I am curious whether the practice of burying the dead started as a religious ritual or out of concern for public health. I am sure it didn't take much science for the early humans to realize the stench of a corpse and that disposing of it under ground helped maintain the living quarters more pleasant and sanitary. But did spirituality (even non-spiritual cultural respect for the dead) precede sanitation?

  • They knew nothing about the word sanitation. Or public health. Why do you divide these reasons? What about a ritual out of indefinite concern. I vote for closing, we could only suppose something. – Gangnus Jan 26 '17 at 14:46
  • maybe you could only suppose something... – amphibient Jan 26 '17 at 15:04
  • Oh, really, here surely are some people who had interviewed many Neandertals. Even have friends among them. – Gangnus Jan 26 '17 at 15:27
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a question about prehistory. While we permit some questions about prehistory, there are no sources or methods that would allow us to answer this question in a responsible, scholarly manner. – MCW Jan 26 '17 at 15:57
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    Archaeology can answer what happened and sometimes when; "why" is speculative. Asking about "spirituality" in a prehistoric context is outside the scope of historical research and analysis. While this is an interesting question, it cannot be answered by historical sources and methods. – MCW Jan 26 '17 at 16:23

The earliest undisputed purposeful burial we have found was from about 100,000 years ago. There's some more controversial evidence that Neanderthal man was performing burials far earlier than that.

Given the body painting on the find, it is generally assumed there was some kind of ritual purpose to it. I suppose its possible there may have been sanitation concerns too, but there's no real evidence of that, and it seems highly unlikely.

However, it should be noted that the two aren't necessarily distinct. For example, it is argued that a lot of ancient Jewish Kosher practices are rooted in real-life sanitation issues. Not all of them are effective at it, but this was far before the Scientific Method, so the framework for testing theories of sanitation was not what it is today.

  • Is Homo naledi in dispute as to purposeful burial or as to age? – AllInOne Jan 25 '17 at 21:33
  • @AllInOne - Was unfamiliar with that one (the find is quite recent), but it appears both. However, for our purposes here, the more salient dispute seems to be whether those were burials, simple corpse disposal, or unfortunates who got lost while spelunking. – T.E.D. Jan 25 '17 at 22:02
  • Great point about Kosher practices. One of the big ones is that undercooked pork is a big source of parasites that aren't found (or are uncommon in) other commonly eaten animals. If you are out wandering in the desert and don't have the resources to ensure that everyone is cooking thoroughly, it makes a lot of sense to say "just don't eat pork, mmkay?". That could have become a specifically religious rule later. – Robert Columbia Jan 26 '17 at 0:35
  • @RobertColumbia which is exactly how it's now understood many dietary and sanitary rules in religions came about, from the Jewish rules about eating pork to the Tapirape (an Amazonian tribe) shaving their pubic hair (which stems from a sanitary need to get rid of pubic lice). – jwenting Jan 27 '17 at 9:28

The ritual was before the sanitation. Even the old cases (40000 years ago) of burial shows some kind of ritual. In fact, some traditions during the classic era didn't use burial or cremation, but instead the body was given to the vultures. So the ritual was even in recent times more important than the sanitation.

That makes me remember the last epidemia of ebola, where the ritual was so important (cleaning the body) that many people got sick during this process, and they rejected the idea of cremation of the body without fulfilling the body cleaning first.

  • "Exposure" funerary seem to be fairly common amongst nomadic peoples. For example Inuit, Comanche, Tibetans, and Mongols were all known to do this. – T.E.D. Jan 25 '17 at 22:33
  • @T.E.D. indeed. And underground burrial and cremation among settled populations not wanting to attract more predators and rats to their settlements than appear anyway (this also lead to garbage being burried or burned). Sanitation was at least initially less important than that, getting rid of the stench of rotting garbage and corpses (and the flies) a nice bonus. – jwenting Jan 26 '17 at 14:32

It is perfectly possible that burial has been practiced by non human and even non primate beings.

Elephants sometimes bury dead elephants. In fact they sometimes bury dead or sleeping humans as well.



Occurrences of elephants behaving this way around human beings are common throughout Africa. On many occasions, they have buried dead or sleeping humans or aided them when they were hurt.[25] Meredith also recalls an event told to him by George Adamson, a Kenyan Game Warden, regarding an old Turkana woman who fell asleep under a tree after losing her way home. When she woke up, there was an elephant standing over her, gently touching her. She kept very still because she was very frightened. As other elephants arrived, they began to scream loudly and buried her under branches. She was found the next morning by the local herdsmen, unharmed.[36]


Thus the original reasons for burial by humans may remain as unproven and mysterious as the reasons why elephants sometimes practice burial.

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    Do you have a source for this elephant behavior? – Robert Columbia Jan 26 '17 at 0:36

May I point out that doing something with the body to avoid attracting scavengers/predators predates both. If you don't like the idea of having your mate's body violently torn up and scattered --or, as @jwenting pointed out, having the beasties go after your living relatives once they've been draw to the area by the scent -- there aren't many no-tech alternatives.

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    and more important, don't like having your living children eaten by a predator roaming the camp after being drawn by your recently deceased mother's corpse. – jwenting Jan 26 '17 at 14:33
  • Good point; added. – keshlam Jan 26 '17 at 16:18

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