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BURIAL CUSTOMS AND HUMAN REMAINS IN ARCHAEOLOGY
L. H. WELLS
We can only ascertain the physical characteristics of ancient Man by discovering his bodily remains. It is not always realized that the chances of such remains surviving for study depend to a very con siderable extent upon Man's choice of a method of disposing of his dead. Of all possible methods, cremation is perhaps the most completely destructive; periods when this practice was the rule, such as the later part of the Bronze Age in Britain, are anthropologically blank. Fortunately no such period exists in the prehistoric sequence in southern Africa. The late Professor T. F. Dreyer considered some skeletons from the Matjes River Cave to show signs of the action of fire, and claimed this as evidence of a rite, but the burning, if such it were, seems to have been very much less drastic than a true cremation. Finds of burnt human remains have also been recorded in Rhodesia; in most cases it appears that the remains were already in skeleton form before burning, whether this was deliberate or accidental. Unburnt human remains left exposed to the elements are unlikely to be preserved. Peoples who leave their dead to carrion-eating creatures are likely to make but a poor showing in the anthropological record. The same will be true of those peoples who deposit their dead, however religiously, in trees or on wooden platforms. In all such cases, the survival of any part of the remains depends on their undergoing natural burial. Whether, under these conditions, enough will survive to be of service to the anthropo logist is a matter of chance. Effectively, it may be said, human remains may survive under two sets of conditions, either if they are sunk in lakes or marshes, or if they are deliberately buried in the earth. The Tollund Man and similar finds in Scandinavian bogs dramatically illustrate the former possibility, but it must be emphasized that lakes and bogs are not always so kind to human remains. A peat-bog in northern Scotland yielded the woollen clothing of an eighteenth-century man with his hair and finger-nails, but scarcely a particle of bone had survived the corrosive action of the peat acids. Mineral-charged waters on the contrary lend themselves to the preservation of bone. Two of the most important African fossil skulls, those of Floris bad and Broken Hill, were preserved in this way, the former by a mineral spring, the latter by underground water in a fissure. In both cases the indications are that the skull was dissociated from the rest of its skeleton before it came to rest. How they reached their respective resting-places is a mystery, but the presumption is that neither was a true burial. The piecemeal recovery of the Swanscombe skull fragments illustrates only too clearly how human skeletal remains committed to a running stream become scattered and buried fragment by fragment. How this skull came to be committed to the stream in the first place, whether in the flesh or the skeleton, from the surface of the ground or by the erosion of a burial, cannot be determined. Human remains revealed by erosion inevitably disintegrate rapidly. In the case of the Hopefield discovery, because by a lucky chance the area was being systematically studied at the time, the scattered fragments of the skull could be searched for and brought together. It is fortunate too that sufficient collateral evidence could be obtained to make the relation of the skull to the other remains on the site fairly certain; otherwise it would have come into the same uncertain category as the Kanam and Kanjera remains. At Hopefield, as at Swanscombe, how the skull came to be incorporated in the deposit can only be guessed, but the conditions on the site suggest natural rather than deliberate burial. By burying his dead, Man does not automatically ensure the preservation of their bones. The chemical composition of some soils brings about the rapid disintegration of bone; in other cases the roots of vegetation are the destructive agent. Under the right conditions, however, buried remains, whether in a cave or in the open, have the greatest chance of survival, until the time comes when they are laid bare by erosion or by the excavating activities of Man. A review of our knowledge of ancient types of Man indicates that burial in a cave is the most successful means of assuring the physical survival of human remains. Our detailed knowledge of the osteology of the Neanderthal type of Man, and of the types who succeeded him in the Upper Palaeolithic period in Europe, is derived almost entirely from such burials in caves. Human remains may be preserved in a cave without the additional safeguard of deliberate burial. The Broken Hill find has already been mentioned, but it is even more noteworthy that the pre-Neanderthal types about whose structure we know most are