When one googles “when were humans first buried”, you generally come up with the information that the oldest known burials occurred some 130,000 years ago. Burying the dead is considered the earliest form of religious practice, suggesting that humans were concerned about what happened after death. In anthropological terms, this is one of those criteria that separate humans from animals.
All roads eventually lead home – and for us that means South Africa. So, bringing the discussion back home, fossils were first discovered in the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star Cave system during an expedition led by Lee Berger beginning October 2013. They turned out to be Homo naledi fossils – a species of archaic human that wandered the earth in the general area of the Cradle of Humankind. In November 2013 and March 2014, more than 1550 specimens (from at least 15 Homo naledi individuals) were recovered from this site – making this excavation the largest collection of a single hominin species that has ever been found in Africa. Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker also found an additional 133 Homo naledi specimens in the nearby Lesedi Chamber during 2013, which represented at least another three individuals – two adults and a juvenile. In 2017, the Homo naledi fossils were dated to between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago. What makes all of this interesting is that the partial skull of a Homo naledi child (named “Leti” by the team, after the Setswana word “letimela” meaning “the lost one”) was found in the remote depths of the Rising Star Cave – completely alone. See info block for a video on this event.
In 2018, Paige Madison wrote an article, entitled “Who First Buried the Dead?” Referring to the above discovery, she wrote “The chamber where the bones were found is far from the cave entrance, accessible only through a narrow, difficult passage that is completely shrouded in darkness. Scientists believe the chamber has long been difficult to access, requiring a journey of vertical climbing, crawling, and tight squeezing through spaces only 20 centimetres across. It would be an impossible place to live, and a highly unlikely location for many individuals to have ended up by accident. Those details pushed the research team toward a shocking hypothesis: despite its puny brain, Homo naledi purposefully interred its dead. The cave chamber was a graveyard!”.
Moving slightly further towards the present, we can trace the practice of burying the dead to some of the ancient religions (based on the sun), who would bury the dead facing east so that they could face the “new day” and the “rising sun”. Right up to modern times, east-facing tombstones are still found in many traditional Christian and Jewish cemeteries. Since one the aforementioned qualities of a standard Christian burial is the alignment of the grave in a west to east direction, it makes sense that graves which are not on the west-east alignment contain the body of an individual undeserving of a proper Christian burial, presumably a sinner or criminal. Which, finally, brings us to Pilgrim’s Rest.
The Robber’s Grave – with the North-South alignment denoting a criminal.
The origin of the historic cemetery at Pilgrim’s Rest is closely connected with the Robber’s Grave. A legend tells the story of an unknown individual who was caught and convicted for tent robbing. He was subsequently banished. A couple of days after his trial, he was seen up on a hill (now known as Cemetery Hill), and he was immediately shot dead. Justice seemed to be rather unsympathetic and swift back in the day on the diggings… He was buried where he fell – in the North-South alignment deemed fit for criminals. Two others died shortly after and were buried nearby, and so the cemetery was born – on difficult and unpractical terrain.
Of the 335 known graves in the cemetery, only 163 are marked with headstones. Before 1911, no burial records were kept. The oldest grave is that of Bazett Jervis Jenkins, who died on June 12, 1874, when he was crushed on his claim by a large boulder. There are many, many unknown graves.
The number of “unknown” graves (visible here as the perfectly aligned text) is heart breaking.
Pilgrim’s Rest was positively cosmopolitan – and the different nationalities of the people buried here reflect that. Englishmen, Swedes, Australians, Welshmen, South Africans, Dutchmen and Tasmanians. May they all rest in peace…
Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team
A child of darkness: