241,000 to 335,000 Years Old Rock Engravings Made by Homo naledi in the Rising Star Cave system, South Africa

  1. The National Geographic Society, 1145 17, St NW, Washington DC, 20036
  2. Centre for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey, School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand; Private Bag 3, Wits 2050, South Africa
  3. The Carnegie Institution for Science, 5241 Broad Branch Road NW Washington D.C. 20015
  4. Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Madison; 5240 Sewell Social Sciences Building, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI, USA 53706
  5. Department of Anthropology, Princeton University; 123 Aaron Burr Hall, Princeton USA 08455

Editors

  • Reviewing Editor
    Yonatan Sahle
    University of Cape Town, South Africa
  • Senior Editor
    George Perry
    Pennsylvania State University, United States of America

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

I think it is important to note up front that I recognize that the goal of this paper was to announce the discovery of what appear to be intentionally-made marks in Rising Star cave in South Africa. This was not meant to be an in-depth analysis or a declaration of definitive results. With this in mind, I appreciate that the authors did not try to overstate this new discovery, but instead simply reported what had been observed, provided a little bit of background on the current state of the field in regards to the evolution of hominin visual mark-making, made a few tentative identifications, but then clearly acknowledged that a lot more documentation, sampling, and study would be needed before we could understand the full scope and potential importance of this find.

This is a big claim. If it proves to be true, it has the potential to be paradigm-shifting as the identification of intentional engraved marks, made by a small-brained distant human cousin 200,000+ years ago in South Africa, would completely change our understanding of where, when and who made the first graphic marks. Twenty years ago, this claim would probably have been dismissed out of hand as being too far-fetched to be taken seriously, but there have been some major shifts in the field in recent years, in regard to the age of the art and the identity of the artists, that means this is a claim that should be approached with a scientifically cautious, but open mind. There is now mounting evidence for Neanderthals, and potentially other closely related species as well, to have been engaging in similar art-making practices to our own Homo sapiens ancestors. What makes this particular claim so extraordinary is that these marks are some of the oldest in the world and that Homo naledi is a more distant relation with a smaller brain. This is also what makes the further study of this discovery such a fascinating exercise in scientific inquiry.

From a technical and methodological perspective, there is an excellent range of tools and technologies that can be used to study these engravings, so I have no doubt that further studies will help answer some of the "nuts and bolts" questions. Then there is also the opportunity created by this discovery to really open a broader dialogue in the field about who were the first artists and at what point does the hominin brain become "primed" for making visual marks. I look forward to all sorts of lively debates in the future and to seeing the results of further in-depth studies.

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

Patterns scored into or painted on durable media have long been considered important markers of the cognitive capabilities of hominins. More specifically, the association of such markers with Homo sapiens has been used to argue that our evolutionary success was in part shaped by our unique ability to code, store and convey information through abstract conventions.

That singularity of association has been cast into doubt in the last decade with finds of designs apparently painted or carved by Neanderthals, and potentially by even earlier hominins. Even allowing for these developments, however, extending the capability to generate putatively abstract designs to a relatively small-brained hominin like Homo naledi is contentious. The evidential bar for such claims is necessarily high, and I don't believe that it has been cleared here.

The central issue is that the engravings themselves are not dated. As the authors themselves note, the minimum age constraint provided by U/Th on flowstone does not necessarily relate to the last occupation of the Dinaledi cave system, as the earlier ESR age on teeth does not necessarily document first use of the cave. The authors state that "At present we have no evidence limiting the time period across which H. naledi was active in the cave system". On those grounds though, assigning the age range of presently dated material within the cave system to the engravings - as the current title unambiguously does - is not justifiable.

Because we don't know when they were made, the association between the engravings and Homo naledi rests on the assertion that no humans entered and made alterations to the cave system between its last occupation by Homo naledi, and its recent scientific recording. This is argued on page 6 with the statement that "No physical or cultural evidence of any other hominin population occurs within this part of the cave system".

There is an important contrast between the quotes I have referred to in the last two paragraphs. In the earlier quote, the absence of evidence for Homo naledi in the cave system >335 ka and <241 ka is not considered evidence for their absence before or after these ages. Just because we have no evidence that Homo naledi was in the cave at 200 ka doesn't mean they weren't there, which is an argument I think most archaeologists would accept. When it comes to other kinds of humans, though - per the latter quote - the opposite approach is taken. Specifically, the present lack of physical evidence of more recent humans in the cave is considered evidence that no such humans visited the cave until its exploration by cavers 40 years ago. I don't think many archaeologists would consider that argument compelling. I can see why the authors would be drawn to make that assertion, but an absence of evidence cannot be used to argue in one way for use of the cave by Homo naledi and in another way for use of the cave by all other humans.

A second problem is with what Homo naledi might have made engravings. The authors state that "The lines appear to have been made by repeatedly and carefully passing a pointed or sharp lithic fragment or tool into the grooves". The authors then describe one rock with superficial similarities to a flake from the more recent site of Blombos to suggest that sharp-edge stones with which to make the engravings were available to Homo naledi. Blombos is considered relevant here presumably because it has evidence for Middle Stone Age engravings. The authors do not, however, demonstrate any usewear on that stone object such as might be expected if it was used to carve dolomite. Given that it is presented as the only such find in the cave system so far, this seems important.

