Are cultures that burn their dead less studied?

Do cultures that burn their dead leave less behind for us to understand?
10 March 2023


Archaeological dig



Hello, this is Paul from New Zealand. We are told that humans started in East Africa. Different folk have different cultures and customers regarding their dead. If one culture burns their dead and another culture buries their dead, then obviously you will only find the bones of those who have been buried. But those bones may not be as old as folk who have been burnt. Who knows?


Chris - Interesting point though, isn't it? Because if you burn stuff up and destroy it, there's no archeological or paleontological record of that.

Will - It's a wonderful question and there's a wonderful term for the study of the fossilization process, which is essentially what we're talking about is known as taphonomy, which derives from the Greek word for burial. The Greeks got in on this game. Early Aristotle famously thought fossilized fish were just fish that swam into cracks into rocks and sort of got trapped and died and interred. And these ideas stuck around for a couple of thousand of years. In short, of course, yeah, if you have a culture that buries your dead, you're doing yourself a favor in leaving a record of your existence. Though I'm sure these early humans had more important things to think of. But this isn't the only factor that comes into it. We have one body which we could potentially give the fossil record, but over the course of our lifetime, we might leave a billion footsteps. We can leave traces of our existence with every activity that we do every single day. We build houses, we forge weapons, we forge tools. You know, the trace fossil record is far more powerful in a way than the body fossil record. And even if we were burying our dead, there are certain environments that are very amenable to preserving a body fossil, but certain environments that aren't. If we bury things in sandy substrates, bodies degrade, but in these same environments, they might actually lend themselves to preserving trace fossils, to preserving footsteps. So I can't see it being too much of an issue because whilst the body fossil record might be depleted for one set of humans or another trace fossil record of their existence, that's gonna be pretty compelling.

Chris - The assumption in Paul's question is that people have a planned death and a planned burial or end of life, but lots of people's lives end in an accident. And there are some wonderful specimens preserved where people have just fallen down a hole into a cave or into mud or, or got into sinking mud or something, and then they're preserved 3 million years later within that environment. So I suppose in that regard you are saying the science is robust because they wouldn't have been burned up whether they were going to be or not.

Will - Precisely. I mean, we have another wonderful word for exceptional preservation. We call it lagerstätte and it derives from German for motherlode. There are fantastic case studies. We've got bog bodies in Copenhagen, in Denmark, and fantastic specimens over the Atlantic as well. But these really are the exceptions. Trace fossils, they're pretty mundane. They're everywhere. They leave a more compelling history.


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