Death defines the end of existence and marks the definitive conclusion to the life energy of all living beings. Archaeologists discovered that our ancestors understood death's finality as far back as ancient times, dating back millions of years. In more recent times, graves discovered through archaeological research housed bodies of modern humans in some, while other similar discoveries unearthed the bodies of early Neanderthals.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Was There a Single Person or Culture That Discovered Death?
- How Death Was Discovered Through the Ages
These findings all point to the understanding of human suffering about death. Although there's no written documentation of how early civilizations processed grief and mourning, early cave drawings and the discovery of physical items near or on unearthed corpses left telltale signs that death is a concept with far reach to earlier times. As we understand it, different cultures linked to the beginning of time show a clear evolution in how they viewed death and how attitudes toward it continue to change and develop.
Was There a Single Person or Culture That Discovered Death?
History doesn't show one particular person or culture responsible for death's discovery. We know very little about the exact beginning of the ancient view of death since there are no references to funeral services or other death rites performed. However, what is known is that death, dying, grief, and the afterlife are an amalgamation across different periods and cultures. There is a clear evolution on how past civilizations and their death practices shaped modern views.
Scholars like Durham University archaeologist Paul Pettitt have conducted decades-long studies on what they consider funerary rituals sites discovered in their research. Along with studying human death behaviors, archaeologists also included the study of animal behaviors. They looked at death from a scientific perspective, including the breaking down of cells and how animals, including humans, dispose of their dead carcasses or bodies.
How Death Was Discovered Through the Ages
More archaeologists researched death throughout history dating back to the pre-modern man. They discovered that the concept of death evolved in many specific ways, piecing this evolution together by studying both animal and human behaviors. Archaeologists conducted two significant studies on what they first thought to be reminiscent of death rituals, only later presumed to be carnivore dens.
The first is known as the study of bones found in the caves of Spain’s Sima de Los Huesos, or pit of bones. The second is a South African cave called Dinaledi Chamber. You can find both referenced in the brief timelines below of the discovery of death.
The work of archaeologists in modern times worldwide
Modern archaeologists researching human behaviors dating back to prehistoric times have little evidence regarding how these early civilizations viewed death and dying. Researchers can only estimate how these earlier human groups evolved in their death practices, rituals, and beliefs. The most substantial evidence they have to go on is the limited information they can deduce from artifacts, paintings, and preserved human fossils.
Archeologists must also use their educated guesses and experience to translate their findings to piece together how these ancient civilizations lived, died, and honored their dead. The more they dig up ancient caves or dwellings and burial sites, the more they can piece together a more thorough understanding of the human experience before the existence of written history. The efforts of archeologists and historians worldwide are essential in bridging the gap between ancient and modern man.
Kenya (78,000 years ago)
The modern discovery of the oldest known deliberate burial took place in Kenya around 78,000 years ago. This particular excavation provides evidence that modern humans conducted the funerary internment of a young child in Africa, named by scientists, Mtoto, or child in Swahili.
This finding is important because up until then, most prehistoric research on the discovery of death centered around the Middle Stone Age in Africa, where evidence of death rituals and formal burials was almost nonexistent.
Scientists found Mtoto in a cave near the coast of Kenya and estimate that this burial is one of the first discoveries of modern funerary rights. Scientists discovered the body positioned with his legs drawn to its chest laying in a dug-up pit suggest that the burial was intentional and ritualistic.
Paleolithic Burials of Qafzeh, Israel
Between the years of 1933 to 1935, a deliberate burial site was located in a cave at the Paleolithic burial site of Qafzeh in Israel where scientists encountered early human remains purposefully buried in coffins. Qafzeh is a multi-layered rock formation housing human remains buried there around 92,000 years ago, representing the Paleolithic man.
Scientists found coffins and burial items, food, and other evidence of death rituals and ceremonies within the cave.
The ancient people of this region buried their dead grouped with other members of the same family, with some separation for the children. These ritual burials suggest an advanced funerary understanding of death and mourning, emotional attachments, and elaborate socialization.
Other discoveries show that the people of Israel understood death's significance practically and spiritually by burying their dead and strategically placing their graves.
