How do archaeologists know if someone was buried intentionally tens of thousands of years ago?
- The oldest known burial ritual in Africa has been discovered on the coast of Kenya.
- A small child appears to have been buried intentionally in a cave 78,000 years ago.
- This new research offers insights into ancient funerary practices.
How did the emergence of Homo sapiens affect ideas around death? What legacies have been passed down from ancient times? And can these give us insights into the origins of our current rituals around dying?
Possible answers to these questions could be derived from a new study in Nature, led by María Martinón-Torres of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain. It focuses on a two- to three-year-old child found buried in a Kenyan cave roughly 78,000 years ago. While this isn't the oldest burial grounds for Homo sapiens — to date, that is in Israel — this new discovery of a seemingly intentional burial offers insights into the evolution of how humans treated death.
The dearth of excavation sites in Africa has made studying ancient funerary practices difficult. The remains of this young child were discovered in a pit in the Panga ya Saidi cave site located in a tropical region of coastal Kenya. Taphonomic evidence, which examines the process of fossilization, suggested that the child was intentionally placed in a flexed position (sort of curled up like a ball) in the burial pit.
The burial of Mtoto
The original excavation of this pit took place in 2013. By 2017, archaeologists dug into Middle Stone Age (MSA) layers, uncovering the partial skeleton of the child. The poorly preserved bone fragments were plastered and transported for laboratory analysis, first to the National Museums of Kenya and then onto Burgos, where Martinón-Torres and her team began their work.Besides the seemingly deliberate position of the body, the team noticed a few clues that suggested the child was swaddled in cloth, possibly with the intention of preserving the corpse. They also speculate the body was placed in a cave fissure — known as funerary caching — before being covered with sediment.
Plan view of the 2017 excavation next to a superimposed image of Mtoto to better depict the position of the child.Courtesy of Nature.
The child, who they named Mtoto, appears to have been intentionally buried. The authors reached this conclusion based on: the identification of a clearly dug pit; evidence that discriminates the burial fill from the surrounding layers; the completeness and integrity of the skeleton; the body's tightly flexed position; and the notable differences between the child's remains and the remains of animals in the same layer.
Other burial sites
Two earlier excavations in Taramsa, Egypt and Border Cave, South Africa were similar to the one in this Kenyan cave. However, the Panga ya Saidi remains appear to predate the Egyptian ones by 10,000 years and the South African ones by 4,000 years. Taken together, the team writes that these three digs reveal important insights in the funerary practices of our ancestors.
"The [Panga ya Saidi] child, in combination with the infant burial from Border Cave and the funerary caching of a juvenile at Taramsa, suggests that H. sapiens populations were intentionally preserving the corpses of young members of their groups between about 78 and 69 [thousand years]. Before 78 [thousand years], we know of no unambiguous burials of modern humans in Africa, despite the fact that earlier [Middle Stone Age] populations demonstrate sophisticated forms of symbolic expression."
The researchers are excited to have made headway on the cradle of civilization — a continent that rarely gives up its secrets. While researchers have discovered symbolic representations in Africa dating back at least 320,000 years, these new insights into death rituals are important for understanding the evolution of human consciousness, as well as how we view mortality.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Global inequality takes many forms, including who has lost the most children
- A first-of-its-kind study examines the number of mothers who have lost a child around the world.
- The number is related to infant mortality rates in a country but is not identical to it.
- The lack of information on the topic leaves a lot of room for future research.
Among the best indicators of societal progress over the last few decades has been the remarkable decline in infant and child mortality rates worldwide. In the early sixties, a staggering 1 in 4 children around the world died. Today, that rate has fallen to fewer than 1 in 10. The continued efforts of several organizations will help that number to fall even further.
However, like many other kinds of progress, the blessings of these advances have been shared unequally. Child mortality rates are much higher in some parts of the world than in others. Additionally, measuring infant mortality by itself doesn't tell the whole story. While conditions are improving, the legacy of high child mortality rates endures.
