Ancient caves mark the beginning of recorded burial rituals, but there's still so much we don't know about the history of human graves
© CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty ImagesAn example of a Paleolithic ritual burial in France.
Many cultures around the world choose to honor deceased loved ones through burial. The ceremonies that accompany this ritual are steeped in history and tradition and can vary from culture to culture. But when was the first human burial?
There's no definitive answer
because not all burial sites are preserved, let alone discovered and studied. But the earliest evidence so far points to the Middle Paleolithic (around 300,000 to 30,000 years ago).
"By at least 120,000 years ago we have what we believe are deliberately buried human bodies," Mary Stiner
, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, told Live Science.
Stiner doesn't rule out the potential for older burials to exist but said the most convincing early examples for modern humans (Homo sapiens
) burying their dead come from the Middle Paleolithic. Some controversial research has suggested that extinct human relatives buried their dead
around 300,000 years ago in what is now South Africa, but this is disputed in the scientific community.
The earliest known anatomically modern human burials from 120,000 years ago are in caves such as Qafzeh Cave in what is now Israel. There's also evidence of Neanderthal
burials in the same caves dating to 115,000 years ago, according to The Australian Museum
. Stiner noted that people used caves a lot during the Middle Paleolithic — living, eating and socializing in them.