The Discovery of Death

The Discovery of Death October 23, 2019

[This is a guest piece from Joseph J. Berger, PhD, for whom I am presently editing a book Science and Spirituality: An Introduction for Students, Secular People & the Generally Curious, which is essentially a short introduction to scientific naturalism/humanism for high school students. He has taken this opportunity to provide a thought-provoking piece for ATP – thanks muchly. Let me know if there are any other guest posts out there.]

Thanks to Jonathan for inviting me to contribute to ATP. Although I’m not a philosopher, as a scientist and a non-theist I have always been interested in the intersection of science and philosophy.

In science, we use the word ‘theory’ to designate well-established scientific explanations for large aspects of the natural world, such as gravity, relativity or evolution. We use ‘hypothesis’ to indicate ideas that need further exploration. Some of these hypotheses are small steps into new knowledge, and call for experiments or further observation to support or refute them. Some hypotheses fall into the more speculative realm. They may be difficult to prove or disprove, but they are interesting to contemplate and are open to further ideas about how to explore this hypothesis. This post falls into the category of highly speculative, and as such is more of a suggestion than an assertion. I welcome ideas and comments!

Many of the questions that humans have pondered over the centuries now have scientific answers, but before modern science (and even today) people turned to religion to answer those questions. One of the most universal questions for people has always been ‘what happens when you die?’ While people certainly would be aware of the difference between living and dead animals and people, it may not have always been apparent that everyone dies. At first, this may seem obvious, but there must have been a point in the cognitive development of humans that this reality was originally perceived. What cultural adaptations could be related to the discovery of death?

The emergence of anatomically modern humans may date back to as much as 300,000 years ago. However, it is widely accepted that full behavioral modernity arose in the Later Upper Paleolithic period around 50,000 years ago in a rapid expansion of technologies related to cognitive and cultural advances. Artifacts from this time provide evidence for the capacity for advanced abstract thinking, including the appearance of art, elaborate burial artifacts that indicate a belief in an afterlife, and rapid improvements in weapons and tools. Also around this time mass migrations out of Africa occurred.

It has been postulated that these events may have followed a rapid change in human brain function, leading to a leap in abstract thinking and possibly accompanied by the development of complex modern language.

Although these changes may have accompanied a “sudden” change in mental abilities, such a neurological change alone may not be sufficient to explain such a dramatic cultural revolution. If in fact these changes were relatively sudden, could some new discovery or ideas have spurred such a rapid development of new cultural institutions?

The belief in an afterlife is cited as a motivation for elaborate burial customs that include grave artifacts. Did something occur at that time to spur the development of this belief? It may be that robust earlier evidence has just not yet been found, but if it did indeed arise in this time period what may account for it?

Art, including cave painting, is also believed to be associated with the belief in an afterlife. The earlier hypothesis that cave art may have been intended to ensure a good hunt has more recently been supplanted. Cave art does not depict the most abundantly hunted animals, and its location in some of the most inaccessible depths of caves suggests a possible mystical or religious motivation. It is now more widely accepted that cave art suggests a religious context.

I would suggest that a crucial cultural event at that time in human history may have been the discovery of death. By this, I mean the understanding by human beings that everyone dies eventually. This understanding may seem obvious, but the knowledge of the inevitability of death would not have been at all obvious to early humans.

The average life expectancy of paleolithic people was approximately 35 years. This was not just due to a mean life expectancy skewed by infant mortality. Of those who survive infancy, few people survive into their 70s. Even people living into their 50s or 60s were rare. People would die of sickness, infection, starvation, accidents, violence or predation before living long enough to die of old age. It is quite likely that people at this time had never seen sufficient numbers of aged individuals to determine that people can die of old age.

What is required in order to understand the inevitability of death?

  1. Enough cognitive ability to understand what death is.
  2. Abstract reasoning, to understand the concept of the future.
  3. Language, to discuss the ideas and the evidence.
  4. People old enough to die of old age.
  5. Old people to relate the experience that everyone they have known has died.
  6. Oral history to relate the fact that there have been very old people, all of whom have died.

Once people began to grasp the concept that everyone dies, this would have been a revolutionary realization. A small idea of the impact can be seen from the reaction of children, who at about the age of five years discover the inevitability of death. It has taken them five years to develop sufficient language, experience, cognitive ability, abstract reasoning and background knowledge to grasp the concept. This is a traumatic experience for many people. It is usually accompanied by a grief reaction, including shock, fear, and attempts to find some way out of it. Primitive humans would probably have had a similar reaction. Many children today are somewhat mollified by stories of an afterlife. Essentially they are told “Yes, you are going to die, but not really.”

The first people to begin to realize this fact of death may not have had a complex afterlife myth in place to ease the shock. Such an explanation may have rapidly developed to help them cope.

Cave paintings may be an attempt to depict the afterlife. People could come into the cave, and by the light of a flickering oil lamp, perhaps under the influence of drugs, they could have a spiritual experience about the nature of the afterlife.

Burial rituals and grave artifacts are believed to be intended to accompany the deceased to the afterlife. Perhaps they may also have been part of a ceremony intended to resurrect the dead. Most cultures even today contain myths about people who have had near-death experiences, including the sense that they had glimpsed the afterlife before returning to this world. The allocation of substantial wealth in burials may be related to a belief that sufficiently elaborate or costly ceremonies could revive the dead.

Most cultures also contain myths about a land where no one ages or dies; Eden, Shangri-La, Neverland are examples. While this is highly speculative, perhaps a sufficient motivation for mass migrations lasting hundreds or thousands of years and including the willingness to embark on dangerous ocean journeys may have been the quest for a land where nobody dies and everyone is eternally young. Migrations eastward would be traveling in the direction from which the sun comes in the morning. Each morning the sun is “resurrected” in the east, and that may be the direction to go to seek the land where resurrection occurs or where a person’s spirit goes when they die.

As a biologist, this is not my area of expertise so perhaps others, such as readers who are paleoarchaeologists, may have something to say about this hypothesis.

Joe Berger is a Professor of Biology at Springfield College, in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA. He received his Ph.D. from University of California, Santa Cruz in 1982. After about 10 years of research in academia and biotech, he joined the faculty at Springfield College, where he has taught anatomy & physiology, evolution and seminars in scientific critical thinking (among other courses) since 1991. He is married to Dr. Deborah Fein with whom he has two wonderful (adult) daughters. In his spare time, he enjoys photography and cooking.


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