
that of a modern human female, due to the different sizes of children at the
same age. This is now known to be incorrect. “So the relatively large size of
Neandertal children when compared to anatomically modern children of the same
age is probably related to accelerated development after birth, not faster or
longer parental development” (181). An additional behavior that has been
recognized of the Neandertals is that they have many humanlike practices, one
such ritual is that of ceremonial burials. Through this behavior, it has been
found that Neandertals possessed the ability to show and feel compassion. .
“The best, though not only, example comes from the skeleton of an adult male
found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq” (174). In this cave, an individual was found
that had experienced an incredible deal of trauma, consisting of severe damage
to the left side of his head in which the eye socket had been impaired to the
point of probable blindness. His right arm was smashed and partially amputated
and his right leg showed signs of disease. Despite all this, the skeleton of
this Neandertal man showed that he led quite an eventful life because of the
amount of stress fractures in his bones. The only possible way for him to
survive would have been with a great deal of help and understanding of his
situation from his companions. Another example that illustrates the fact that
Neandertals exhibited a certain degree of compassion was found at an excavation
site also located in Shanidar cave, an enormous amount of flower pollen was
found directly over the site of a burial and nowhere else. Archeologists
determined this could mean one of two things. The individual may have run
through a field of flowers right before he died, or his companions placed
flowers over his grave. If the latter of the two assumptions is correct, his
companions would have exhibited a great deal of compassion (174). These examples
show that the Neandertals, on a whole, demonstrated a certain degree of
compassion that is much like what modern humans’ exhibited toward their own
kind. This is yet another reason supporting that they may have been similar to
us. Although most modern day humans do not practice the ritual of leaving the
dead with significant amounts of objects in his or her burial, many
civilizations of the past such as Sumerian and the ancient Egyptian
civilizations did in fact leave the deceased with objects. These objects
consisted of artwork, jewelry, personal items, and many others relating to the
life of the individual. Not only do these enable archeologists to use highly
technical forms of past dating to determine the relative age of the materials
and the deceased, but factors such as an individuals economic and social status
are also able to be determined due to the presence and type of these objects and
materials. Studying ceremonial burial has enabled archeologists and
anthropologists to further determine the nature of our ancestors in the past.
Through the information received, it is easier to understand some of the
behavioral habits of our ancestors by studying their rituals and lifestyles as
best we can. Many important pieces of information from archeological and
anthropological findings help in the recreation of our past. Although many of
the traits described about Neandertals makes them appear human in character, we
must remember that these are just humanlike rituals, not actual modern day human
beings. This information only further increases our knowledge of how our past
was and how we relate to our distant ancestors. Burial Ceremonialism

1) Feder, Kenneth L. The Past in Perspective: An Introduction to Human
Prehistory. Mayfield Publishing Company: Mountain View, California. 1996.

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