My greater concern is that the authors did not compare the profile morphology of the Dinaledi engravings with the extensive literature on the morphology of scored lines caused by sharp-edge stone implements (e.g., Braun et al. 2016, Pante et al. 2017). I appreciate that the research group is reticent to undertake any invasive work until necessary, but non-destructive techniques could have been used to produce profiles with which to test the proposition that the engravings were made with a sharp edge stone.

One thing I noticed in this respect is that the engravings seem very wide, both in absolute terms and relative to their depth. The data I collected from the Middle Stone Age engraved ochre from Klein Kliphuis suggested average line widths typically around 0.1-0.2 mm (Mackay and Welz 2008). The engraved lines at Dinaledi appear to be much wider, perhaps 2-5 mm. This doesn't discount the possibility that the engravings in the Dinaledi system were carved with a sharp edge stone - the range of outcomes for such engravings in soft rock can be quite variable (Hodgskiss 2010) - only that detailed analysis should precede rather than follow any assertion about their mode of formation.

None of this is to say that the arguments mounted here are wrong. It should be considered possible that Homo naledi made the engravings in the Dinaledi cave system. The problem is that other explanations are not precluded.

As an example, the western end of the Dinaledi subsystem has a particular geometry to the intersection of its passages, with three dominant orientations, one vertical (which is to say, north-south), and two diagonal (Figure 1). The major lines on Panel A have one repeated vertical orientation and two repeated diagonal orientations (Figure 16), particularly in the upper area not impacted by stromatolites. The lines in both the cave system and engravings in Panel A appear to intersect at similar angles. Several of the cave features appear, superficially at least, to be replicated. In fact, scaled, rotated, and super-imposed, Figure 16 is a plausible 'mud map' of the western end of the Dinaledi system carved incrementally by people exploring the caves. A figure showing this is included here:

Of course, there are problems with this suggestion. The choice of the upper part of Panel A is selective, the similarity is superficial, and the scales are not necessarily comparable. (Note, btw, that all of those caveats hold equally well for the comparison the authors make between the unmodified rock from Dinaledi and the flake from Blombos in Figure 19). However, the point is that such a 'mud map hypothesis' is, as with the arguments mounted in this paper, both plausible and hard to prove.

Having read this paper a few times, I am intrigued by the engravings in the Dinaledi system and look forward to learning more about them as this research unfolds. Based on the evidence presently available, however, I feel that we have no robust grounds for asserting when these engravings were made, by whom they were made, or for what reason they were made.

References:

  • Braun, D. R., et al. (2016). "Cut marks on bone surfaces: influences on variation in the form of traces of ancient behaviour." Interface Focus 6: 20160006.

  • Hodgskiss, T. (2010). "Identifying grinding, scoring and rubbing use-wear on experimental ochre pieces." Journal of Archaeological Science 37: 3344-3358.

  • Mackay, A. & A. Welz (2008). "Engraved ochre from a Middle Stone Age context at Klein Kliphuis in the Western Cape of South Africa." Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 1521-1532.

  • Pante, M. C., et al. (2017). "A new high-resolution 3-D quantitative method for identifying bone surface modifications with implications for the Early Stone Age archaeological record." J Hum Evol 102: 1-11.

Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

Lee Berger and colleagues argue here that markings they have found in a dark isolated space in the Rising Star Cave system are likely over a quarter of a million years old and were made intentionally by Homo naledi, whose remains nearby they have previously reported. As in a European and much later case they reference ('Neanderthal engraved 'art' from the Pyrenees'), the entangled issues of demonstrable intentionality, persuasive age and likely authorship will generate much debate among the academic community of rock art specialists. The title of the paper and the reference to 'intentional designs', however, leave no room for doubt as to where the authors stand, despite avoidance of the word art, entering a very disputed terrain. Iain Davidson's (2020) 'Marks, pictures and art: their contributions to revolutions in communication', also referenced here, forms a useful and clearly articulated evolutionary framework for this debate. The key questions are: 'are the markings artefactual or natural?', 'how old are they?' and 'who made them?, questions often intertwined and here, as in the Pyrenees, completely inseparable. I do not think that these questions are definitively answered in this paper and I guess from the language used by the authors (may, might, seem etc) that they do not think so either.

First, a few referencing issues: the key reference quoted for distinguishing natural from artefactual markings (Fernandez-Jalvo et al. 2014), whilst mentioned in the text, is not included in the references. In the acknowledgements, the claim that "permits to conduct research in the Rising Star Cave system are provided by the South African National Research Foundation" should perhaps refer rather to SAHRA? In the primary description of their own markings from Rising Star and their presumed significance, there are, oddly, several unacknowledged quotes from the abstract of one of the most significant European references (Rodriguez-Vidal et al. 2014). These need attention.

Before considering the specific arguments of the authors to justify the claims of the title, we should recognise the shift in the academic climate of those concerned with 'ancient markings' that has taken place over the past two or three decades. Before those changes, most specialists would probably have expected all early intentional markings to have been made by Homo sapiens after the African diaspora as part of the explosion of innovative behaviours thought to characterise the 'origins of modern humans'. Now, claims for earlier manifestations of such innovations from a wider geographic range are more favourably received, albeit often fiercely challenged as the case for Pyrenean Neanderthal 'art' shows (White et al. 2020). This change in intellectual thinking does not, however, alter the strict requirements for a successful assertion of earlier intentionality by non-sapiens species. We should also note that stone, despite its ubiquity in early human evolutionary contexts, is a recalcitrant material not easily directly dated whether in the form of walling, artefact manufacture or potentially meaningful markings. The stakes are high but the demands are no less so.

