Dr. Erin Baxter Interview:
Our guest this week is Dr. Erin Baxter. Erin is an archeologist who is very interested in what humans do with the dead. For instance, when did humans first bury those who have passed away? How did the weird and wonderful burial practices of cultures across the world develop? To learn about this, she took lots of classes in anthropology, archeology, classics, and human skeletal, anatomy, and biology, and has traveled around the world to examine ancient human remains in Ireland, Greece, Turkey, Bolivia, Tunisia, Virginia, New Mexico, and Colorado. Human bodies are fascinating and time capsules that tell us about how long they lived, if they suffered an injury, their height, their sex, age, and culture.
This week’s questions were submitted by students at Bromwell Elementary in Denver, Colorado, and by the listeners through emails and on social media.
Dr. Baxter, thank you so much for being here today.
Thanks for having me.
All right. Do you have anything you’d like to add to introduce yourself, or should we jump right into the questions?
I think jumped right in.
(Oliver – How many graveyards have you been to?)
Alright. This first question is from Oliver. How many graveyards have you been to?
Great question, Oliver. I have been to many graveyards, both historic and prehistoric. But I think that lately I’ve been going around to the cemeteries in Denver, because I teach a class on the archeology of death, and some of my favorite cemeteries are here in Denver that are maybe 150 years old give or take. And I highly recommend that if you ever have some time off of school, get your parents to take you to a cemetery, cause you can see all kinds of amazing things there.
(Bixby – Why do you turn into a skeleton? Why is that the last thing left? Is it always the last thing left?)
(Anja – Do bones last forever?)
Awesome. So, these are a couple of questions just about I guess preservation and skeletons. Bixby wants to know why do you turn into a skeleton? Why is that the last thing left? Is it always the last thing left? And Anja wants to know do bones lasts forever?
Oh, what a good question, Bixby. Well, I have to say it all basically depends on what happens to your body after you die. So, it depends on how hot it is, what the humidity is, what kind of critters and bugs are around, if anybody put stuff on top of you, if the temperature fluctuated, if it was really cold or really hot. All those things kind of play into whether or not you preserve. And so, I’ll start with the oldest way that they preserve, and then I’ll go to sort of the way they maybe don’t preserve.
And the best way, if you want to preserve something, is to remove sort of the oxygen and to get rid of the liquids out of your body as quickly as possible. If one or both of those things happen, generally, you get preserved really, really well. And even like the really old bones, like dinosaur bones and human bones the like, they do what’s called petrify, which basically means that the stuff inside your bones gets essentially replaced by sediments or rock, and you turn literally the stone, but it still looks like an ancient bone. And those are really, really old; those take an incredible amount of time for that process to happen. And archeologists like me, don’t always get to study those. Those are people who do paleontology, or sort of study really, really ancient humans and pre-humans, our ancestors.
On the other end of the spectrum, if there’s lots of bugs, if there’s lots of animals, if there’s lots of heat, if there is lots of oxygen circulation, and temperature fluctuation, almost nothing of the body it gets preserved. And you only find little tiny bits of it afterwards, because it all basically rots away. And the things that are the most robust, that are likely as to preserve in situations like that though, are your teeth and the head of your femur, kind of where it fits into your hip, sometimes parts of your skull might preserve in those conditions. But on the whole, the little bits of you are almost always sort of evaporate and just are broken down to their component parts and not identifiable by scientists.
So those are two extremes of like, petrification is one really great way, you know, and the other sort of preservation is just really the opposite of that, where almost everything goes away. But humans often try to slow that process down. So, we do things like bury ourselves, embalm bodies, mummify them purposely, which means we basically suck out all the juices artificially so that bodies can preserve. So there’s all kinds of different ways that skeletons preserve. And this is one of the reasons why it’s so fascinating to archeologists.
Oh my goodness. All right. Let’s see. And we have a whole chunk of questions about mummies coming up, but let’s stick with skeletons for a little bit.
(Ava – Have you ever seen a skeleton that is 150 years old? What is the oldest you have seen?)
(Zeger – What is the oldest skeleton that you have studied? What did you learn from that particular skeleton?)
We’ve got a couple of questions, a couple of students, Ava and Zeger are curious about what the oldest skeleton that you have ever seen was.