In hopes of shedding light on both issues, a first-of-its-kind study suggests that mothers in some parts of the world remain astronomically more likely to lose a child than others.
Bereavement around the world
An international team of researchers led by Dr. Emily Smith-Greenaway examined data from 170 countries. By combining information on child mortality, maternal life expectancy, the fertility rate, and the proportion of women in the country who have children, among other statistics, the researchers were able to create indices of the number of mothers per thousand who lost a child either before the age of one or five, or ever, for nearly every country in the world.
Cumulative prevalence of infant mortality for mothers age 20–44. Notice the groupings of countries at both the high and low ends of the scale. (scale is per thousand) USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
The results are quite shocking.
As seen in the above map, the countries with the highest maternal bereavement rates are clustered in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Hong Kong has the lowest maternal bereavement rate of any measured locale in the world at 2.8 per 1000, while Sierra Leone has the highest at 303.3 per 1000, nearly 1 in 3. A mother in Sierra Leone is 108 times more likely to have lost a child than a mother in Hong Kong.
This difference is far larger than that of infant mortality alone. There are many possible reasons for this, including factors which directly impact child mortality. Because of the number of factors involved, there are countries where the infant mortality rate remains stubbornly high but where maternal bereavement is rather low, such as the Philippines, and countries where a low mortality rate hides a high bereavement rate, such as Peru.
The differences between countries continue to exist when age is accounted for. While rates are worse everywhere when looking only at older mothers, the difference between Hong Kong, which remains the best, and Liberia, which becomes the worst, is still a factor of 70.
Cumulative prevalence of infant mortality for mothers age 45–49. Notice the similarities with the above map. (scale is per thousand) USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
The mental and physical toll of losing a child
The authors of the study suggest that these numbers demonstrate the existence of a previously hidden element of global health and the inequality between nations. Their work shows that the maternal cumulative prevalence of infant mortality is not identical to the infant mortality rate, though it is related. They also warn that their estimates are probably conservative due to the likelihood of unreported infant deaths.
The toll of losing a child on a mother's mental and physical health is considerable. However, much of the research on this topic ignores the possible effects on other family members. The authors note that what information does exist suggests it can be equally as damaging to them. Additionally, they state that their research focused on national rates but that similar issues may exist within nations where demographic differences in infant mortality and parental bereavement rates exist. They encourage further study into this matter.
Dr. Smith-Greenaway explained the authors' hopes for the study and the new area of research it identifies:
"We hope that this work will emphasize that further efforts to lower child deaths will not only improve the quality and length of life for children across the globe, but will also fundamentally improve the lives of parents."
Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago find that death triggers increased activity in certain brain cells.
As bioethicist L. Syd M Johnson of SUNY-Upstate Medical University tells Big Think, "Death is not an event — it's a process." It's not as if there's a big on/off switch that gets flipped. It takes a while for a body's systems to wind down and eventually cease functioning.
Now a new study from researchers at University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) reports that gene expression within certain brain cells actually kicks into high gear when we die. "Most studies assume that everything in the brain stops when the heart stops beating, but this is not so," says the study's corresponding author Jeffrey Loeb, the John S. Garvin Professor and head of neurology and rehabilitation at the UIC's College of Medicine.
The study was recently published in Scientific Reports.
A brain brain-teaser
Loeb and his colleagues discovered the puzzling phenomenon when examining brain tissue they'd collected in surgery. The gene expressions they were seeing didn't match up with any published reports of such cells from people with or without neurological disorders.
"We decided to run a simulated death experiment by looking at the expression of all human genes, at time points from 0 to 24 hours, from a large block of recently collected brain tissues, which were allowed to sit at room temperature to replicate the postmortem interval," Loeb tells UIC Today.
Loeb's team is uniquely qualified to conduct such an experiment since Loeb is director of brain-tissue bank, the UI NeuroRepository. The bank collects brain tissue, with permission, from people with neurological disorders for research purposes. In addition, epileptic brain tissue, for example, is collected for pathological diagnoses in the hopes of reducing or eliminating seizures. Brain tissue not required for resolving donors' medical issues remains available for research.
