One of the most idiosyncratic characteristics of the human being is the relationship it establishes with the dead. Paleontology and archeology document a wide range of ways of interacting with those who have died, but not all of them denote the same degree of symbolism or intention.
Some of these behaviors have a more functional purpose, such as removing the corpses so as not to attract predators, dismantling the body to facilitate its transport or taking advantage of it nutritionally, which is also known as gastronomic cannibalism.
But there are other behaviors that deviate from “utility”, gestures that involve more resources and time than would be necessary to simply dispose of an inert body. The repeated use of a place, a natural cavity, for example, difficult to access, protected, to deposit those who die, as is the case of the Sima de los Huesos site, in Atapuerca, reveals a dedication and a effort that escapes the merely practical.
From there, in the evolution of the hominins a variety of acts unfolds that reveal an increasingly intense implication towards the deceased. With burials, the community undertakes the effort of deliberately planning, excavating or creating a place to deposit the body in a specific and premeditated position and shape, sometimes accompanied by objects or ornaments, and then sealing it to protect it.
Kenya, Germany, Burgos
The study of the bones found in Panga ya Saidi (Kenya), a site excavated by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany) and the National Museums of Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya), has allowed us to discover the oldest known human burial in all of Africa.
Given the extreme fragility of the remains, the archaeologists decided to rescue the bones within a block of sediment that, for more than two years, was excavated manually and virtually –with imaging techniques– in the CENIEH laboratories (Burgos).
By analyzing the fossils and the surrounding soil, we made a forensic reconstruction of what happened 78,000 years ago. A child as young as 3 years of age was delicately buried in a cavity deliberately dug for it, wrapped in a shroud, in a curled position, on his right side and with a pillow under his head. It is a tomb, yes, but the child has been wrapped and arranged as if he were in his bed, asleep. So that? Why is all this done if it is no longer good for anything? Precisely for that. That it is useless gives it all its value.
In our species, defending ourselves against death ceased to be a reflex act and became a reflexive act. We live with a stubborn will to tame death, to combat it, to prevent it, to delay it. And when it happens, when there is no going back and death inhabits the body of a loved one, then, to Homo sapiens He still has the pride of not bowing his head and decides to continue treating the dead – even if they are dead – with the consideration with which we treat the living: with delicacy, with respect, with compassion. With that part of our life, death cannot. And the notion of that small victory gives us something of the peace that death takes from us.