Why are the markings not natural? Berger and co-authors seem to find support for the artefactual nature of the markings in their location along a passage connecting chambers in the underground Rising Star Cave system. The presumption is that the hominins passed by the marked panel frequently. I recognise the thinking but the argument is weak. More confidently they note that "In previous work researchers have noted the limited depth of artificial lines, their manufacture from multiple parallel striations, and their association into clear arrangement or pattern as evidence of hominin manufacture (Fernandez-Jalvo et al. 2014)". The markings in the Rising Star Cave are said to be shallow, made by repeated grooving with a pointed stone tool that has left striations within the grooves and to form designs that are "geometric expressions" including crosshatching and cruciform shapes. "Composition and ordering" are said to be detectable in the set of grooved markings. Readers of this and their texts will no doubt have various opinions about these matters, mostly related to rather poorly defined or quantified terminology. I reserve judgement, but would draw little comfort from the similarities among equally unconvincing examples of early, especially very early, 'designs'. Two or even three half-convincing arguments do not add up to one convincing one.

The authors draw our attention to one very interesting issue: given the extensive grooving into the dolomite bedrock by sharp stone objects, where are these objects? Only one potential 'lithic artefact' is reported, a "tool-shaped rock [that] does resemble tools from other contexts of more recent age in southern Africa, such as a silcrete tool with abstract ochre designs on it that was recovered from Blombos Cave (Henshilwood et al. 2018)", also figured by Berger and colleagues. A number of problems derive from this comparison. First, 'tool-shaped rock' is surely a meaningless term: in a modern toolshed 'tool-shaped' would surely need to be refined into 'saw-shaped', 'hammer-shaped' or 'chisel-shaped' to convey meaning? The authors here seem to mean that the Rising Star Cave object is shaped like the Blombos painted stone fragment. But the latter is a painted fragment, not a tool and so any formal similarity is surely superficial and offers no support to the 'tool-ness' of the Rising Star Cave object. Does this mean that Homo naledi took (several?) pointed stone tools down the dark passageways, used them extensively and, whether worn out or still usable, took them all out again when they left? Not impossible, of course. And the lighting?

The authors rightly note that the circumstance of the markings "makes it challenging to assess whether the engravings are contemporary with the Homo naledi burial evidence from only a few metres away" and more pertinently, whether the hominins did the markings. Despite this honest admission, they are prepared to hypothesise that the hominin marked, without, it seems, any convincing evidence. If archaeologists took juxtaposition to demonstrate authorship, there would be any number of unlikely claims for the authorship of rock paintings or even stone tools. The idea that there were no entries into this Cave system between the Homo naledi individuals and the last two decades is an assertion, not an observation, and the relationship between hominins and designs no less so. In fact, the only 'evidence' for the age of the markings is given by the age of the Homo naledi remains, as no attempt at the, admittedly very difficult, perhaps impossible, task of geochronological assessment, has been made.

The claims relating to artificiality, age and authorship made here seem entangled, premature and speculative. Whilst there is no evidence to refute them, there isn't convincing evidence to confirm them.

References:

  • Davidson, I. 2020. Marks, pictures and art: their contribution to revolutions in communication. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 27: 3 745-770.

  • Henshilwood, C.S. et al. 2018. An abstract drawing from the 73,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Nature 562: 115-118.

  • Rodriguez-Vidal, J. et al. 2014. A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibralter. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  • White, Randall et al. 2020. Still no archaeological evidence that Neanderthals created Iberian cave art.

Reviewer #4 (Public Review):

This is potentially a landmark study with far-reaching consequences for archaeology, palaeoanthropology, and more widely. The antiquity of intentional human mark marking is a hot topic but this study – understood as initial – has as yet incomplete sources of evidence and methods; and it will be interesting to follow how the study develops in subsequent studies.

Strengths and points to build on:

* Heuristic potential: As knowledge advances it poses a risk to accepted knowledge – and we should accept that one such risk is moving on from long-held disciplinary tenets. In this case, there has been a growing quantum of evidence – all hotly debated – for the deep antiquity of mark-making and even symbolism by species other than ourselves. Most researchers now accept Neanderthal symbolic capacity actualised in burials, intentional mark-making and the like. The evidence here presented is not unequivocal but is very suggestive and an ideal test case for applying multi-disciplinary techniques of analysis and interpretation beyond the expertise of the listed authors *see comments in 'weaknesses'). This work by itself may be equivocal but when taken together with other such work, points to a 'human' sensu lato past that is as complex as it is long. This work then helps all researchers to at least be alive to the possibility of things like anthropic marks and residues in a context not normally thought to have it.

* Decentering speciesism: As per the above comment, I appreciate empirical studies that erode speciesism – in particular studies that open up our minds to the possibility that multiple members of the Genus Homo were capable of intentional mark-making and even 'symbolic' behaviour, though this latter term is not well understood or uniformly used. This is probably because of continuous unconscious bias on our part as currently the only exemplar of our genus living - in contrast to most of the past in which different species and genera co-existed - if not on the same landscape and/or at exactly the same time, then with enough overlap that people would have realised 'others' were about either by sight and/or by encountering their physical remains and artefacts.

* Problematising 'firsts' and deep time: A strength – but which needs to be developed in this manuscript – is our understanding of time and change. We have a plethora of dating techniques but relatively few substantive monographs, articles, and think tanks on time – and especially on how change comes about and what causes it. This leads us to privilege 'firsts' and the 'oldest' finds in 'deep' time above those that are more recent and in 'shallow' time. I would suggest in addition to the claims for the oldest of the reported marks, the authors develop nascent remarks on the possibility the suite of marks may have been made over time. This will help counter criticism that these marks – if established to be anthropic – were not just a singularity, but part of patterned behaviour, which would move it towards the realm of 'symbolic' cognitive behaviour. And indeed, it would be good to hear more about why in this place, these marks were made to establish a replicable model for identifying early anthropic marks.

Ultimately, this manuscript presents evidence that those who are pro the deep antiquity of intentional mark-making by Homo (and possibly even other genera) will find enough evidence to support; while those sceptical of such claims will find enough methodological flaws and evidential limits to refute those claims. The next decade of work will likely be definitive and this article makes a key contribution to the debate.

Weaknesses and points to attend to:

* Definitions: The term 'rock engraving' is used rather uncritically and also the term 'etching' – and it would be useful to have a short definition of how the authors understand the term. Rock art scholars regularly debate these terms and whether they are or are not 'rock art' with its overwhelmingly visual bias; which this discovery may usefully help overthrow and advance.

* Dating: There is no evidence provided for dating the marks found in the cave system. They could, for example, have been made more recently than the dates claimed – and by another species (if we accept their anthropogenic authorship). This is a perennial problem of much rock art research – especially when it comes to understanding the wider archaeological/palaeoanthropological context. More crucially, accurate dating allows a more reliable understanding of authorship and who/what was responsible for a particular artefact or feature. This has not been demonstrated in this case, though we do have fossil evidence of Homo naledi in the cave system. The article title is this incorrect / and unsupported claim as the marks, if they are anthropic, have not been dated and are of unknown age. The authors allow that there may have been multiple episodes, but not that the marks can belong to a time other than they posit – either earlier, later, or distributed over a long period as the authors allow for in their concluding remarks.

* Authorship: The study does not utilise either a geoscientist as one of the authorial team, or a rock art specialist. These are key oversights as the former would help better contextualise the dating of the marks reported on, as well as explore alternative non-anthropogenic agents that may have created the marks reported on. For example, the marks and 'pitting' etc may be the result of water bringing abrasive agents during times of flooding, hitting prominent rock features in the cave system. Some explanation is given from lines 114-124, but are uncited. The overlying 'sediment' may be similar to the mondmilch found in cave systems and which is of natural origin. It may be that these non-anthropogenic causes are easy to discount; but the arguments do need to be made. Or, that the polishing was made by Homo naledi brushing against the surfaces as they moved in the cave system, independent of any mark-making. A Table showing the pros and cons of intentional anthropic versus natural authorship would be very effective - as well as showing some of the natural linear marks in the cave system to avoid any confirmation or similar bias. FTIR analysis of the panel A-C would be more than useful to determine whether an additional layer of material has been added. This is mentioned for future work, but this seems a rather post-hoc research programme.

* Use-wear analysis: If the marks are anthropic in origin; they are likely to have been made by a stone tool, which would leave characteristic marks, directionality and sequencing, distinct from natural causes. It is vital this work – such as was done on the Blombos engraved ochre – is done here – for example, linking to the chert and other tools described on lines 152-158. Note Figure 19, of such a tool, is very hard to make out. The Blombos – and Klasies River Mouth engraved ochres (curiously not referenced) – have very similar geometric markings and there is a real opportunity to compare these in securely dated contexts of 70-120 kya –which could support the argument made here for Homo naledi's cognitive capacity. On figure 16 it would be good to know on what basis some marks were selected as anthropic – and why others were not; this would help demonstrate the methodology and ability to distinguish between the two kinds of marks.

* Viewshed: The rock art specialist would have added essential expertise on how to study anthropic marks. For example, the images of the marks shown are all of individual or small collections of motifs rather than showing each panel as well as all panels together, to help understand the iconographic context as an ensemble – a 'feature' rather than isolated 'artefacts' or 'motifs'. Line 60 mentions being able to see these as a 'triptych' but the reader is not able to have this view in this manuscript. From the cave map, it is not clear whether all three 'panels' (an unfortunate art historical term that suggests a framed entity - better to use a term like 'cluster') can be viewed simultaneously or in sequence. The view shed in relation to the area where the bodies were recovered is vaguely stated as 'only a few metres away' and is worth developing. I understand 3D scans have been made so it would be useful to have a version showing the marks in relation to where the bodies were recovered and as a 3-cluster ensemble.

* Image enhancements: Also, in addition to polarised images, have colour enhancement tools like DStretch been tried to see if, for example, attempts at colouring with different coloured sands were made? Similarly, a 3D scan of the motif and panel – (Metashape is mentioned but not shown) – might assist in understanding how the marks and the rock they are on might relate to each other- as research in European upper Palaeolithic contexts has shown. Here, experimenting with different kinds of lighting - or in the absence of lighting, of tactility and how these marks and their rock support may have been experienced by those who may have made and interacted with them? As a note, it would be useful to have a scale in each image of the 'engravings' and it is a pity the one in situ photograph with the scale is not a standard rock art colour-corrected scale as is commonly used in rock art research.

