A mysterious human species may have been the first to bury their dead (2023)

ByKristin Romey

Published June 5, 2023

13 min read

An extinct human species that lived hundreds of thousands of years ago may have deliberately buried its dead and carved meaningful symbols deep in a South African cave—advanced behaviors generally deemed unique to Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens. If confirmed, the burials would be the earliest yet known by at least 100,000 years.

The claims, made today in two research papers uploaded to the preprint server bioRxiv, were also announced by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger at a conference at Stony Brook University in New York.

The publications come eight years after Berger first reported the discovery of a new hominin species inside the Rising Star cave system 25 miles northwest of Johannesburg. Named Homo naledi, the species is characterized by its small size—including a brain roughly a third the size of today’s humans—and a baffling mix of very old and relatively modern anatomical features.

The skeletal remains discovered in the cave are concentrated in a single, hard-to-reach subsystem and are dated to between 335,000 and 241,000 years ago—a period when modern humans were just beginning to emerge in Africa.

"We've found the cultural space of a non-[modern] human species," Berger says. The research is sponsored by the National Geographic Society, where Berger is explorer-in-residence.

Berger’s team raised the possibility of intentional burials in 2015 when it first announced the discovery of Homo naledi. That seemed the most plausible explanation for how more than 1,800 bone fragments ended up deep in an underground chamber reachable only by a four-story vertical drop through a 7.5-inch-wide slot—the length of a pencil—they dubbed the Chute.

Moreover, the position and intactness of some skeletal remains suggested that the dead may have been carefully laid out on the floor of the chamber rather than tossed down the Chute to collect as a jumble of bones at its base.

Many experts were skeptical that a small-brained hominin could engage in such human-like behavior, suggesting instead that the remains washed into the cave or were carried inside by predators. But the bone fragments showed no traces of gnaw marks, and analysis of the cave environment and sediments ruled out water deposition.

Other skeptics suggested that modern humans, who likely overlapped with Homo naledi in southern Africa for at least 50,000 years, may have carried the bodies in through the Chute or some other passage that has since collapsed. But the Rising Star team found no signs of modern humans and no evidence of a secondary entrance.

The researchers returned to Rising Star in 2017 and began making a series of discoveries that have not been fully revealed until now. They include concentrations of Homo naledi bone fragments that may belong to one or more individuals in shallow pits that cut through the layers of the cave floor and don’t follow its natural slope—evidence suggesting that the pits were dug. In addition, the composition of fill material in the pits differs from surrounding sediments.

One group of bones was excavated in complete blocks and stabilized in plaster. CT scans of the blocks revealed the remains of at least three individuals, including an older juvenile. The youth’s remains appear undisturbed and remarkably intact, including 30 teeth in the correct order, two series of partial ribs, a right foot, ankle, and lower limb bones. Near a partial right hand is a rock that researchers hypothesize may be a stone artifact or tool, but some outside experts dismiss the association outright.

The ‘peculiar’ primate

Arguments around deliberate interment of the dead often hinge on differences between what scientists call mortuary behavior and funerary behavior, says André Gonçalves, who studies how animals interact with the dead. Chimps and elephants, for example, display mortuary behavior when they keep watch over a dead body or physically interact with it expecting it to come back to life.

Funerary behavior, by contrast, involves intentional social acts by beings capable of complex thought who understand themselves to be separate from the natural world and who recognize the significance of the deceased. Until now, the earliest recorded evidence for funerary behavior and intentional burial among hominin species—including both modern humans and Neanderthals—was at least 100,000 years after Homo naledi.

“Humans are really peculiar as a primate because we bury our dead,” Gonçalves says. “No other primate seems to do it.”

External experts who reviewed the papers for National Geographic raised a variety of concerns around the evidence for deliberate burial. Some still maintain that water could have washed the bone fragments into natural depressions in the cave floor, which then filled with sediment over the years.

But, says anthropologist John Hawks, a Rising Star team member and co-author of the papers, “The strongest evidence we have is that the burials disrupt the existing stratigraphy in the cave.”

Another critique involves the state of the bones, most of which are dispersed and disconnected. “Most of the displacements can’t be explained by the natural course of decomposition,” says paleoanthropologist María Martinón-Torres, who studied the oldest-known human burial in Africa.

