34 – Symbolic behavior: Mortuary modification of human skeletal remains
160,000 years ago
Between 250,000 and 50,000 years ago, there is evidence that the first burials occurred—roughly coinciding with the Middle Paleolithic (250,000 to 30,000 years ago) period in Eurasia. Skeletal remains of this time span in Africa (the Middle Stone Age) are attributed to variable forms of Homo sapiens. With one exception (Border Cave 3), these findings cannot be considered as “burials,” yet non-utilitarian postmortem modifications have been recognized. One of the crania from Herto (Ethiopia, ca. 160,000 years ago) bears bone-surface modifications. The earliest known modern human burials are reported from the Lake Mungo site (Australia), in a shallow pit (as well as cremated remains of another individual), dated to around 40,000 years ago. In Europe, the purported earliest Upper Paleolithic (50,000 to 10,000 years ago) burials are associated with remains at the Mladec Caves, Czech Republic, ca. 31,000 years ago. The burials of “Cro-Magnon,” considered synonymous with “modern humans,” are somewhat later, at around 28,000 years ago at the Cro-Magnon rock shelter, in France.
Image credit David L. Brill. From Lucy to Language, Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Environmental and Climate Changes
Earth’s climate remains relatively stable with alternating glacial and interglacial periods