News Release

Computational analysis of putative hominin burial practices

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Side View of a Baboon Cranium from Misgrot Cave, South Africa

image: Side view of a baboon cranium from Misgrot Cave, South Africa. This is one of the comparative assemblages the authors used in the analysis. view more 

Credit: <i>PNAS</i>

A study uses computational methods to examine claims of deliberate burial of corpses by Middle Pleistocene hominins. Fossil remains of hominins found in the caves of Spain's Sima de los Huesos and South Africa's Dinaledi Chamber are purported to bear evidence suggesting mortuary practices among Middle Pleistocene hominins. Such practices would imply cultural awareness of human mortality and ritual reverence among hominins. Charles Egeland and colleagues used a machine learning approach to compare the abundance of hominin skeletal parts in both fossil assemblages with 14 modern and prehistoric sets of remains sorted into distinct categories. The categories included primary hominin burial, possible primary hominin burial, hominin nonanthropogenically accumulated fossils, undisturbed human corpses, and scavenged human corpses, among others. Analysis of skeletal part abundance suggested that the Spanish fossils were unlikely to have been deposited as complete skeletons and that they were likely disturbed by carnivores, which may have fed on the bones and inflicted surface damage. Similarly, the South African hominin remains were unlikely to have arrived at the caves as complete skeletons and revealed signs of subsequent disturbance. Comparative analyses suggested that abiotic factors and carnivores may have contributed to the composition and disarray observed in the assemblages. Contrary to previous suggestions, neither fossil collection offers unambiguous evidence of burial by hominins. Yet the findings do not rule out the possibility that such burials occurred, instead underscoring a potential role for nonhuman agents and the need for further analysis, according to the authors.

Article #17-18678: "Hominin skeletal part abundances and claims of deliberate disposal of corpses in the Middle Pleistocene," by Charles P Egeland, Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo, Travis Pickering, Colin Menter, and Jason Heaton

MEDIA CONTACT: Charles Egeland, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC; tel: 336-334-5132; e-mail: <>


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