Ancestor and Descendant Relationships: A Case Study

There are a number of perspectives we can take towards understanding mortuary practices in the past. As discussed earlier in my post on Victorian mortuary fashions and Wari tombs, it is the role of the living to determine the preservation and style in which burial takes place. Since the dead do not bury themselves, it has become important to study not just the deceased, but also the bereaved. By taking a perspective that focuses on the agents behind the burial, we can begin to have a better understanding of how the living percieved the dead. This perspective also addresses how past cultures viewed the ‘body’ of the deceased, and challenges our Western interpretations to look beyond the physical body and towards a more social one. One case study of this was done by Julian Thomas (2000) on  Neolithic burial practices.

Thomas notes that early mortuary sites consisted of either long earthen mounds or megalithic cairns which would contain multiple bodies in various states of decay. When bodies were defleshed, they would be piled up and moved to the back or taken out and circulated among the dead’s descendants. By the end of the Neolithic, bodies were placed into single pit graves, or they were put into their own chamber in the long barrows. Previous analyses have interpreted the shift from communal tombs to individual graves in a variety of ways, including the diffusion of a new culture, shift towards a more complex social hierarchy, and that it was due to an ideological shift from ancestor worship to funerals and more controlled genealogy. Thomas argues that this shift must be considered in terms of the “relationship between the dead and the living” with the dead as intrinsic to the community (2000:657). This viewpoint necessitates that we view the deceased body not as a biological entity made up of the disarticulated bones in the barrow, but rather as an ancestral presence.


Thomas proposes that pieces of the skeleton were often removed from the barrow, traded among people and then returned to explain the differential wear on some of the bones (2001:662). The deficiency in earlier analyses is that the communal tombs were viewed as a ‘final resting place’, when really they acted more as a site for the processing of bodies into bones that could be circulated. People were not circulating physical bodies, but the presence and memory of the deceased. “In the earlier Neolithic, the dead were very much alongside the living in the present, integral to the social field”. In this light, Thomas reinterprets the shift to single burials as a change in the conceptions of ancestry. By interring the remains within single graves, ancestors became fixed both in time and space. In conjunction with the act of a funeral, the deceased is given a specific location and is placed in the past within a genealogy. Thomas concludes that the reason for this shift is due to a change in identity construction. “Increasingly, people’s identities were constructed less out of being part of a bounded community in the present, and more out of a series of identifiable ancestors” (Thomas 2000:665).

Thomas’s consideration that changes in mortuary systems could be the result of changes in ancestor-descendant relationships creates a more nuanced analysis of the Neolithic. This viewpoint avoids taking a modern Euro-centric viewpoint towards the body, and instead attempts to understand how the Neolithic peoples would have seen them. In order to do this type of analysis, Thomas considered the wider context of the burials, which proved important in considering the role that the communal tomb sites had actually played. One problem with this viewpoint is equifinality. Thomas arrives at the conclusion that there was a shift in the conceptions of the body of the ancestors due to changes in social identity in general, but there is no way to test whether this was in fact the case. Further analysis should use this perspective to see if there is concurrent change in non-mortuary sites. A second problem is that while we may accept the larger social context of bone circulation, we do not know where these mortuary sites were in relation to the community. One might reasonably expect changes in the relative location of the dead could also be used to further analyze the changing relationship between the deceased and the living.

Works Cited

Thomas, Julian. 2000 Death, Identity and the Body in Neolithic Britain. In The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6(4):653-668.

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