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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

Research Postgraduates

Publication details for Professor Paul Pettitt

Pettitt, Paul (2018). Hominin evolutionary thanatology from the mortuary to funerary realm. The palaeoanthropological bridge between chemistry and culture. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 373(1754): 20180212.

Author(s) from Durham


Palaeoanthropology, or more precisely Palaeolithic archaeology, offers the possibility of bridging the gap between mortuary activities that can be observed in the wider animal community and which relate to chemistry and emotion; to the often-elaborate systems of rationalization and symbolic contextualisation that are characteristic of recently observable societies. I draw on ethological studies to provide a core set of mortuary behaviours one might expect hominoids to inherit, and on anthropological observations to explore funerary activity represented in the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic, in order to examine how a distinctly human set of funerary behaviours arose from a more widespread set of mortuary behaviours. I suggest that the most profound innovation of the hominins was the incorporation of places into the commemoration of the dead, and propose a falsifiable mechanism for why this came about; and I suggest that the pattern of the earliest burials fits with modern hunter–gatherer belief systems about death, and how these vary by social complexity. Finally, I propose several research questions pertaining to the social context of funerary practices, suggesting how a hominin evolutionary thanatology may contribute not only to our understanding of human behavioural evolution, but to a wider thanatology of the animal kingdom.


Themed issue on Evolutionary thanatology (eds. J. Anderson, P. Pettitt and D. Biro).