When Did People Start Burying Their Dead: A Historical Examination

The traditions of burying the deceased have exhibited a rich diversity across various cultures and eras throughout history. In this article, we will delve into the question, “When Did People Start Burying Their Dead?” and explore the history of this ritual.

Origins of Burial

While the exact date when people began burying their dead cannot be pinpointed, there is evidence dating back to the Middle Paleolithic period, approximately 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. According to Mary Stiner, an anthropology professor at Arizona University, there is evidence of intentionally buried human remains dating back at least 120,000 years.

Caves and the First Burials

Heiliger Sand, the oldest cemetery in the world, circa 1000 years old

During this period, people frequently used caves for shelter, where they lived, ate, and socialized. The earliest cave burials were not a result of natural collapse but rather a deliberate human act. Bones were positioned in specific shapes, such as the fetal position, and in some cases, older sediment layers were disrupted to create burial sites.

Reasons for Burial Rituals

The reasons for people starting to bury their dead were multifaceted. The decomposition of corpses, the spread of unpleasant odors, and environmental harm compelled people to adopt burial practices. By burying their deceased, they sought to mitigate these adverse effects.

The process of decay, inherent in both humans and other animals, naturally elicits a sense of disgust. Witnessing the decomposition of a body indicated that something had gone wrong. The early burials and death rituals emerged as solutions to cope with this revulsion.

Evolution of Burial Ceremonies

Burial ceremonies and burial methods evolved over time. In the Upper Paleolithic period (between 45,000 and 10,000 years ago), detailed burials emerged in Eurasia, but this practice eventually faded away. These burials were typically simple and included items used in daily life.

The Burial of Saint Wenceslas

However, the nature and significance of these burials varied from region to region. The way people buried their dead was influenced by factors such as the environment and available resources. The practice of cremating the dead also emerged later, with the oldest documented case being the Mungo Lady, dated to approximately 40,000 years ago in Australia.


The history of when people began burying their dead is complex and diverse. While the earliest burials were rudimentary, they gradually evolved into different rituals in various cultures.

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