Credit: Evgeniy Kalinovskiy/Adobe Stock
Brain tissue after death
The team found that brain tissue behaved in one of three different ways "post-mortem."
Most of the genes in the brain tissue, 80 percent of them, did nothing, remaining essentially stable throughout the 24-hour test period. These genes were predominantly "housekeeping" genes that handled basic cellular functions.
The second group were genes known to be involved in activities such as memory and thinking. They're also implicated in seizure events and are important in schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease research. These genes degraded rapidly once the test period began.
The third group, the "zombie" genes, were found in glial cells involved in inflammation during life. The activity of these genes was inversely proportional to the rapidly fading second group. During the test period, the zombie cells grew and sprouted long arm-like appendages for hours.
Says Loeb, "That glial cells enlarge after death isn't too surprising given that they are inflammatory and their job is to clean things up after brain injuries like oxygen deprivation or stroke."
Progress of glial cells in hours after simulated death
Credit: Dachet et el./scientific reports
Why this matters, aside from being weird
There's a great deal of research that involves post-mortem brain tissue, and the revelation that their states are not necessarily static at death changes things a bit.
"Our findings don't mean that we should throw away human tissue research programs," says Loeb. "It just means that researchers need to take into account these genetic and cellular changes, and reduce the post-mortem interval as much as possible to reduce the magnitude of these changes."
He adds, "The good news from our findings is that we now know which genes and cell types are stable, which degrade, and which increase over time so that results from postmortem brain studies can be better understood."
The discovery of the zombie genes is sort of bizarre, but it can lead to better research going forward. As Loeb says, "Our findings will be needed to interpret research on human brain tissues. We just haven't quantified these changes until now."
As patients approached death, many had dreams and visions of deceased loved ones.
One of the most devastating elements of the coronavirus pandemic has been the inability to personally care for loved ones who have fallen ill.
Again and again, grieving relatives have testified to how much more devastating their loved one's death was because they were unable to hold their family member's hand—to provide a familiar and comforting presence in their final days and hours.
How does one come to terms with the overwhelming grief and guilt over the thought of a loved one dying alone?
I don't have an answer to this question. But the work of a hospice doctor named Christopher Kerr—with whom I co-authored the book “Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life's End"—might offer some consolation.
At the start of his career, Dr. Kerr was tasked—like any and all physicians—with attending to the physical care of his patients. But he soon noticed a phenomenon that seasoned nurses were already accustomed to. As patients approached death, many had dreams and visions of deceased loved ones who came back to comfort them in their final days.
Doctors are typically trained to interpret these occurrences as drug-induced or delusional hallucinations that might warrant more medication or downright sedation.
But after seeing the peace and comfort these end-of-life experiences seemed to bring his patients, Dr. Kerr decided to pause and listen. One day, in 2005, a dying patient named Mary had one such vision: She began moving her arms as if rocking a baby, cooing at her child who had died in infancy decades prior.
To Dr. Kerr, this didn't seem like cognitive decline. What if, he wondered, patients' own perceptions at life's end mattered to their well-being in ways that should not concern just nurses, chaplains, and social workers?
What would medical care look like if all physicians stopped and listened, too?
The project begins
So at the sight of dying patients reaching and calling out to their loved ones—many of whom they had not seen, touched, or heard for decades—he began collecting and recording testimonies given directly by those who were dying. Over the course of 10 years, he and his research team recorded the end-of-life experiences of 1,400 patients and families.
What he discovered astounded him. Over 80% of his patients—no matter what walk of life, background, or age group they came from—had end-of-life experiences that seemed to entail more than just strange dreams. These were vivid, meaningful, and transformative. And they always increased in frequency near death.
They included visions of long-lost mothers, fathers, and relatives, as well as dead pets come back to comfort their former owners. They were about relationships resurrected, love revived, and forgiveness achieved. They often brought reassurance and support, peace and acceptance.