The new discoveries, however, have somewhat shifted the opinion of anthropologist Chris Stringer. “I might have been one of those people who's been skeptical about the idea that a small-brained creature like Homo naledi could be going deep into the cave to dispose of its dead,” he says. “But I have to say, on the amount I've seen so far, that yes, it does change my view on the balance of probability.”

For Gonçalves, who finds the discoveries “promising” but is also keeping a wait-and-see attitude, the idea that Homo naledi engaged in human-like behaviors isn’t especially surprising given how close in space and time the small hominins were to modern humans. “We’re separated from chimps and bonobos by six million years,” he says. “Three hundred thousand years is nothing.”

Writing on the wall?

In a second paper, researchers describe another new discovery: abstract shapes and patterns etched into the cave walls near the presumed burials. The inscribed surfaces appear to have been prepared with a substance and smoothed, and some of the markings seem to have been erased and engraved over, indicating that they were made over a period of time.

The nature of the cave’s dolomitic limestone walls make dating very difficult, and researchers concede that it will be “challenging to assess whether the engravings are contemporary with the Homo naledi burial evidence from only a few meters away.”

Archaeologist Curtis Marean notes that the particular cross-hatch designs that appear on the cave walls are “very similar” to designs found in later Homo sapiens sites in the region, as well as indigenous Khoi-San imagery.

While the researchers caution that further study is needed to identify and analyze all the engravings, they point out that the production of designs—whether painted, etched, or engraved—on cave walls or other surfaces is recognized “as a major cognitive step in human evolution.”

In a third paper, Berger and his colleagues synthesize their burial and rock-art data to challenge another long-held assumption: that bigger brains mean more complex behavior, such as making tools, managing fire, and creating symbols.

The fossil record shows that relative brain size in many hominin populations increased over the course of two million years, topping off with Homo sapiens. While a modern adult male brain has a capacity of roughly 1,500 cubic centimeters, Homo naledi’s brain was less than 600.

If this small-brained hominin did in fact engage in advanced behaviors such as deliberate burial and the creation of symbols associated with those burials, the researchers argue, then brain size shouldn’t be a major factor in determining whether a hominin species is capable of complex cognition.

Many key developments in human evolution, they point out, occurred among small-brained hominins, including the creation of distinct stone tools, the initial expansion out of Africa into Asia, and the use of fire. In addition, another small-brained species, Homo floresiensis, is known to have used tools and fire. Brain structure and wiring, they argue, may have played a more important role than brain size.

While evidence for fire in Rising Star is not specifically mentioned in the papers, Berger says the team has evidence for controlled fire in the cave system, including dozens of hearths. “That place is full of soot, fire, and burned bone. It’s everywhere” he says. Carbon-dating of the evidence is planned for the future.

A 'global human conversation'

The research team’s decision to go public with their extraordinary claims without first publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is a source of frustration for some paleoanthropologists, but Berger defends the decision. The papers will eventually appear in the online journal eLife, alongside reviews and an editorial summary, making the process “transparent,” he says.

“Your readers will be able to watch as the authors—our large team—interact with reviewers and editors as part of the open access policy,” Berger explains. The authors then have the choice to keep the papers as they are, or to incorporate comments from reviewers and other scientists. “Effectively, we're letting people in to watch the review process and the way peer review works.”

Experts who reviewed the papers agree that paleoanthropology is entering a new era with a growing awareness that there are other human species who have behaviors that until quite recently we thought were uniquely “modern human.”

With it come expectations of more discoveries of how Homo naledi lived, and how they’re related to us—or not. “If this species was adapted to living in caves and going deep into caves, which is the implication in Rising Star, then there must be more evidence of it in many other sites in South Africa,” notes Stringer.

“This deserves a global human conversation,” adds Berger. “What do we do next? How do we continue? We have just discovered a cultural space of another species that's not [modern] human, that’s not in our grade level. Not like us. How do we treat it? And I'm waiting to hear that.”


A mysterious human species may have been the first to bury their dead? ›

The find is located within a cave system in South Africa and is linked to an archaic species of human, Homo naledi

Homo naledi
Homo naledi is an extinct species of archaic human discovered in 2013 in the Rising Star Cave, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa dating to the Middle Pleistocene 335,000–236,000 years ago. The initial discovery comprises 1,550 specimens, representing 737 different elements, and at least 15 different individuals.
https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Homo_naledi
. Remarkably, this extinct species was capable of not just burying their dead but also etching and painting symbols onto their graves.