Author Response:

We would like to thank the eLife reviewers for the considerable time and effort they have invested to review these manuscripts. We have also benefited from a previous round of review of the manuscript describing the proposed burial features, which underwent two rounds of revisions in a high-impact journal over a period of approximately 8 months during 2022 and early 2023. Both sets of reviews have reflected mixed responses to the evidence we have presented, with one reviewer recommending acceptance with minor editorial revisions, two recommending acceptance with minor revisions and the fourth recommending rejection based upon similar arguments to those reflected by some of the reviewers in this current round of reviews in eLife. Ultimately the managing editor of this first journal took the decision that the review process could not be completed in a timely manner and rejected the manuscript although the submission here reflected our consideration of these reviewers suggestions.

We have chosen in this initial response to the eLife reviews to include some references to the previous anonymous reviews in order to illustrate differences of opinion and differences in revision suggestions within the review process. Our goal is to offer maximal insight into our decision-making process and to acknowledge the considerable time and effort put into the assessment of these manuscripts by reviewers (for eLife and in the case of the earlier review process). We hope that this approach will assist the readers, and reviewers, of our manuscripts in understanding why we are proceeding with certain decisions during the revision process.

This is a new process for us and the reviewers, and one way in which it significantly differs from more traditional review is that both the reviews and our reply will be public well in advance of our revisions to the manuscript. Indeed, considering the scope of the reviews, some of those revisions may take considerable time, although many can be accomplished fairly easily. Thus, we are not in a position to say that we have solved every issue raised by the reviewers. Instead, we will examine what appear to be the key critical issues raised regarding the data and the analyses and how we propose to address these as we revise the papers. We will also address several philosophical and ethical issues raised by the reviews and our proposal for dealing with these. More specific editorial and citational recommendations will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and we do not address these point-by-point in this reply. Please note, this response to the reviewers is not the revision of the manuscript and is only the initial opinion of the corresponding authors with some guidance from the larger group of authors of all three papers. Our final submitted revision will reflect the input of all authors included on those submissions.

We took the decision to submit three separate papers consciously. The two different categories of evidence, burials and engravings, involve different kinds of analysis and different (although overlapping) teams of researchers, and we recognized that each deserved their own presentation and assessment. Meanwhile, together they inform the context of H. naledi in a way that requires some synthetic discussion, in which both kinds of evidence are relevant, leading to a third paper. But the mutual relevance of these different kinds of evidence and their review by a common set of reviewers naturally raises cross-cutting issues, and the reviewers have cross-referenced the three articles. This has sometimes led to suggestions about one manuscript based on the contents of another. Considering the situation, we accepted the recommendation that it would be clearer to consider all three articles in a single reply. Thus, while each of the three papers will proceed separately during the revision process, it will be necessary to highlight across all three papers occasionally in our responses.

Scientific Issues:

In reading the reviews, we feel there are 9 critical points/assertions raised by one or more of the reviewers that present a problem for, or challenge to, our hypothesis that the observed evidence (bone accumulations and engravings) described in the Dinaledi subsystem are of intentional naledigenic origin. These are:

  1. The evidence presented does not demonstrate a clear interruption of the floor sediments, thus failing to demonstrate excavated holes.

  2. The sediments infilling the holes where the skeletal remains are found have not been demonstrated to originate from the disruption of the floor sediments and thus could be part of a natural geological process (e.g. water movement, slumping) or carnivore accumulations.

  3. Previous geological interpretations by our research group have given alternative geological explanations for formation of the bony accumulations that contradict the present evidence presented here and result in alternative origins hypotheses.

  4. Burial cannot be effectively assessed without complete excavation of the features and site.

  5. The skeletal remains as presented do not conform clearly to typical body arrangement/positions associated with human (Homo sapiens) burials.

  6. There is no evidence of grave goods or lithic scatters that are typically associated with human burials.

  7. Humans may have been involved with the creation of either the Homo naledi bone accumulations, the engravings, or both.

  8. Without a date of the engravings, the null hypothesis should be the engravings were created by Homo sapiens.

  9. The null hypothesis for explanation of the skeletal remains in this situation should be “natural accumulation”.

Our analysis of the Dinaledi Feature 1 leads us to accept that the laminated orange-red mudstone (LORM) sedimentary layer is interrupted, indicating a non-natural intervention, and that the hole created by the interruption was then filled by both a fleshed body (and perhaps parts of other bodies) which were then covered by sediment that originated from the hole that was dug. We recognize that the four eLife reviewers are not convinced that our presentation is sufficient to establish this. Interestingly, this was not the universal opinion of earlier reviewers of the initial manuscript several of whom felt we had adequately supported this hypothesis. The lack of clarity in this current version of the burial manuscript is our responsibility. In the upcoming revision of this paper to be submitted, we will take the reviewers’ critiques to heart and add additional figures that illustrate better the disruption of the LORM and clarify the sedimentological data showing the material covering the skeletal remains in the hole are the disrupted sediments excavated from the same hole. We are proposing to isolate this most critical evidence for burial into a separate section in the revised submission based on the reviewers’ comments. The fact that the LORM layer is disrupted, a fleshed body was placed in the hole created by this disruption, and the body (and perhaps parts of other bodies) was/were then covered by the same sediments from the hole is the central feature of our hypothesis that the bone accumulations observed reflect a burial and not a natural process.