Pekin Man and the Australopithecines. In both of these cases our knowledge is based upon remains which accumulated in caves, although certainly not buried. It must, however, be borne in mind that if cave finds preponderate in our record of early human remains, this is partly due to the fact that there is a much greater chance of the excavator happening upon human remains within the circumscribed area of a cave deposit. In the open, unless the presence of burials is betrayed by surface indications, the dis covery of human remains is almost always due to chance. Whether in the open or in caves, burials present their own special problems to the archaeologist. As the late Professor van Riet Lowe constantly reminded us, burial takes place from the present into the past; it may be indeed into a very remote past. The con fusing possibilities of this are clearly shown by the history of the Galley Hill skeleton, a burial of undeter mined age into an Early Stone Age deposit. In Africa the Olduvai skeleton affords a parallel case. When, as is so often the case, the traces of burial are not clear, it may be extremely difficult to decide from what level the burial was made, or indeed if it was a burial at all. Of the classical South African finds, those of Boskop and Springbok Flats are both beset by these difficulties. The Skildergat skeleton illustrates the same problems in the case of a cave burial; lying in a Stillbay deposit, it could be a burial from the over lying Howieson's Poort level, or from the base of the Late Stone Age midden above this. Even if the level of the grave-mouth is clear enough, a doubt may remain. In a rock shelter at Hora Mountain in Nyasaland, Dr. J. Desmond Clark dis covered two burials. These had been made from a horizon which marked the dividing line between the second and third phases of the Natchikufan culture. Did the burials then mark the end of the Natchikufan II occupation or the beginning of Natchikufan II? Burials found on the same stratigraphic horizon are not necessarily of one age. At the Mumbwa Cave in Northern Rhodesia, remains from a single horizon differed strikingly in their degree of fossilization and must therefore belong to different periods. In the 'Wilton' layer of the Matjes River Cave, Dr. A. J. D. Meiring found it possible to distinguish between the burials which belonged within this layer and those intruded into it from the layer above. Where numerous burials have been made in a con fined space, as in a cave, they may intersect and disturb each other. This was very well demonstrated by Professor A. J. H. Goodwin in his excavation of the Oakhurst Cave; it may also be encountered in cemeteries in the open. Successive interments in one grave are common enough where rock-cut or built tombs are in use, but rare in the case of simple earth burials. So many difficulties arise in determining the strati graphic horizons of burials, whether in caves or in the open, that archaeologists tend to lean very heavily on collateral evidence of dating, such as that of grave-furniture. Unfortunately, many of the pre historic peoples of South Africa were extremely parsimonious in their treatment of the dead. The South African archaeologist may well think longingly of the richly adorned Upper Palaeolithic burials of the Grimaldi Caves on the Mediterranean coast of Europe, or the characteristic assemblages of pottery and implements that accompany Early Bronze Age burials in Britain. Even in Britain, a Dark Age or early medieval cemetery may fail to produce a single piece of concrete evidence by which to date it within a range of several centuries. The form of the grave, and the manner in which the body has been placed, may also suggest the cultural or even chronological context of the remains. In such regions as the south-western Orange Free State and Griqualand West an analysis of pre-European grave types could very usefully be undertaken. Professor van Riet Lowe in particular drew attention to some graves with very distinctive features, whose distribution would well repay study. Up to date the only positive contribution in this direction has been that of the late Professor T. F. Dreyer on the proto historic burials of the Kakamas area.
Physical characteristic of ancient man are determined by their remains, their destruction was considered due tu burn but there are some evidence of human skeleton were present before burnt that may be naturally or deliberately.Also unburnt part were preserved by chemicals.conclusion is that human remains survived in two conditions first, if they were sunk into lake or marshes,second they were buried.
osteology of the Neanderthal type of Man,is derived almost entirely from such burials in caves. Human remains may be preserved in a cave without the additional safeguard of deliberate burial examples are pekin Man and the australopithecus.
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