What was the first human species to bury their dead? ›

Now, the research team has discovered the remains of Homo naledi adults and children that were laid to rest in the fetal position within cave depressions and covered with soil. The burials are older than any known Homo sapiens burials by at least 100,000 years.

What mysterious species buried their dead? ›

A team of explorers has uncovered evidence that Homo naledi buried their dead and carved symbols on cave walls at least 100,000 years before modern humans. The intentional burials of H. naledi adults and children were found within the sprawling depths of the Rising Star cave system.

Were Neanderthals the first to bury their dead? ›

The first potential discovery of a Neanderthal tomb occurred in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. The well-preserved state of these 50,000-year-old bones led researchers to suggest that Neanderthals buried their dead well before modern humans arrived in western Europe.

Which species of human was considered the first to bury their dead and showed signs of religious beliefs? ›

There is evidence that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead and occasionally even marked their graves with offerings, such as flowers. No other primates, and no earlier human species, had ever practiced this sophisticated and symbolic behavior.

What was the first species of human? ›

H. erectus is the oldest known species to have a human-like body, with relatively elongated legs and shorter arms in comparison to its torso. It had an upright posture.

Who buried the first person? ›

We can't be sure, although the oldest known burial took place about 130,000 years ago. Burying the dead is perhaps the earliest form of religious practice and suggests people were concerned about what happens after death. There's evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead along with tools and bones.

Which was the first species of human to bury their dead what is was the significance of this development? ›

The find is located within a cave system in South Africa and is linked to an archaic species of human, Homo naledi. Remarkably, this extinct species was capable of not just burying their dead but also etching and painting symbols onto their graves.

Why did humans start burying the dead? ›

It is thought that the practice begun as a religious ritual that may have resulted from the concern over what happens to people after death. Burying of the dead has been practiced by various religions around the world for thousands of years.

How did ancient people bury their dead? ›

The most common burials in the Bronze and Iron Age are in family tombs located in natural caves or hewn chambers, approached by a shaft or passageway and closed with a single stone or pile of rubble. These tombs were used as burial vaults for the family over several generations.

What is the mysterious human species found? ›

Named Homo naledi, the species is characterized by its small size—including a brain roughly a third the size of today's humans—and a baffling mix of very old and relatively modern anatomical features.

Did Neanderthals or humans come first? ›

While Neanderthals date from 40,000 years back to 400,000 years ago, homo-sapiens existed for a good part of that time, if not as far back. Neanderthals and humans likely evolved from a common ancestor that existed between 700,000 and 300,000 years ago; both species belong to the same genus.

Are Neanderthals the first humans? ›

It was named as a new human species, Homo neanderthalensis, eight years later in 1864. It was the first ancient human species ever identified and is now known as Neanderthal 1 or Feldhofer 1, after the original name of the cave where it was found.

When did the first human like creatures appear on Earth? ›

The first human ancestors appeared between five million and seven million years ago, probably when some apelike creatures in Africa began to walk habitually on two legs. They were flaking crude stone tools by 2.5 million years ago. Then some of them spread from Africa into Asia and Europe after two million years ago.

What mysterious species buried their dead and carved symbols 100 000 years before humans? ›

A team of explorers has uncovered evidence that Homo naledi buried their dead and carved symbols on cave walls at least 100,000 years before modern humans. The intentional burials of H. naledi adults and children were found within the sprawling depths of the Rising Star cave system.

Where did the first human species come from? ›

It suggested that modern humans originated in Africa within the last 200,000 years from a single group of ancestors. Modern humans continued to evolve in Africa and had spread to the Middle East by 100,000 years ago and possibly as early as 160,000 years ago.

What are the three first human species? ›

This early part of the human genus is represented by three species: Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, and Homo erectus.

When did the first human species go extinct? ›

Homo sapiens

survived at least until 117,000 yrs ago, and the even more basal H. floresiensis survived until 50,000 years ago.