The possibility of fluvial transport or involvement in the subsystem is a topic that we have addressed extensively in past work, and it is clear from these reviews that we must enhance our current manuscript to discuss this issue at greater length. Our previous work (Dirks et al. 2015; Dirks et al. 2017) emphasized that fluvial transport of whole bodies into the subsystem was precluded by several lines of sedimentological evidence. We excavated a rich accumulation of skeletal remains, including articulated limbs and other elements in subvertical orientations inconsistent with slow sedimentary infill, which were difficult to explain without positing either a large and dense pile of bodies and/or sediment movement. We encountered fractured chunks of laminated orange-red mudstone (LORM) in random orientations within our excavation area, within and among skeletal remains, which directly refuted that the remains were inundated with water at the time of burial, and this limited the possibility of fluvial transport. Water flow sufficient to displace bodies or complete skeletal evidence would also transport large and course sediment, which is absent from the subsystem, and would sort the commingled skeletal material that we found by size, which we do not observe. But our excavation only covered less than a square meter at very limited depth, and this was the limit to our knowledge of subsurface sediment. We thus were left with uncertainty that led us to suggest the possibility of sediment slumping or movement into subsurface drains, although these were not observed near our excavation. Our current work expands our knowledge of the subsurface and presents an alternative explanation for the disposition of skeletal remains from our earlier excavation. But we acknowledge that this new explanation is vulnerable to our own previous published proposals, and we must do a better job of explaining how the new information addresses our previous suggestions. By not clearly creating a section where we explained how these previous hypotheses were now nullified by new evidence, we clearly confused the reviewers with our own previous work. We will revise the manuscript by enhancing the review of the significant geological evidence demonstrating that there is no significant fluvial action in the system and making it clear how the burial hypothesis provides a clearer explanation for the situation of skeletal remains from our previous excavation work.

One of the central issues raised by reviewers has been a perceived need to excavate these features completely, totally exhuming all skeletal remains from them. Reviewers have written that it is necessary to identify every skeletal element that is present and account for any missing elements. On this point, we have both ethical and scientific differences from these reviewers. We express our ethical concerns first. Many of the best-preserved possible burials ever discovered by archaeologists were subjected to total excavation and exhumation. Cases like La Chapelle-aux-Saints, La Ferrassie, and Skhūl were fully excavated at a time when data recording and excavation methods did not include the range of spatial and geomorphological approaches that later became routine. The judgment of early investigators that these situations were intentional burials was challenged by later workers, and the kind of information that might enable better tests had been irrevocably lost (Gargett 1999; Dibble et al. 2015; Rendu et al. 2014).

Later, improved excavation standards have not sufficed to remove uncertainty or debate about possible burials. For example, it was long presumed that well-preserved remains of young children were by themselves diagnostic of intentional burial, such as those from Dederiyeh, Border Cave, or Roc de Marsal. Such cases were also fully excavated, with adequate documentation of the positioning of skeletal remains and their surrounding stratigraphic situation, but such cases were later challenged on several bases and the complete exhumation of material has confused or precluded testing of new hypotheses (e.g. Gargett 1999). The case of Roc de Marsal is one in which data from the initial excavation combined with data from the initial excavation combined with re-excavation and geoarchaeological analysis led to a naturalistic interpretation of the skeletal material (Sandgathe et al. 2011; Goldberg et al. 2017). But even in this case, the researchers erred in their interpretation of the skeleton’s situation due to a lack of identification of parts of the infant’s skeleton (Gómez-Olivencia and García-Martinez 2019). That is to say, it is not only the burial hypothesis but other hypotheses that suffer from complete excavation. Researchers concerned with preserving all possible information have sometimes taken extraordinary measures to remove and study possible burials at high-resolution in the laboratory. Such was the case of the Shanidar IV burial removed from the site and transported in plaster jacket by Solecki, which led to the disruption and loss of internal stratigraphic information (Pomeroy et al. 2020). Arguably, the current state of the art is full excavation with partial preparation, such as that undertaken at Panga ya Saidi (Martinón-Torres et al. 2021). But again, any future attempt to reinterpret or test the hypothesis of burial must rely on the adequacy of documentation as the original context has been removed.

In our decision to leave material in place as much as possible, we are expanding upon standard practice to leave witness sections and unexcavated areas for future research. The situation is novel, representing possible burials by a nonhuman species, and that makes it doubly important in our opinion to be conservative in not fully exhuming the skeletal material from its context. We anticipate that many other researchers, including future investigators, will suggest additional methods to further test the hypothesis of burial, something that would be impossible if we had excavated the features in their entirety prior to publishing a description of our work. We believe strongly that our ethical responsibility is to publish the work and the most likely interpretation while leaving as much evidence in place as possible to enable further testing and replication. We welcome the suggestions of additional methods/analyses to test the H. naledi burial hypothesis.

This being said, we also observe that total exhumation would not resolve the concerns raised by the reviewers. The recommendation of total exhumation is in pursuit of a full account of all skeletal material present and its preservation and spatial situation, in order to demonstrate that they conform to body positions comparable to human burials. As has been highlighted in forensic casework, the excavation of an inhumation feature does not necessarily provide an accurate spatial or anatomical manifest of the stratigraphical relationships between the body, encapsulating matrix, and any cut present due to preservational, taphonomic and operational factors (Dirkmaat and Cabo, 2016; Hunter, 2014). In particular, in cases where skeletal elements are highly fragmented, friable, or degraded (such as through bioerosion) then complete excavation—even under controlled laboratory conditions—may destroy bone and severely limit skeletal identification (Henderson, 1997; Hochrein, 2002; Owsley and Compton, 1997), particularly in elements where the ratio of trabecular to cortical bone is high (Darwent and Lyman, 2002; Lyman, 1994). As such, non-invasive methods of 3D and 4D modelling (preservation in situ) are often considered preferable to complete necropsy or excavation (preservation by record) where appropriate (Bolliger and Thali, 2009; Dell’Unto and Landeschi, 2022; Randolph-Quinney et al., 2018; Silver, 2016).

The test of burial is not primarily positional, but taphonomic and geological. The position and number of bones can elaborate on process-driven questions of decay and destruction in the burial environment, or post-mortem modification, but are not singularly indicative of whether the remains were intentionally buried – the post-mortem narrative of all the processes affecting the cadaveric island is required (Knüsel and Robb, 2016). In previous cases, researchers have disputed or accepted the hypothesis of intentional hominin burial based upon assumptions about how modern humans or Neandertals would have positioned bodies, with the idea that some positions reflect ritual intent while others do not. But applying such assumptions is unjustifiable, particularly for a species like H. naledi, whose culture may have differed fundamentally from our own. Our work acknowledges that the present evidence does not enable a full reconstruction of the burial positions, but it does show that fleshed remains were encased in sediment prior to decomposition of soft tissue, and that subsequent spatial changes can be most parsimoniously explained by natural decomposition within sedimentary matrix contained within a burial feature (after Green, 2022; Mickleburgh and Wescott, 2018; Mickleburgh et al., 2022). If the argument is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, we feel that the evidence documents excavation and interment (and will do so more clearly in the revision) and the fact of the remains do not match a “typical” human burial in body positioning is not in itself evidence that these are not H. naledi burials.

We feel that the reviewers (in keeping with many palaeoanthropologists) have a clear idea of what they “think” a burial should look like in an idealised sense, but this platonic ideal of burial form is not matched by the extensive literature in archaeothanatology, funerary archaeology and forensic science which indicates enormous variability in the activity, morphology and post-mortem system experienced by the human body in cases of interment and body disposal (e.g. Aspöck, 2008; Boulestin and Duday, 2005 and 2006; Connelly et al., 2005; Channing and Randolph-Quinney, 2006; Cherryson, 2008; Donnelly et al., 1995; Finley, 2000; Hunter, 2014; Parker Pearson, 1999; Randolph-Quinney, 2013). Decades of experience in the identification, recovery and interpretation of clandestine, deviant, and non-formal burials indicates the platonic ideal is rare, and in many contexts, the exception (Cherryson, 2008; Parker Pearson, 1999). This variability is particularly relevant to morphological traits in burial context, such as the informal nature of the grave cut in plan and section, shallow burial depth, and initial disposition of body (placement) during the early post-mortem period. These might run counter to the expectations of reviewers or others referencing the fossil hominin record, but are well accepted within the communities of researchers investigating Holocene archaeological sites and forensic contexts.

It is encouraging to see reviewers beginning to incorporate the extensive (often experimentally derived) literature from archaeothanatology and forensic taphonomy in their deliberations, and we will be taking these comments on board going forward. In particular, we acknowledge reviewers’ comments and the need to construct a more detailed post-mortem narrative, accounting for joint disarticulation (labile versus persistent joints etc), displacement, and final disposition of elements within the burial space. As such we will incorporate the hierarchy of decomposition (rank order disarticulation), associations between regions of anatomical association, areas of disassociation, and the voids produced during decomposition (after Mickleburgh and Wescott, 2018; Mickleburgh et al., 2022) into our narrative. In doing so we acknowledge the tensions between the inductive archaeolothanatological narrative-driven approach (e.g. Duday, 2005 & 2009) versus robust decomposition data derived from human forensic taphonomic experimentation recently articulated by Schotsmans and colleagues (2022) - noting that we will highlight comparative data based on forensic experimental casework and actualistic modelling over inductive intuitive approaches which come with significant evidential shortcomings (Bristow et al. 2011).

Finally, from a taphonomic perspective it is worth pointing out to reviewers that we have already addressed the issue of lack of taphonomic evidence for carnivore involvement in the formation of the Dinaledi assemblage (Dirks, et al., 2016). Absence of any carnivore-induced bone surface modifications, patterns of skeletal part representation, and a total absence of any carnivore remains found within the Dinaledi chamber (following Kuhn and colleagues, 2010) lead us to reject carnivores as possible vectors of body accumulation within the Dinaledi Chamber and Hill Antechamber.

Reviewers suggest that without a date derived from geochronological methods, the engravings cannot be associated with H. naledi, and that it is possible (or probable) that the engravings were done in the recent past by H. sapiens. This suggestion neglects the context of the site. We have previously documented the structure and extremely limited accessibility of the Dinaledi subsystem. This subsystem was not recorded on maps of the documented Rising Star Cave system prior to our work and its discovery by our teams. Furthermore, there is no evidence of prehistoric human activity in the areas of the cave related to possible subterranean entrances There is no evidence that humans in the past typically ventured into such extreme spaces like those of Rising Star. It is clear from the presence of the remains of many individuals that H. naledi ventured into these spaces again and again. It is likely that H. naledi moved through these spaces more easily than humans do based on their physique. We show that the engravings overlay each other suggesting multiple engraving events. These engravings took time and effort and the only evidence for use of the Dinaledi subsystem by any hominin is by H. naledi. The context leads to the null hypothesis that H. naledi made the marks. In our revision, we will elaborate on this argument to clarify the evidence for our stance on this hypothesis. Several reviewers took issue with the title of the engraving paper as we did not insert a qualifier in front of the suggested date range for the engravings. We deliberately left out qualifying language so that the title took the form of a testable hypothesis rather than a weak assertation. Should future work find the engravings were not produced within this time range, then we will restate this hypothesis.

