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Old August 14th, 2014, 06:49 AM   #1
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Origins of Cremation?


This might be a macabre topic but I have been curious about how cremation came to be a method in funeral rites vs interning the body in various ways.

I did glance at the [ame="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cremation"]wiki article[/ame], but looking to get more historical origins if possible.

Among various attributes that identify a culture, the funeral rites may occupy a major part of the belief system, hence understanding the origins may shed more light to the distant past when these rites were evolving.

I was reading David Anthony's "The Horse, the Wheel and Language" (THWL) book, and it casually mentions evidence of cremation in certain cultures without going into much details.

From a practical pov, a simple burial might be the least resource intensive though as with Kurgan mounds as some of it became more and more elaborate, it would have taken the entire village or tribe to be involved in burying an important chief along with his possesions, including various animal sacrifices, the most important one being the Horse, chariots and so on. The complexity of the burials in various cultures was a hint of the social stratification that was appearing esp. among the Indo-European (IE) tribes.

Coming to cremation, it does take up valuable resources esp. valuable wood in early cultures to dispose the body, but it will free up the land for other practical uses.

While the THWL book focusses on the IE population, and the 'old Europe' (non-IE, pioneering Anatolian agriculturists who started migrating towards Eastern Europe along with their cattle as they expanded their settlement), it provides evidence of cremation in both cultures.

As the precursor of IE tribes (who were initially nomadic and increasingly took on pastoral, and agricultural lifestyle as they encountered these agricultarlists) were more impressed with these settlers, they might have attempted to copy some of the the admired traits while trading with them. This is observed in other cultures too where a civilization in more primitive stage ends up admiring and emulating a more advanced one. It might have spurred on more cultural and social innovations on the primitive side, but it was not entirely one-way traffic either. I won't got into too much details here except to refer to the book for more details.

One of the first references to cremation in the THWL book is to the Cotsofeni culture ~ 3500 BCE as mountain refuges in western Romania escaping from conflicts with IE tribes. There is not much detail except that they buried their ashes in flat graves.

One of the early references to IE tribes to take up cremation along with inhumation burial is the 'Middle Dneiper' culture ~ 2800 - 2600 BCE.

The Sintashta culture had rituals that closely resembled the descriptions in Rig Veda, and hence probably the origins of the later Indo-Iranian (II) and the Indo-Aryan (IA) sub-branches. But the funeral practices here still continued to be inhumation, being more elaborate with Sintashta chiefs who were buried with Horses, chariots, weapons and multiple animal sacrifices.

However the IVC around modern Pakistan, and NW India which is deemed a non-IE culture did seem to practice cremation in later phases? Probaby the migration of IA tribes near the collapse of the IVC might have promoted the switch to cremations. So for the IA, somewhere in time probably before they split from the II made the switch to cremations.

A word on the cremation practices among the IA - it was intially exclusive for the upper-castes (Brahmins and Kshatriya), and maybe much later taken up by other castes in order to imitate the elites.

It will be interesting to know what made the IA tribes to adopt cremation as it is now a common practice for their descendent Indic cultures among the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. The spread of Buddhism in South-East Asia would have bought in this IA practice.

A similar pattern is observed among the Greeks and the Romans, where cremation was exclusive for the priests, warriors and the nobility?

As to practices in other cultures, cremation has been observed even in Central and South American civilizations where again, it was reserved for the elites. IIRC the Mayan elites also followed this practice. As in IVC and Cemetary H culture, a similar practice of filling the ashes in a urn, and burying them was followed. I am not implying any connection here but just curious on the similarity of such practices as to how such cultural memes might have been transmitted, or if it was independently arrived at.

Among European cultures, apart from the Romans, I believe the Norsemen also practiced cremation along with burials?

The arrival of Christianity in Europe would have supressed cremations as a pagan ritual, till it was revived in modern times.

Clearly this covers a lot of civilzations and time periods.

It is interesting to speculate what could have prompted this practice as plain burials would have been simpler. Some thoughts include, to preserve valuable land for farming, or to deal with a disease outbreak, and maybe a combination of both these factors?

Hope this spurs some good discussion.

Last edited by pitris; August 14th, 2014 at 06:55 AM. Reason: typo fixes
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Old August 14th, 2014, 07:05 AM   #2

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If I am not wrong it comes from the Indoeuropean tribes when they roamed in the plains and steppes as more nomads than stantials.
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Old August 14th, 2014, 07:11 AM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Naima View Post
If I am not wrong it comes from the Indoeuropean tribes when they roamed in the plains and steppes as more nomads than stantials.
As per the THWL book, most of the IE tribes had burial mounds, kurgans etc.. of various types.