Oh, the oldest skeleton. Well, of non-humans of a species that eventually evolved into us, I’ve gotten to see actually Lucy, who’s about 2.4 million years old, and she is an Australopithecus Africanus, who is one of our oldest sort of identifiable direct ancestors.
But until recently at the university of Colorado, we’ve been working with lots of skeletons that are about 1000 years old or 1200 years old. And in between those times, I’ve worked on skeletons who were 150 years old, or maybe a little more. Like for instance, I worked on James Madison’s grave, he was the president of the United States, to ancestral Pueblo ancestors, who lived a thousand years ago in Colorado and New Mexico and Utah and Arizona, the four corners regions. And I’ve also dug up human remains in Turkey and Greece. The ones in Turkey were probably close to 7,000 years old.
So a whole variety of types of people, but fundamentally all humans for the most part, the exception of Lucy, that one at the beginning, but all humans from 7,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago are all biologically the same, just as we are now, which I think is pretty, pretty cool on the whole.
(Gabriela – Have you found some skeletons that don’t have all the bones? Have you found skeletons all mixed up with other skeletons?)
Wow! That’s amazing! Gabriella wants to know. Have you found some skeletons that don’t have all the bones, and have you found skeletons that were all mixed up with other skeletons?
Oh, Gabriela, great question! Yes! So there’s a few reasons why skeletons sometimes don’t have all the bones.
One is that if that person in life either was born without part of their skeleton, sort of have maybe had a congenital issue with their skeleton, so for instance, they might not have been born with a leg or an arm.
Or if maybe they lost part of their skeleton or part of their body as when they were alive, that’s a possibility, and that’s happened lots through amputation, like.
And then there are what we call post-depositional, so after the body’s been put into the ground, after it cease to live, where we find another word I’m going to throw at you, the taphonomy, the taphonomic process, and that’s all the things that can happen to a skeleton after it’s dead; so it can be crushed by soil or, you know, worms can get in there, or all these sorts of birds, critters, wolves, earthquakes, you know, people building a road, all kinds of things, impact skeletons under the ground. Just this week, I saw that a pipe was laid through the medieval remains of a woman it’s somewhere in England and went right through her pelvic girdle. So all kinds of post-depositional, taphonomic processes can destroy, mix up bones. And the result is, it’s really confusing and hard for archeologists sort of come up with what really happened.
(Ella – How can you tell gender from the bones?)
All right. This next question is from Ella. How can you tell gender from the bones?
Oh, Ella, I love that question. Here’s the thing I’m going to throw some more archeology terms at you. You can’t tell gender. Gender is what people decide how they’re going to be once they’re bore. You’re born with a biological sex, so either binary, which is male or female. And your gender is kind of decided by you and the culture around you.
So on the whole, we can never tell gender, but we can often not always tell sex. And the way you tell sex, if you were born biologically male or biologically female, is generally by looking at the pelvic girdle, and the crania, those are two sorts of good processes to look at. Of course, DNA is the most infallible, the most trustworthy process.
But in the field, say if you don’t have time or the money to do DNA analysis, you look at the pelvic girdle is one of the best ways to tell. And basically, after puberty, after you know, men and women go through puberty at different times, but usually about 11 to 15, 16, 17, you start to go through puberty, women’s pelvic girdles broaden and widen, and they look slightly different, the angles are slightly different, and that’s to allow for eventual childbirth, if they choose to have children. And men’s pelvic girdles do not broaden in the same sorts of ways. So that’s one really good way to tell the sex of an individual.
Another is different sort of elements of the head, and men and women of Homo sapiens, of humans, basically they have what’s called sexual dimorphism. And that is that men on the whole, not always, but on the whole, are about 30% bigger than women. And you know, because of that, they have different muscle attachments, men do than women, and those different muscle attachments manifest themselves in different parts of the skeletal anatomy. So for instance, men have or often have much broader and bigger muscle attachments on their heads, and the result of that is that their skull sometimes different.
So that’s another really good way of telling sex between male and females is that pelvic girdle, the cranium, the heads, and DNA.
(Elsworth – How have our skeletons changed over the years?)
(Ainslie – Have our skeletons adapted over the years to different lifestyles?)
Awesome. This is a couple of questions from Ellsworth and Ainslie, and they’re both curious about how skeletons have changed over the years. And if skeletons have adapted to different lifestyles.
Oh, Ellsworth and Ainslie. I love both of these questions. So, let me take this in three parts.