Who was not buried after death in the Bible? ›

Saul and his sons were cremated because burial was not possible. While ancient Hebrews and Egyptians traditionally buried their dead in tombs of some form, cremation was also an option when necessary.

Who was buried 3 times? ›

She's not the only American with multiple graves. Gravestone at the Betsy Ross House, 239 Arch St., Philadelphia.

Can I be buried in my parents grave? ›

A family plot is technically a burial space. However, burial isn't the only option for families who want to stay close at the same cemetery. You may also be able to purchase shared space for above-ground interment in a mausoleum.

Which answer was an ancient belief explaining one of the reasons why people were buried face down? ›

The researchers argue that, in this part of Europe at least, burying people face-down was the preferred way to prevent malevolent corpses from returning to do harm. Other archaeologists say there could be other explanations.

Who was the first true man? ›

The First Humans

One of the earliest known humans is Homo habilis, or “handy man,” who lived about 2.4 million to 1.4 million years ago in Eastern and Southern Africa.

What happens if they bury you alive? ›

(Note: If you're buried alive and breathing normally, you're likely to die from suffocation. A person can live on the air in a coffin for a little over five hours, tops. If you start hyperventilating, panicked that you've been buried alive, the oxygen will likely run out sooner.)

Why are bodies buried at 6 feet? ›

An ancient practice of burying dead people six feet underground may have helped mask the odor of decay from predators. Similarly, random disturbances, such as plowing, would be unable to reach a person buried six feet underneath. Preventing the Spread of Disease was another major reason.

What happens to human body after burying? ›

If insects can be excluded, a body will decompose quite slowly, because maggots are the most voracious flesh feeders. Although an exposed human body in optimum conditions can be reduced to bone in 10 days, a body that is buried 1.2 m under the ground retains most of its tissue for a year.

How were people buried in the Bible? ›

In a short time after death, family members came to mourn and prepare the body for burial. The body would be washed, then anointed with a variety of oils and spices. The body would then be wrapped in white linen grave clothes that also contained spices (John 19:39-40).

How did the Egyptians first bury their dead? ›

Early burials were in simple, shallow oval pits, with a few burial goods. Sometimes multiple people and animals were placed in the same grave. Over time, graves became more complex. At one point, bodies were placed in a wicker basket, but eventually bodies were placed in wooden or terracotta coffins.

What did ancient people do with their dead? ›

Most were buried in cemeteries, but the bodies of babies have been found under the floors of houses, often curiously buried in cooking pots. Due to the inevitability of the prospect of a grim afterlife, whether you were good or bad, very few provisions were made for the afterlife itself.

Is there an unknown human species? ›

Scientists have found traces of DNA that they say is evidence that prehistoric humans procreated with an unknown hominin group in West Africa. About 50,000 years ago, ancient humans in what is now West Africa apparently procreated with another group of ancient humans that scientists didn't know existed.

What species of humans existed? ›

Apart from our species, the gallery features eight other kinds of human: Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo erectus, Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo floresiensis (nicknamed 'the hobbit'), Homo neanderthalensis (the Neanderthals) and the recently discovered Homo naledi.

Could other human species still exist? ›

The only realistic scenario for the evolution of two species out of ours would probably be if we expanded beyond our home planet and then lost contact with the settlers. If both populations survived long enough – much more than 100,000 years – we might see divergence and maybe two species of humans.

Did all humans come from Africa? ›

Humans first evolved in Africa, and much of human evolution occurred on that continent. The fossils of early humans who lived between 6 and 2 million years ago come entirely from Africa. Most scientists currently recognize some 15 to 20 different species of early humans.

What color was the first man on earth? ›

Yes, the first humans were almost certainly black. The human species evolved in East Africa about 200,000 years ago. Black skin was necessary for survival in this hot and sunny climate.

Who is the first person died in the world? ›

The first person to die is Abel at the hands of his brother, which is also the first time that blood is mentioned in the Bible (4:10–11).

Do all humans come from Neanderthals? ›

Neanderthals are known to contribute up to 1-4% of the genomes of non-African modern humans, depending on what region of the word your ancestors come from, and modern humans who lived about 40,000 years ago have been found to have up to 6-9% Neanderthal DNA (Fu et al., 2015).

