Interpreting cemeteries in order to understand the living population is a dangerous and difficult task. On the one hand, cemeteries are really our only form of information about the actual people who lived and died in prehistoric populations. On the other hand, we don’t know if the population buried at the cemetery is truly representative of the one that was living. Some families or sections of society may choose to be buried in different cemeteries, or not buried at all- they may leave the bodies to be eaten by birds or animals as occurs in some cultures. Another possibility is that we haven’t found all of the cemetery, so we only get a sample of the population, or we find a special cemetery, like those constructed for plagues and warfare, where the buried population definitely isn’t a good representation of the living one. These are all important considerations when interpreting life from death, but there are some ways to tell whether or not a cemetery is a selective burial site or contains remains from the whole population.
A new study by Fernandez-Crespo and De-la-Rúa (2015) examines funerary practices of prehistoric Spain in order to determine what portions of the population were buried in megalithic monuments. These megalithic monuments were built from stone and earth to create large structures for burial, and were common to Northern Spain from 3700 to 1500 BCE. Prior research has argued that these monuments were used by everyone in this period, since there was little to no differentiation of status. An alternative explanation is that everyone was buried in these communal tombs to mask the social differences that were beginning to appear in this period. However, there has been little investigation of other factors regarding the burial population, such as a demographic bias in age or sex. While it is known that all age groups and both sexes are represented in the tombs, it doesn’t mean that there all individuals were buried there. The number of individuals per tomb is fairly low, and doesn’t reflect what the actual population would have likely been during this period. Fernandez-Crespo and De-la-Rúa (2015) propose that by identifying possible demographic anomalies in the megalithic burials they may be able to identify the existence of selective burial of individuals in these tombs.
The sample for analysis includes skeletal material from seven megalithic tombs in Northern Spain, and date from the Late Neolithic to Late Chalcolithic periods (3700 to 1500 BCE based on available radiocarbon dates). This includes a minimum of 248 individuals, although the number could be higher. Megalithic tombs like these don’t have singular burials, but rather have commingled or mixed collections of bones, making it difficult to sort out complete individuals. Instead, we calculate minimum number of individuals based on the presence of recurring bones (ex. individuals based on number of left humeri, or right temporal bones). All remains were first interpreted based on age and sex of the individual. These age and sex groups were then compared against one another to determine if the structure matched the general population curve and mortality expected for this period.
Fernandez-Crespo and De-la-Rúa (2015) found a number of anomalies when comparing the age groups of people from the megalithic monuments to what the expected age at death would be for a population in this period. First, they found that there were very few burials of individuals under 5 years old. The lack of infants is commonly attributed to preservation- there bones are more cartilaginous and small, which causing them to decay faster and leave less evidence behind. However, the fully ossified bones should have been found, as other small bones were recovered from the site. More likely, it means that individuals under five weren’t included in these monument burials. This isn’t that surprising of a finding- many societies in the past and even today treat infant and young children’s burials differently from those of adults due to the strong emotional links, or perception that they weren’t fully human.
Another anomaly is a the high number of individuals found in these monuments who aged between 5 and 19 years old. There isn’t a methodological reason for this overabundance of sub-adults, since there bones wouldn’t be easier to find or preserve better than adults, and it isn’t likely that there was a specific disease or warfare that led to this type of abundance of burials; rather it is possible that this age group was more likely to be buried in these megalithic monuments. Fernandez-Crespo and De-la-Rúa (2015) argue that this is likely cultural. Individuals aged from 5 to 19 would have been integral members of the community, and the loss of them at an early age would be a major emotional and social loss. This is the age group that is expected to have the lowest mortality, so the abundance of these individuals is anomalous. However, it may point to a lack of adult burials, rather than an overabundance of sub-adult individuals. There is also a slight imbalance in the presence of males and females, with more male burials found in these structures, which could point to an overall population imbalance due to something like female infanticide or a preference to bury males in these funerary structures.
Fernandez-Crespo and De-la-Rúa (2015) conclude that there needs to be further investigation of these anomalies in order to determine what they mean. The major issue here is that these burials are occurring over hundreds of years, and the imbalance may represent changes in time, rather than an anomalous population structure. They do argue that this does appear to be more than just communal burial spaces, and likely there was some selection of which individuals were buried in these monuments and which were not. However, in order to understand why this selection was occurring, we need more information and more excavation for this period.
Fernández-Crespo, T., & de-la-Rúa, C. (2015). Demographic evidence of selective burial in megalithic graves of northern Spain Journal of Archaeological Science, 53, 604-617 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2014.11.015