Becoming a dream weaver
I first heard of Dr. Kerr's research in a barn.
I was busy mucking my horse's stall. The stables were on Dr. Kerr's property, so we often discussed his work on the dreams and visions of his dying patients. He told me about his TEDx Talk on the topic, as well as the book project he was working on.
I couldn't help but be moved by the work of this doctor and scientist. When he disclosed that he was not getting far with the writing, I offered to help. He hesitated at first. I was an English professor who was an expert in taking apart the stories others wrote, not in writing them myself. His agent was concerned that I wouldn't be able to write in ways that were accessible to the public – something academics are not exactly known for. I persisted, and the rest is history.
It was this collaboration that turned me into a writer.
I was tasked with instilling more humanity into the remarkable medical intervention this scientific research represented, to put a human face on the statistical data that had already been published in medical journals.
The moving stories of Dr. Kerr's encounters with his patients and their families confirmed how, in the words of the French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne, "he who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live."
I learned about Robert, who was losing Barbara, his wife of 60 years, and was assailed by conflicting feelings of guilt, despair, and faith. One day, he inexplicably saw her reaching for the baby son they had lost decades ago, in a brief span of lucid dreaming that echoed Mary's experience years earlier. Robert was struck by his wife's calm demeanor and blissful smile. It was a moment of pure wholeness, one that transformed their experience of the dying process. Barbara was living her passing as a time of love regained, and seeing her comforted brought Robert some peace in the midst of his irredeemable loss.
For the elderly couples Dr. Kerr cared for, being separated by death after decades of togetherness was simply unfathomable. Joan's recurring dreams and visions helped mend the deep wound left by her husband's passing months earlier. She would call out to him at night and point to his presence during the day, including in moments of full and articulate lucidity. For her daughter Lisa, these occurrences grounded her in the knowledge that her parents' bond was unbreakable. Her mother's pre-death dreams and visions assisted Lisa in her own journey toward acceptance—a key element of processing loss.
When children are dying, it is often their beloved, deceased pets that make appearances. Thirteen-year-old Jessica, dying of a malignant form of bone-based cancer, started having visions of her former dog, Shadow. His presence reassured her. "I will be fine," she told Dr. Kerr on one of his last visits.
For Jessica's mom, Kristen, these visions—and Jessica's resulting tranquility—helped initiate the process she had been resisting: that of letting go.
Isolated but not alone
The health care system is difficult to change. Nevertheless, Dr. Kerr still hopes to help patients and their loved ones reclaim the dying process from a clinical approach to one that is appreciated as a rich and unique human experience.
Pre-death dreams and visions help fill the void that may otherwise be created by the doubt and fear that death evokes. They help the dying reunite with those they have loved and lost, those who secured them, affirmed them, and brought them peace. They heal old wounds, restore dignity, and reclaim love. Knowing about this paradoxical reality helps the bereaved cope with grief as well.
As hospitals and nursing homes continue to remain closed to visitors because of the coronavirus pandemic, it may help to know that the dying rarely speak of being alone. They speak of being loved and put back together.
There is no substitute for being able to hold our loved ones in their last moments, but there may be solace in knowing that they were being held.
Dr. Katie Mack explains what dark energy is and two ways it could one day destroy the universe.
- The universe is expanding faster and faster. Whether this acceleration will end in a Big Rip or will reverse and contract into a Big Crunch is not yet understood, and neither is the invisible force causing that expansion: dark energy.
- Physicist Dr. Katie Mack explains the difference between dark matter, dark energy, and phantom dark energy, and shares what scientists think the mysterious force is, its effect on space, and how, billions of years from now, it could cause peak cosmic destruction.
- The Big Rip seems more probable than a Big Crunch at this point in time, but scientists still have much to learn before they can determine the ultimate fate of the universe. "If we figure out what [dark energy is] doing, if we figure out what it's made of, how it's going to change in the future, then we will have a much better idea for how the universe will end," says Mack.