Why are Neanderthals not human? ›

The physical traits of Homo sapiens include a high and rounded ('globular') braincase, and a relatively narrow pelvis. Measurement of our braincase and pelvic shape can reliably separate a modern human from a Neanderthal - their fossils exhibit a longer, lower skull and a wider pelvis.

Why did Neanderthals go extinct and humans did not? ›

One model postulates that habitat degradation and fragmentation occurred in the Neanderthal territory long before the arrival of modern humans, and that it led to the decimation and eventual disappearance of Neanderthal populations.

What animals bury dead animals? ›

Do animals hold funerals too?
  • Elephants. Not only are elephants among the most intelligent animals, they also appear to have complex death rituals. ...
  • Crows. It's probably no surprise that this highly intelligent member of the corvid family is on the list. ...
  • Chimpanzees. ...
  • Dolphins. ...
  • Giraffes.

How many undiscovered dead bodies are there? ›

There were approximately 40,000 UIDs in the United States as of 2006, and numerous others elsewhere. A body may go unidentified due to death in a state where the person was unrecorded, an advanced state of decomposition or major facial injuries.

Which species likely buried its dead intentionally in a cave in Iraq? ›

Neanderthals really did bury their dead. Archaeologists in Iraq have discovered a new Neanderthal skeleton that appears to have been deliberately buried around 60,000 to 70,000 years ago.

Do any animals dig graves? ›

Myth 4: Animals Will Dig Up the Body

However, there is no need to worry. There has never been are ported instance of animals digging up a naturally buried body. Regulations require that human remains be buried so that there are at least two feet of soil between the body and the surface of the ground.

Why can't you bury animals? ›

A decomposing pet can cause bacterial contamination in the soil it touches. That contamination then seeps into the groundwater, which can spread it to other areas. If other humans or animals come into contact with the contaminated soil or water, they could become seriously ill.

Why are graves 6 feet deep? ›

People may have also buried bodies 6 feet deep to help prevent theft. There was also concern that animals might disturb graves. Burying a body 6 feet deep may have been a way to stop animals from smelling the decomposing bodies. A body buried 6 feet deep would also be safe from accidental disturbances like plowing.

What happens to a body if there is no money for a funeral? ›

You don't necessarily need to worry about what happens to your body if you can't afford a funeral. Signing a form at the county coroner can authorize the release of your body to the state or county for burial or cremation. It may be possible to pay a fee to recover your ashes if your family would like them.

What happens if someone dies alone? ›

After the painstaking process of identifying the body and searching for loved ones to no avail, the medical examiner's office typically contacts the county public administrator. This is the government official whose sole job is to act as executor for the affairs of someone with no known relatives.

Is there anything left of a body after 100 years? ›

A century in, the last of your bones will have collapsed into dust. And only the most durable part of your body, your teeth, will remain.

Are humans the only animals that bury their dead? ›

Humans are not always the only species to bury their dead. Chimpanzees and elephants are known to throw leaves and branches over fallen members of their family groups.

Why did Neanderthals bury dead? ›

“Some of the Neanderthals in some regions, in very particular moments, made these kind of burials,” Rendu says. Having burial practices suggests that Neanderthals possessed spiritual beliefs, but what they may have been is anybody's guess.

How did cavemen bury the dead? ›

Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal) dug holes to bury their dead. At Qazfeh in Israel, some 115,000 years ago, there is evidence of the deliberate burial and positioning of bodies in caves. In one example, the left hand of a buried child had been placed on a deer skull and antlers positioned on the child's neck.

Are graves still dug by hand? ›

Grave preparation (digging) in some instances is done by hand, in other instances a backhoe is used. If a backhoe is used, safety issues are mostly addressed by having an experienced backhoe operator and by restricting the area from anyone other than the operator and his experienced assistant(s).

Can I bury my pet in a human cemetery? ›

Or maybe sprinkle a handful or two of a loved one's cremains in their garden. In California, it is also illegal to bury a pet in a human cemetery. Although many people ask that their beloved pet's cremains be placed inside their casket.

Do animals smell when buried? ›

It's not easy and can even give off an unpleasant smell.

The process begins with digging up an area in your yard where you will bury them. Needless to say, this isn't always easy. On top of this, if the remains is only buried superficially, it will give off an unpleasant odour in the air as the body decomposes.


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