The largest and oldest collection of human bones ever discovered is in northern Spain, near Burgos, at the Sima de Los Huesos, or the pit of bones found in the 1970s. It's known as the Archaeological Site of Atapuerca. This archeological finding is of the hominid man at the earliest stone age. Hominids represented the earliest form of man and predecessor to the modern homo sapien.
Sima de Los Huesos, located 100 feet below the earth's surface, housed some twenty-eight individual hominid fossils dated to 430,000 years old. This site represents the oldest and most extensive collection of prehistoric man found to date, making this one of the most critical archeological sites in modern history.
Human skulls found at this site are affectionately called Miguelón and are known as either late Homo heidelbergensis or early Homo neanderthalensis. The nickname stems from the retired Spanish road racing cyclist, Miguel Indurain, who won the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in 1992, the same year as the discovery of this particular skull.
One of the exciting findings of this cave on when death was discovered is that the cave either represented an ancient burial ground or a pit where cannibals disposed of human bone remains. Scientists haven't yet figured out exactly how the bones got in the cave so far beneath the earth's surface. Still, they hypothesize that the human remains were intentionally placed there by other humans, thus pushing back the origin of death's discovery.
Archaeologists interested in studying ancient death rituals were intrigued by the findings of South Africa's Dinaledi Chamber in 2015, where they discovered hominid bones that they first thought may show evidence of ancient death rituals and burial sites.
However, international researchers came up with a different conclusion upon further study and a more modern look at the Dinaledi Chamber and Spain's Sima de Los Huesos. They found that while previous researchers thought these two areas were ritual burial sites, they were most likely not where ancient death rituals occurred. Instead, scientists are now aligning these findings to carnivore disposal sites and not as evidence of early man's capacity to anticipate their death and ponder mortality.
Researchers relied on their inability to find tools or signs of food with or near the bones, making them think that the remains didn't represent any death ritual. While other scientists hypothesized that because there was no damage to the bones, these humans fell victim to predatory carnivores when alive.
To dispel the notion that the pits represented ancient burial sites, scientists looked at the types, shapes, and sizes of the bones found. Overall, they found a disproportionate number of head and neck bones and marrow-filled rounded ends of long bones, further disclaiming that these pits were early burial grounds.
Modern scientists and researchers, including famed Swiss-American psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying, published in 1969, and researcher Kenneth Doka, psychiatrist W. J. Worden contributed to a more modern approach to how humans experience death.
Kübler-Ross developed the five stages of grief in which she describes the grief experience as linear steps that individuals suffer as they try to make sense of their loss. She labeled the stages of grief as being: shock, anger, denial, depression, and acceptance, noting that not everyone experiences all of these stages or in this particular order. She likened the grief process to an emotional ebb and flow of emotional tides.
Kenneth Doka is a licensed mental health counselor, researcher, and expert author on the issues associated with grief and bereavement. He likens grief to an individual journey one must traverse instead of something to get over.
He’s written approximately 50 books on the subject of death, suffering, and bereavement, making him a well-respected and leading expert in the field. Together with Kübler-Ross, he’s come up with new ways of introducing and describing the different types of grief that occur in bereaved individuals.
W.J. “Bill” Worden pioneered the grieving process as a series of tasks that need completing before a bereaved person’s ability to move through their grief successfully.
The Modern Archaeologist's Discovery of Death
Archaeologists, researchers, and scientists all have access to more modern grief resources to help them understand how human's process death and bereavement. New studies into the different types of grief show how death attitudes continue to take shape and evolve based on individuals' perceptions and understanding. Death as a concept may have a different meaning to later generations as the human race makes further discoveries.
- "Death Through The Ages: A Brief Overview." Death and Dying: End-of-Life Controversies, Encyclopedia.com, 24 January 2022, Encyclopedia.com
- “El cráneo Miguelón llega a Madrid.” ABC, 15 December 2005, Abc.es
- Hirst, K. Kris. "Qafzeh Cave, Israel: Evidence for Middle Paleolithic Burials." ThoughtCo, 17 December 2019, Thoughtco.com
- Martinon-Torres, Maria, Francesco d’Errico, and Elena Santos. “Earliest known human burial in Africa.” Nature, 5 May 2021, Nature.com