Finally, with regards to the engravings we have chosen to report them because they exist. Not reporting the presence of engraved marks on the walls of a cave above hypothesized burials would be tantamount to leaving relevant evidence out of the description of an archeological context. We recognize and state in our manuscript that these markings require substantial further study, including attempts at geochronological dating. But the current evidence is clearly relevant to the archaeological context of the subsystem. We take a similar stance with reporting the presence of the tool shaped artefact near the hand of the H. naledi skeleton in the Hill Antechamber. It is evident that this object requires further study, as we stated in our manuscript, but again omitting it from our study would be leaving out relevant evidence.

Some have suggested that the null hypothesis should be that all of these observed circumstances are of natural origin. Our team took this approach in our early investigation of the Dinaledi subsystem (Dirks et al. 2015). We adopted the null hypothesis that the geological processes involved in the accumulation of H. naledi skeletal remains were “natural” (e.g., non-naledigenic involvement), and we were able to reject many alternative explanations for the assemblage, including carnivore accumulation, “death trap” accumulation, and fluvial transport of bodies or bones (Dirks et al. 2015). This led us to the hypothesis that H. naledi were involved in bringing the bodies into the spaces where they were found. But we did not hypothesize their involvement in the formation of the deposit itself beyond bringing the bodies to the location.

This approach seems conservative. It followed the traditional view that small-brained hominins do not engage in cultural practices. But we recognize in hindsight that this null hypothesis approach did harm to our analyses. It impeded us from recognizing within our initial excavations of the puzzle box area and other excavations between 2014 – 2017 that we might be encountering remains that were intrusive in the sedimentary floor of the chamber. If we had approached the accumulation of a large number of hominins from the perspective of the null hypothesis being that the situation was likely cultural, we perhaps would have collected evidence in a slightly different manner. We certainly note that if the Dinaledi system had been full of the remains of modern humans, there would have been little doubt that the null hypothesis would have been that this was a cultural space and not a “natural space”. We therefore respectfully disagree with the reviewers who continue to support the idea that we should approach hominin excavations with the null hypothesis that they will be natural (specifically non-cultural) in origins. If excavations continue with this mindset we believe that potential cultural evidence is almost certain to be lost.

There has been a gradient across paleoanthropological excavations, archaeological work, and forensic investigation, with increasing precision of context. The reality is that the recording precision and frame of approach is typically different in most paleontological excavations than in those related to contemporary human remains. If anything comes from the present discussion of whether the Dinaledi system is a burial site for H. naledi or not, we hope that by taking seriously the possibility of deep cultural dynamics of hominins, we will encourage other teams to meet the highest standards of excavation in order to preserve potential cultural evidence. Given H. naledi’s cranial capacity we suggest that even very early hominin skeletal assemblages should be re-examined, if there is sufficient evidence or records available. These would include examples such as the A.L. 333 Au. afarensis site (the so called First Family site in Hadar Ethiopia), the Dikika infant skeleton, WT 15000 (Turkana Boy) and even A.L. 288 (Lucy) as such unusual taphonomic situations where skeletons are preserved cannot be simply explained away as “natural” in origin, based solely on the cranial capacity and assumed lack of cognitive and cultural complexity of the hominins as emphasized by us in Fuentes et al. (2023). We are not the first to observe that some very early hominin situations may represent early mortuary activity (Pettitt 2013), but we would advocate a step further. We suggest it may be damaging to take “natural accumulation” as the standard null hypothesis for hominin paleoanthropology, and that it is more conservative in practice to engage remains with the null hypothesis of possible cultural formation.

We are deeply grateful for the time and effort all of the 8 reviewers (across three reviews) have taken with this work. We also acknowledge the anonymous reviewers from previous submissions who’s opinions and comments will have made the final iterations of these manuscripts better for their efforts. As this process is rather public and includes commentary outside of the eLife forum, we ask that the efforts of all 37 authors and 8 reviewers involved be respected and that the discourse remain professional in all venues as we study this fascinating and quite complex occurrence. We appreciate also the efforts of members of the public who have engaged with this relatively new process where preprints are posted prior to the reviews allowing comments and interactions from colleagues and the public who are normally not part of the internal peer review process. We believe these interactions will make for better final papers. We feel we have met the standards of demonstrating burials in H. naledi and that the engraving are most likely associated with H. naledi. However, given the reviews we see many areas where our clarity and context, and analyses, were less strong than they can be. With the clarifications and additions taken on board through these review processes the final papers will be stronger and clearer. We, recognize that this is an ongoing process of scientific investigation and further work will allow continued, and possibly better, evaluation of these hypothesis and others.

Lee R Berger, Agustín Fuentes, John Hawks, Tebogo Makhubela

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  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation