religion and the afterlife -- 6/17/20

Today's selection -- from Until the End of Time by Brian Greene. Burial sites from hundreds of centuries ago indicate that humans had thoughts of the afterlife on their minds even in those years:

"About one hundred thousand years ago, somewhere in the Lower Galilee region of present-day Israel, a child who was four, maybe five years old, maybe playing quietly, maybe making mischief, suffered a traumatic blow to the head. The child's gender is unknown, but let's imagine she's a little girl. The cause of the injury is obscure too. Stumbling down a steep rocky hill, falling from a tree, receiving excessive punishment? What we do know is that the impact gashed the front right side of her skull, causing brain damage, which she endured until the age of twelve or thirteen, when she died. These facts have been gleaned from skeletal remains found at Qafzeh, one of the most ancient of all burial sites, whose excavation began in the 1930s. Although the remains of twenty-six others were also found at the site, the burial of the young girl is distinctive. Antlers from two deer were laid across the girl's chest with one end resting on her palm, an arrangement according to the researchers that provides evidence of a ceremonial burial. Could the antlers be an unintentional ornament? Possibly. But it is easy to follow the research team's judgment and envision Qafzeh 11, as the child is known, being laid to rest in a ritual enacted a hundred millennia ago by early humans who were reflecting on death, struggling to grasp what it means, and, perhaps, thinking about what might follow.

This photo montage shows the
highly decorated remains of a
35- to 45-year-old adult male
who was buried at Sunghir.

Artists drawing
Institute of Archeology,
Russian Academy of Sciences.

"Tentative though conclusions about events so distant surely are, excavations of burials from later eras make the interpretation yet more plausible. In 1955, in the village of Dobrogo, about two hundred kilometers northeast of Moscow, Alexander Nacharov was operating an excavator for the Vladimir Ceramic Works when he noticed that intermingled with the yellowish brown loam he'd scooped up were bones. They turned out to be the first of many that would be unearthed over the next few decades at Sunghir, one of the most celebrated burial sites of the Paleolithic era. One grave is particularly stunning: a boy and a girl, ages approximately ten and twelve at death, were buried head-to-head in what looks like an eternal melding of two young minds. Interred more than thirty thousand years ago, their remains are adorned by one of the most elaborate collections of grave goods ever discovered. Headgear made from decorated arctic fox teeth, ivory armbands, more than a dozen ivory spears, perforated ivory disks, and -- bringing a smile to fans of Liberace -- more than ten thousand carved ivory beads that were likely sewn into the children's burial garb. Researchers have estimated that at the furious pace of one hundred hours per week, it could easily have taken an artisan more than a year to make these ornaments. The investment provides at the very least a strong hint that ritual burials were part of a strategy to transcend the finality of death. The body might cease, but some vital quality, which might be enhanced or appeased or honored or gratified by elaborate burial accessories, would carry on."



Brian Greene


Until the End of Time


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2020 by Brian Greene


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