In fact in this book, the earliest mention of a cremation is applied to a non-IE 'old Europe' Cotsofeni culture based in Rumania ~ 3500 BCE:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Co%C8%9Bofeni_culture

The IE tribes interacted with various old Europe cultures in a 'cultural frontier/horizon' (as D. Anthony refers to it), mostly via trade but at times, leading to conflicts.

Last edited by pitris; August 14th, 2014 at 07:13 AM. Reason: added wiki reference
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Old August 14th, 2014, 07:21 AM   #4
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The Zoroastrian Persian let the corpses rot and be eaten by eagles.
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Old August 14th, 2014, 07:27 AM   #5
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The Zoroastrian Persian let the corpses rot and be eaten by eagles.
Part of the reason for this IIRC is that they consider the fire to extremely holy and must be kept away from any sort of impurities.

While the IA culture also considered the fire to be holy, maybe they took the view of anything being purified by fire? Certain practices with the fire altar includes putting offerings like clarified butter (ghee), and other items as if to feed it?

Interestingly enough, in the THWL book, it describes a non-IE Dnieper-Donets II (DDII) culture who exposed their dead, and later their bones were collected and buried in communal pits. The oldest DDII settlements were dated to ~ 5200 - 5000 BCE

Last edited by pitris; August 14th, 2014 at 07:31 AM. Reason: typo fixes
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Old August 14th, 2014, 07:41 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pitris View Post
Part of the reason for this IIRC is that they consider the fire to extremely holy and must be kept away from any sort of impurities.

While the IA culture also considered the fire to be holy, maybe they took the view of anything being purified by fire? Certain practices with the fire altar includes putting offerings like clarified butter (ghee), and other items as if to feed it?
Actually it was the Medes who exposed dead bodies to vultures and then buried the bones, not the Persians. The Persians buried their dead after covering them with wax, which is one of the reasons why some scholars doubt that the Persians were Zoroastrians. And of course I'm only talking about pre-Achaemenian and Achaemenian era Persians.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that the Indo-Aryans practiced cremation, and this is one of the causes of the Indo-Iranian split.
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Old August 14th, 2014, 07:51 AM   #7
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Actually it was the Medes who exposed dead bodies to vultures and then buried the bones, not the Persians. The Persians buried their dead after covering them with wax, which is one of the reasons why some scholars doubt that the Persians were Zoroastrians. And of course I'm only talking about pre-Achaemenian and Achaemenian era Persians.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that the Indo-Aryans practiced cremation, and this is one of the causes of the Indo-Iranian split.
IA by the time they reached NW India is known to have practiced cremation, and continue to do so in all its descendent forms of religions.

But if IA is eventually traced to the Sintashta culture (as with Indo-Iranians), this culture had elaborate burial practices for their elites.

So for some reason, the IA choose to switch over to cremations. I am not sure why, but maybe as in some IE tribes while interacting with 'old European tribes', the IA might have observed the more advanced IVC culture, and maybe they cremated their elites?

It is not clear when the IVC population switched over to cremation either - clearly they also practiced burials as it can be seen in this excavation here:

Indus Burial of man, Harappa.

As to if the cremation practice alone caused the Iranian split with the Vedic Aryans, I am not so sure. I thought there were more idelogical divides among these groups, but probably it might have involved something as deeply held beliefs as how to dispose their dead.
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Old August 14th, 2014, 08:39 AM   #8

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Asko Parpola discusses the evolution of cremation in southwest Asia within this paper: The Face Urns of Gandh‚ra and the N‚satya Cult. He addresses cremation directly several times in the first half of the paper as well as cites a number of other publications you might refer to.

Last edited by dreamregent; August 14th, 2014 at 08:42 AM.
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Old August 14th, 2014, 08:56 AM   #9
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Asko Parpola discusses the evolution of cremation in southwest Asia within this paper: The Face Urns of Gandh‚ra and the N‚satya Cult. He addresses cremation directly several times in the first half of the paper as well as cites a number of other publications you might refer to.
Thanks for the link - checking it out now.
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Old August 14th, 2014, 09:02 AM   #10

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Quote:
Originally Posted by pitris View Post
Quote:
Originally Posted by Naima View Post
If I am not wrong it comes from the Indoeuropean tribes when they roamed in the plains and steppes as more nomads than stantials.
As per the THWL book, most of the IE tribes had burial mounds, kurgans etc.. of various types.
Cremation and burial mounds are not mutually exclusive. For example, a discovery near Novo Selo, Bulgaria from last week, shows that a Thracian ruler has been cremated (possibly on site), then his remains gathered in an urn, which in turn has been placed in a sarcophagus and finally a 12m high mound amassed over it.
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