Have our skeletons changed over the years? Yes. They’ve changed a lot. Because if we think about human evolution, and where we’ve originated from, and the species who came before us, we have become more upright or bipedal, we walk on our two feet; our hands have become much more agile, and our ability to grasp and to manipulate things with our hands and our opposable thumbs, we’re not the only ones with opposable thumbs, but we’re really the most adept with them. And all of those have manifested in changes in our post cranium, sort of skeletal anatomy, everything from the neck down.
And one of the biggest changes is how our heads have gotten huge. And compared to other sorts of our cousins and ancestors, we have big old noggins. And that’s the whole, lots of brain matter and materials that allow for things like complex speech, abstract thinking, the ability to create art, which is one of the few things that is pretty unique to modern humans. And those have all manifested in how our bodies have changed over the last, you know, hundreds of thousands up to even some millions up to eight or 10 million years when we can trace our ancestry to. So those are some of the ways we’ve changed.
In the modern period, or in the last few thousand years, we’ve changed as well. Because we’ve done a few things differently than our ancestors have done, for instance we’ve been able to correct vision. And I guess this doesn’t really impact our skeleton too much, but I’m as blind as a bat. And probably if I lived 10,000, 20,000 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have survived, because I was blinded by about the fourth grade, and that would be a really hard for me to sort of live in this world.
But we’ve made technological adaptations that have allowed for traits to be passed on, which is really cool as well. Our nutrition has changed. We’ve got lots more protein than we’ve had our ancestors have had and lots more calories that we take in. And one of the byproducts of that is obesity, but a second byproduct before we sort of stopped, you know, running around and, you know, chasing things on the landscape and gathering our food, was that we grew taller and we grew bigger. And one of the ways that we see in amongst skeletons of who is better off than other groups is people who have access to good nutrition, tend to be taller. And that’s one very good proxy for social status. And for overall general health of a society is how tall they are. And we think of Americans as being really healthy? No, our stature, compared to the rest of the world, peaked in the late 1800. And since then, we have kind of diminished, because our nutrition has diminished in kind.
And one last final trait on that one is that we tend to not sort of crush up our food as much. We don’t eat a lot of hard foods anymore – we got lots of processed things, and our teeth and our jaws reflect that. So if you looked at a person from the neolithic from five or 6,000 years ago, their jaws are 50% bigger than ours are right now. And that’s because they evolved, because they needed to have that musculature and that ability, that crushing ability to crush up their foods. And we do not have that. We hardly eat anything that causes us to sort of crunch our teeth together. And that’s why our jaws are getting smaller. We don’t have quite enough room for all of our teeth anymore. Some of you, when you get older, you might have your wisdom teeth out. And this is one reason.
And finally, to answer Ainslie’s question, have skeletons adapted for different lifestyles. They certainly have, Ainslie. For instance, the best example that I know of is folks who live at high altitude, for instance, up in the Rocky Mountains, or particularly up in the Andes, or in the mountains of the Himalayas, people tend to be shorter, and they tend to have broader chests. And to have those reasons or those adaptations is that there’s an advantage if you can conserve heat by being sort of shorter and rounder. That’s a way to conserve heat and low temperature environments. And the other is it allows for the expansion of your lung capacity. So you actually have bigger lungs, or you can often adapt bigger ones if your ancestors are from high mountain areas. And it’s an adaptive trait that allows them to function more efficiently at those altitudes.
(Maja – How much have humans evolved? Do we still have a third eyelid like other animals?)
Oh wow. That’s incredible. I never knew that. Maja wants to know how much have humans evolved and do we still have a third eyelid, like other animals?
Oh, Maja, that’s a great question! It’s hard to say how much we’ve evolved. I guess it depends on how far back we want to go. But if you think that all human life and all life on this planet evolve from this, you know, single cell organisms, we’ve evolved a lot. When you think about the different systems in our body and, you know, respiratory and excretory and muscular and skeletal systems that are all complex and working in harmony with one another. I think that’s a really extraordinary complex processes that’s taken billions of years to first to happen. So I think we are kind of amazing in that evolutionary process.
And as far as do we still have a third eyelid, you know, I don’t know, because archeologists on the whole, we deal with what’s left over after death and not the juicy living bits, like eyelids is so. I’m going to have to refer you to a biologist or a physician because I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that.
(Laura – What do you think about the way ancient Egyptians buried or preserved people?)
That’s fine. I’m working on getting a physician on the podcast, so maybe some time in the future.
All right. Let’s switch gears a little bit. We have a bunch of questions about mummies. So this first question is from Laura. What do you think about the way ancient Egyptians buried or preserved people?
Oh Lord, that’s an amazing question, and it’s a really hard question because the Egyptian civilization is still around, and it’s been around for over 4,000 years, and their burial practices have changed in incredible ways throughout that time period. But I think they’re absolutely fascinating, but I do want to say that, Egyptians are not the only people on this world to mummify. And they’re not even the first people.
The first people on this planet who mummified their dead were from Peru, and they were called the Chinchero. And they were mummifying their dead a couple of thousand years before the Egyptians got the idea, which I think is pretty interesting to think about.
But on the whole, what you’re asking is about mummification of Ancient Egyptians probably from the new kingdom maybe, or maybe even the old kingdom. I’m not quite sure what time period you’re thinking about, but we have such good information on Egyptian people and culture because they mummified their dead. And because of that, we know a ton about how they lived, and that’s the most fascinating thing. I think that the Egyptians have gifted to modern people and to archeologists because they’ve shared how they lived by preserving their dead. And I think that’s kind of cool.
(Ava – Have you seen mummies before? Are they like the movies?)
That is cool. Ava wants to know, have you seen mummies before, and are they like in the movies?
Oh, okay. I’m afraid I’ve never seen The Mummy, the movie, but yes, I’ve seen mummies before. Actually, at the university where I went to school and where I taught, the University of Colorado at Boulder, we had about 491 mummies in our building. And they had been excavated a few decades ago, and had been brought to teach students like you, how to learn about human anatomy and mummy preservation, and to learn about the culture they were from ancient Nubia, and how those people lived. And so, I’ve seen hundreds of mummies and gotten to work with them, and it was a real privilege to be able to do so, because there’s not that many teaching collections like that.
But they’re fascinated, and they were about a thousand years old, and some of them had eyelids and eyelashes and hair and umbilical cords. You could tell where they’d broken bones and they’d been sort of repaired. Some of their clothes were intact. So it’s a really extraordinary collection.
(Ella – Have you seen a mummy that was really well-preserved?)
Oh my goodness. This is a good question. You’ve kind of already answered it, but if you have anything to add to it from Ella, have you seen a mummy that was really well preserved?
Yes. I think, Ella, there was one of about an eight-year-old girl in this collection at the University of Colorado, and her hair was braided and it was braided so beautifully. And I remember my professor who taught me, he asked some of the people who maybe had descended from this little girl who lived in Sudan now. And he said, why did they braid their hair like this little girl? And they said, well, one, it keeps the dust and the sand down, but two it’s pretty, you goofus! Kind of a wonderful, like, you know, she’s a thousand years old, and she tragically passed away way too young at you know, age, age eight or nine, but her hair was beautiful, and it lasted all these years. That was kind of poignant and telling. And one of the reasons why I love working with those mummies is that there’s those stories to tell.
(William – Have you been to the catacombs in France and England?)
That’s incredible. Oh my goodness. Alright. William wants to know, have you ever been to the catacombs in France and England?
Oh, William, man, I wish I had. I have only been to catacombs in Turkey, but it’s on my bucket list before maybe after a pandemic to get over there and to see those because I teach about the catacombs in Paris and in Rome, but I’ve never been.
(Isabella – What have you learned about humans since the 1600’s?)
They’re amazing. I went to the ones in France. This next question is from Isabella. What have you learned about humans since the 1600s?
Since the 1600s. Well, I think we learned sort of the macro and the micro.
So the macro in a sense that we we’ve learned a lot about identifying diseases and pathologies, which is what we call those diseases on bodies, injuries.
And we’ve gotten technology that has allowed us to study the micro. So, x-rays and MRIs, the same thing sometimes studies that people get when they go to the doctor’s office. Today, we can perform those on mummies and skeletons and burials of the ancient past. And that tells us tons of stuff about them, which I think is interesting. And of course, the really micro, which is things like DNA, and we can find out, for instance, that, you know, Neanderthals often had brown eyes, but not all, some of them had blue. And those are kind of the new frontiers that I think are going to expand in the coming decades that are going to tell us so much about ancient people with DNA.
(Ainslie – How can salt preserve the human body?)
Wow. Okay. Ainslie wants to know how salt preserve the human body.
Oh Ainslie, that’s a really great question! Well I don’t know if you heard me at the beginning, but one of the worst things for preservation of human body is all the liquids. And essentially, if you think about us, we are giant bags of water, something like 80% of us is liquid or some form of liquid, maybe into the 90%. And that is a really good medium or place where bacteria like to dwell. Especially after we’re dead. And so, after we die, one of the reasons why animals and humans, I guess humans are animals, swell up: this is the exponential growth of bacteria in the liquids. And if the liquids are removed, however, we tend to dry out, and drying out is a much, much better way to preserve the body. So one of the things that the ancient Egyptians used to use is salt to sort of dry out the body as quickly as possible. And that’s a really effective way of basically mummifying or turning them into to jerky. So, if you think about the jerky that you might buy at the grocery store or the gas station, that same sort of thing, it’s meat that has been treated with salt. And that’s the same thing that happens to that meat that we eat happens to, for all intents and purposes, the meat of a human, to preserve it after it’s dead, it’s deceased.
(Sydney – Are there other ways than burning or burying humans when they are dead?)
Wow. Sydney wants to know, are there other ways than burying, or excuse me, are there other ways than burning or burying humans when they’re dead?
Well, yes. I mean, if you think about the whole course of human history, we do all kinds of stuff with deceased bodies.
Sometimes in the far East, you might do, what’s known as the sky burial, where you put the person up on a platform and allow birds to come and consume the body. Some native American tribes of the plains did that as well. Sometimes people are left in the buildings in which they died, and they’re burned, after the fact you can be buried out at sea. Sometimes human remains are boiled and processed, and put into food, and consumed by the descendants, as a way of continuing and paying homage to the dead.
And those are just a few of them. There are, just myriad ways in which people sort of deal with the dead, but the most common is just to bury or to burn on the whole, those are the most practical and the most cost effective on the whole.
There’s recently in Europe and the United States, we turn people into flowers and plants. We recycle them with high-speed water. We might send part of our ashes into space. You can be turned into jewelry or records. So they’re really also sort of 21st century space that people are electing to deal with themselves and their loved ones after death.
Wow. Yeah. I just heard about someone recently who had their dog turned into a jewel and put on a necklace or something.
Yeah, this is it, you can do it. You can do it.
Oh man. All right. We’ve got a set of questions here that were part of a class discussion from all the students in Mr. R’s fourth grade class.
(All students in Mr. R’s class – Dead bodies smell gross, right? How do you describe that smell? Do mummies smell, too?)
And this first one is dead bodies smell gross. Right? How do you describe that smell? Do mummies smell too.
Okay. Well, the thing is, as an archeologist, I don’t deal very much with recently dead humans, actually, not at all. And I’m kind of grateful for that. And I understand that they do emit an odor, but mummies do have kind of a unique smell to them.
I guess it depends on their preservation as well, but they kind of smell musty and damp and maybe a little bit putrid a little bit, like kind of, you know, you’ve left some meat in the fridge a little bit too long, but they’re quite subtle. Mostly mummies are dried out, and they’re pretty well preserved. If they’re being taken care of by a museum or a university or the like, they’re in a nice dry environment, so they don’t give off too many smells. But it’s enough to know that you’re happy to go outside of that room usually at the end of the day. But as far as recently dead, no, no idea, and I’m kind of happy not to be able to tell you I’ve experienced that.
(All students in Mr. R’s class – Do you know about the Bog Man?)
Okay. The next question from all the students in Mr. R’s class, do you know about the Bog Man?
Oh, man. Do I know about the Bog Man? You might not know this, but my name is Erin, and I do love the Irish, and I did some research on bog people. There’s actually more than one. There’s actually more than two. There are several hundred bog bodies that have been found throughout Northwest Europe. And even there are some bog bodies in Florida. I’m not quite sure if you knew that.
But in general, if you’re talking about bog bodies, those of you who might not know what a bog is, there’s different kinds of bogs, but basically there are plants and water sort of growing at different levels. And they are really good at preservation because they’re anaerobic – they created an environment that is without oxygen, and the temperature doesn’t fluctuate very much. So, it’s a really great place to preserve things. So. back in the day in the bronze age, the neolithic, and the medieval period, people put stuff in bogs purposely. So sometimes there are hordes of, you know, gold, and bronze, and coins. People stored butter in bogs, and they stored people.
Sometimes people who might have been punished, because not always, but a lot of the bog bodies show evidence of murder. And not just murder, they show evidence of what archeologists call overkill. So, an individual like Grauballe Man, who’s one of those bog bodies, might have been had his throat cut, and been hit on the back of the head, and then strangled, and then stabbed. Each one of those would have been a fatal injury, but for whatever reason, all of those things happen to this man. So we don’t know what his crime was, or if it was a crime where he was a victim of, you know, a group of people, but he was killed and overkilled in some ways.
But we know from historical texts, like there was a Roman historian named Pliny, and he said that the people that the Brits or the Britons put into blogs were sodomites and deserters. And this might be more information that we know of. We haven’t been able to sort of prove or disprove that, but we do know from us a longitudinal or analysis of all the bug bodies, that not all of them were male. So presumably couldn’t be sodomites or couldn’t be, you know, deserters from the army as the military was made up by all men. So, there are kids, there are women. there are couples, there are older folks, all in box and all preserved at different sort of levels.
And bogs are incredibly good at preserving these bodies, and they don’t preserve in these cases mostly the bones. What’s left is often skin and hair and fingernails, and sometimes clothing. And that’s what is preserved in that anaerobic environment. Because often bogs are acidic, and they take away the bones. So you just get these sort of flaps of sort of people who are preserved. But you can see facial features on some of them, like Tollund Man has a beard, a little red beard growing out. We often see bog bodies with red hair, and actually it’s likely that not everybody had red hair at the time, that the bog acids turn their hair color red. It’s one of the reasons why we sort of have this fallacious idea that everybody from Northwest Europe has right hair and that’s not the truth.
But they are fascinating. If I can go back in time and probably study another group of people, I think I might pick bog body. So I love that question.
(All students in Mr. R’s class – Is it frightening to work around death so much?)
That’s awesome. Another question from all of the students in Mr. R’s class. Is it frightening to work around death so much?
Oh, that’s a good question. You know, at first it really was, and I will just tell a brief story, the first dig that I ever went on. I was at my first year of college, and I flew to Tunisia to do a dig. And I had never been on a dig before. I’d hardly even taken an archeology class. And they put me in a grave, by myself, and hundreds of yards from anybody else. So, I was just there digging slowly and not knowing what I was doing. And I hit the skeleton, and I remembered thinking what gives me the right to disturb you? This doesn’t seem right. I’m not trained enough for this. I don’t have the expertise for this. And I remember talking to this person for the hours that it took me to excavate them and expose their skeleton. And later that night, I was down in a grave. They had to lower me down at a ladder, and they pulled the ladder. And they forgot I was there because I was a freshman and everybody always forgets the freshmen. And they left me there for about most of the nights in this grave.
And in that time, I went from petrified and really horrified that I was in this grave with six skeletons, to sort of like, alright, this is a gift, they’re giving a gift, maybe not willingly, maybe they don’t have a say in it, but they’re going to help tell the story of the seventh century Byzantine site in Northern Tunisia, and I’m going to write about them and I’m going to tell their stories to the best of my ability. And this is going to teach anyone who’s interested about what life was like 1300 years ago. And I think that is such a present to the world, that I thought that as they are speaker and taking on that role. It made me less afraid.
And so, since that time, I’ve always held, you know, the skeletons that I do come across and have permission to excavate and in high esteem and great respect. I do often talk to them, even though I don’t think that is logical in any sense of the word because I am a scientist. But I do feel this grave responsibility, double entente to tell their stories. Because if you don’t write it up, if you just, you know, dig and throw them on a shelf and never think of them again, and you don’t write and publish and talk to their descendant community members and try to find out if they have people who are still alive, I think that’s the disservice. And I think scientists should become better about being the speakers for the dead in some ways. And I hope I never take that gift that these bodies are giving for granted.
(All students in Mr. R’s class -What are some of the weirdest burial practices?)
Wow. That’s an incredible story. Thank you so much for sharing that. Alright. This is maybe a fun question. Again, from all the students in Mr. R’s class. What are some of the weirdest burial practices?
Well, okay. Let me rephrase that. I love the question, and I know what you’re meaning by that, but I think by saying weird, we think that there’s something negative about that, and I don’t think it’s okay for one group of people to say your cultural practices are weird. So I’m just going to say that they’re different from my own. So I would rephrase that question if you don’t mind, respectfully.
So there are wonderful burial practices all around the world. And I would say, some of the most unusual that I’ve come across are maybe some in Guanajuato, Mexico, just south of the United States, where you can buy a lease for your body. And people often buy a 50-year lease or a 75-year lease. And when your lease is up and if no one from your family comes and renews your lease, your body is removed from its place in this mausoleum, and kind of put out on the street, kind of hung up on a fence. And so there are lots of these semi mummified remains in Guanajuato that you can see whose leases have run out and who are just kind of leaning on a fence, and they’re clothed, relatively intact, to be visited, and sometimes tourists go and see them. I think that’s kind of different from my own experiences with death.
Some places in Indonesia, the dead are buried all at once in a particular time period. So if you die early in the year, you might have to wait months or sometimes years, until it comes time for the communal burial to happen. And the body needs to be cleaned, and prepared, and the family members do that pretty regularly. I think that’s kind of interesting and kind of a beautiful way that that living family members interact with dead.
And one of the unusual practices is right here in Colorado, Colorado is the only state in the United States that allows for an open pyre burial down at Crestone. And you can ask to be buried out on a funeral pyre, kind of up in the mountains. And you’re burned, and your whole friends, your family can come and see and watch the process. And it’s the only place in the country you can do that.
And if this podcast was 47 hours longer, I would keep going. But that should maybe give you an idea of some of the unusual practices I’ve seen.
(All students in Mr. R’s class – Do some people eat the dead? Or did they in the past?)
Wow. Those are all very different, very special. I think. Okay, you touched on this a little bit in one of the previous answers, but here’s a place to maybe talk about it a little more. If you want. Again, a question from all of Mr. R’s students. Do some people eat the dead, or did they in the past?
Yes. and there’re different ways that they do that. So cannibalism is definitely a thing, and sometimes it’s something that’s sanctioned or endorsed or supported by society. And sometimes it’s not.
So one group that comes to mind is the Yanomami of Brazil. And when one of their people in their community dies, they cremate them, and they take the ashes, and they put them into a soup. And then they are eaten by the family members. And that’s one way that you might take the essence of your grandparent or your brother into your body after his or her demise. And I think that’s a socially sanctioned form of cannibalism.
There are other forms of cannibalism as well. Some that is a sociopathic, which means that it goes against sort of societies’ strictures and norms. And those are outside the bounds of what is socially sanctioned by a community.
And some are survival cannibalism. So in cases where there’s nothing else to eat and, you must resort to what is available, and that’s a form of cannibalism as well.
Then there are also sorts of ways where cannibalism is used as a fear tactic, as a way that sort of, you know, terrorism is used now. That cannibalism in the ancient world was used as a form of intimidation for some groups of people.
So yes, cannibalism has always been around. And there’s evidence that you can find that amongst even Neanderthals who are one of our sort of ancient cousins, who we have a little bit of our DNA from Neanderthals, might’ve practice cannibalism particularly on for instance, when babies were born late in the year in the fall, and like, these are folks living in the Pleistocene or the ice age, and they might not have been able to support that baby over the winter. That they might have resorted to cannibalism or the like. So for the greater good of the community, or at least that’s one hypothesis at the moment.
So lots of forms of human eating other humans.
(All students in Mr. R’s class – Do you think there is one way of burial that is better than the others?)
Wow. And this is another question from all of Mr. R’s students. Do you think there’s one way of burial that is better than the others?
No, I think whatever humans need to do to make their peace with the loss of one of their fellows is just fine by me. So I don’t think there’s one that’s better or the other. I think in the grand scheme of things as cultures, we change our burial practices through time. Although it’s one of the most conservative, slowest changing things that humans have done.
And one thing that’s happening in the 20th and 21st century in the United States is we are slowly moving as a culture from inhumation, or the burial of the dead in a cemetery, in a coffin in a six- by three-foot box with a headstone, we’re moving slowly away from that towards cremation. And there’s probably a couple of reasons why that is, but one is we’re running out of space. Two is that it’s environmentally unfriendly to bury, not unfriendly, but it’s environmentally less friendly to bury than it is to cremate. And three is that cremation is a much, much cheaper process to go through, to pay for at the end of someone’s life.
