Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On the variability of Upper Paleolithic burials: Hype, facts and fiction (and Neanderthals?)

A new study of mine (written with Claudine Gravel-Miguel of ASU) is getting a bit of press, and I really want to write a post on AVRPI to serve as a proper companion piece to it, since the narrative in the press is already slipping away from what the paper actually says. In short, our paper does not say that Upper Paleolithic burials were not more sophisticated than those of Neanderthals. Rather, it emphasizes how heterogeneous Upper Paleolithic burials are (a point I recently also mentioned in relation to 'Venus' figurines), and that many of them were fairly simple. As a result, we need to be very careful about using exceptionally lavish as representative of Upper Paleolithic burials as a whole, as emphasized in the official CU Denver press release "Early human burials varied widely," which is a bit meta, being illustrated as it is by... one of the Sungir burials, arguably some of the fanciest Upper Paleolithic burials known!

Man in an Upper Paleolithic burial in Sunghir, Russia. The site is approximately 28,000 to 30,000 years old. 
Not a typical Upper Paleoilthic burial!

In short, the study is about the variability in Upper Paleolithic burials and its main goal is to move us away from facile and unwarranted generalizations about them. It will be published in a couple of months in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, which is edited by Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stuz (pre-order your copy today!). In the meantime, if you're interested, you can access a pdf of the paper's uncorrected proofs on my profile at Upper Paleolithic mortuary practices in Eurasia: A critical look at the burial record. The paper presents a review of the known corpus of Upper Paleolithic burials, with some cautionary notes that emerge from trends in the data we now have. Our review includes all Upper Paleolithic inhumations known to date, with the exception of the Climente II burial in Romania, which was just recently redated to the late Upper Paleolithic (Bonsall et al. 2012), a study that came out well after our manuscript had been sent to the editors. Still, it provides the most up-to-date compendium of Upper Paleolithic burials currently available, along with key references and all available dates for each, and as much information about the context of the burial and associated artifacts and features as an be gleaned from the literature. Overall, our review confirms many of the conclusions that some earlier studies based on smaller samples had reached: there are fewer women than men buried, and fewer juveniles (especially infants) than adults buried. Also, there are more burials in the Late Upper Paleolithic than in the earlier part of that period, and the more recent burials tend to be more sober than the earlier ones.

That said, we make a series of key observations that break with the conclusions of previous reviews. First, there are really not a lot of Upper Paleolithic burials (just over three per thousand years for all of Eurasia!). Second, most burials are very tightly clustered in space and time, with Liguria (Italy), Moravia (Czech Republic), and parts of Russia showing an unusually high concentration of these things. Furthermore, the geographic range over which you find burials seems to contract as opposed to expand over time, and the earliest burials postdate the arrival of modern humans into Eurasia by up to 10,000 years. There also isn't any correlation between the presence of ornaments and climatic variability, which is in contrast to, say, Paleolithic art, which increases in abundance in moments of climatic downturn. Additionally - and this is one of our most important points - Upper Paleolithic burials differ widely in terms of how elaborate they are, and this even within single regions and sometimes even within single sites! This means that it is absolutely unwarranted to read Upper Paleolithic burials as a single class of evidence. And, it is especially unwarranted to take the most elaborate burials (e.g., those from Sungir) to characterize the practice of Upper Paleolithic burial as a whole. If anything, these extremely lavish burials occur kind of early on, and are clear outliers in terms of how representative they are of Upper Paleolithic interments as a class of evidence.

But wait, you might be tempted to say, don't all these burials include grave goods and things like ochre. Well, this is another point we make in the paper: most of the things that have been called grave goods are personal ornaments, and most of them are fairly simple. For instance, in the Gravettian (ca. 30-21,000BP in uncalibrated radiocarbon years), of 35 buried individuals, 8 have no ornaments at all and 11 have ornaments comprising fewer than 10 beads on their entire body. To give you a sense of how few that is, a Catholic rosary comprises 59 beads. So, 11 of these burials have fewer than 1/6 of the length of a rosary by way of ornaments, hardly a cumbersome investment in time, resources and effort like that implied by the notion of including 'offerings' in a grave. In fact, if you look at the distribution of these beads on the body of these buried individuals, they are located where you would expect most people to have worn them in life, if the purpose of these artifacts was to convey information about their wearer at a distance. In other words, they are found on the upper body, usually (70% of the time) on the head, but also on the neck/torso area (17% of the time). To us, this and the fact that the remaining 13% of all ornaments is found distributed all other (lower) parts of the body, suggests that the majority of ornaments were probably worn by the deceased in life and buried with them when they died. An additional idea to emerge form this pattern is that most prehistoric beads from other period (like the Middle Stone Age of Africa) may have been worn on the head as part of caps, headbands, headdresses, bonnets and whatnot, rather than on the torso as necklaces, as is often assumed.

Now, obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, and a few burials do show extremely elaborate ornaments that leave little doubt as to their nature as grave offerings(e.g., Sungir). But these are in the minority (in fact the Sungir burials are excluded from our Table 17.3 because they are so far from the norm of contemporary interment). Additionally, these burials also tend to be the ones that have the most decorated body parts overall anyway, reinforcing that the fairly sober ornaments found with most burials were probably personal possessions of the deceased.

What about ochre? To be fair, ochre in some form is found with most Upper Paleolithic burials. That said, however, the Upper Paleolithic as a whole tends to be associated with ochre and other coloring materials, so it's not unexpected that it would be found in the fill of many graves dug into Upper Paleolithic sediments. In fact, because many of these interments were discovered a long time ago, the definition of what exactly is meant by 'ochre' in most cases is pretty vague. Suffice it to say that if you're looking for a grave completely covered in ochre, again, you're looking at a fairly small subset of the entire sample.

So, to sum up, most of the ornaments traditionally considered as grave goods are likely personal ornaments worn n life by the deceased and if the inclusion of ochre in many graves is a byproduct of their having been dug into Upper Paleolithic deposits. This means that the two features usually invoked to describe most Upper Paleolithic burials as symbolic really don't support that view for the vast majority of cases. Basically, what you see is a few Upper Paleolithic people being buried wearing things they would have worn when they died, and in pits or depression dug into contemporary sediments. That of course, doesn't mean that they weren't symbolic and/or highly meaningful to the people burying the dead - after all, after 20,000 years most present-day burials in the US would leave behind very little in the way of extravagant material culture, in spite of their being heavily symbolic. However, if we're going to assume that they are symbolic, then logic dictates that we must extend the same interpretation to similar cases in other periods, such as the Middle Paleolithic, where people were certainly interred in pits and depression along with items of daily life (which in that period generally didn't include ornaments or ochre). Really, this is not a paper about Neanderthal burials, but rather a paper that forces us to rethink some of the preconceptions we have about what differentiates Upper Paleolithic populations in Eurasia from other prehistoric populations (e.g., Neanderthals). So, the Past Horizons headline gets it wrong: some Upper Paleolithic burials clearly were more sophisticated than those of Neanderthals. It's just that there's no reason to think that the vast majority of them were. What requires explanation is why you have so few of these extremely elaborate burials - by itself, the fact that they exist tells us little about the human experience in the Upper Paleolithic as a whole.