And so I think those kinds of big spectrum studies of why those things are changing in the United States is a really cool analogy for looking at the same exact process that happened in ancient Greece or the essay shifted from inhumation to cremation probably for those very same reasons. I think that is really cool. And I love sort of studying that element of looking at burial practices in the long run or over vast quantities of time.
(Becca – What made you want to study what humans do with the dead specifically?)
That is really cool. So let’s shift gears a little bit. We’ve just got three more questions and these questions are all about you and you as a scientist.
So this first question is from Becca. What made you want to study what humans do with the dead specifically?
Oh, well, you know, Becca, I kind of just lucked into this. Because I actually, my training is in the ancient Southwest ancestral Pueblo archeology at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. But they asked me to teach a class at University of Colorado, and that got me into really teaching about the ancient dead. And the more I read about it, the more it’s incredibly fascinating to me.
And since everyone on the planet is going to die, it’s really interesting to study because it’s something that really is a universal thing that happens to everyone. And it’s an incredibly interesting thing to study from an archeological perspective. So I know that there’s lots of people who study death and who deal with death and deal with the sort of the emotional elements and the social elements of death. And I think that’s an incredibly important aspect of our world, but coming at it as a scientist and being a little bit removed and a little bit able to separate myself from the sadness and the morbidness of it. And to be able to really kind of look it in the face as a scientist does, and in all of its extraordinary scientific insights that it might provide, that was really something that felt like an exploration into the new and wonderful places in the ancient world.
Wow. Alright. Two more questions here.
(Ciara – what is your favorite place that you have gone to study humans?)
Ciara wants to know what is your favorite place that you have gone to study humans?
Oh man. I think probably one of my favorite places was a site called Çatalhöyük, which I only got to work for one season, but most archeological digs are a couple of professors or a couple of archeologists and some students and like. And that’s kind of like little league, and they do really good work, but it’s relatively small. The scale is small. Çatalhöyük is a place in Turkey. And again, it’s the 7,000-year-old site it’s called pre-pottery neolithic site. I highly encourage you to look it up cause it’s fascinating. And they had hundreds of archeologists working there. It felt like Yankee Stadium on the seventh game of the world series: they had every tool, ground penetrating radar, magnetometry. They had every specialist, you know, forensic anthropologist, ceramicist, people who study ancient scripts, people who study ancient font, ancient animals, all there. And we were right on site. So that was one of these places where you kind of roll out of bed, walk up the hill, and start excavating, and then they call you down for breakfast a couple hours later.
So this place was lived in for 2,500 years, and the burial practices there were extraordinary. A number of the people were buried without their heads or holding the heads of other people. And the art on the walls of the houses often depicted headless animals and headless humans. And we don’t, I mean, people who have studied this in much greater detail than I, don’t understand the reason behind it. But all of these archeologists pulling together as a team to sort of unlock these mysteries of this ancient, ancient site. (This) was probably the most exciting I’ve ever had, you know, most exciting archeological experience I’ve ever had.
That’s so cool.
It was pretty great when we would do a map or something, there might be Polish, Turkish, English, and German being spoken. Cause the crews were from just all over the world, and it was just so much fun. It was really great.
(Krista – What do you do when you are not working?)
Oh, that’s amazing. Okay. And this is the very last question from Krista. What do you do when you’re not working?
I don’t know when that is. When I’m not working, I love, well, I love to read, I like to read mysteries. I like to go walking. God, I don’t do anything except read about archeology because actually I’ve just gotten this new job as a curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science; I am brand new. And just like any job, I need to learn so many more things. I’ve been to graduate school for eight years, in college for four years. And I got a master’s degree, and I’ve been worked all over the world, and I absolutely think that I have not even scratched the surface of the history of this planet, and I need to study. So right now, I’m going to read about Roman tombstones. And maybe later tonight, I’m going to read about some ancient baskets from South America. And tomorrow on the docket, I’m going to read about Bison, who got killed in Colorado 10,000 years ago. And later I’m going to try to write up a report about 59 folks who got dug up in New Mexico from about a thousand years ago.
So I just feel like there’s not that much time to do things other than read about archeology. And the thing is I think the coolest thing in the world, so I don’t mind it. I don’t think that it as work.
All right. So that’s all of our questions. Thank you so much for being on the podcast. I really appreciate it.
Yeah. Sure thing!