02-2018, tome 115, 1, p. 43-52 - Bruno Boulestin - « Pourquoi donc tous ces chasseurs-cueilleurs font-ils des tombes doubles ?

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02-2018, tome 115, 1, p. 43-52 - Bruno Boulestin - « Pourquoi donc tous ces chasseurs-cueilleurs font-ils des tombes doubles ?

En 2004, dans son ouvrage sur les morts d’accompagnement, Alain Testart soulevait deux questions auxquelles il n’apportait pas de réponse définitive, se contentant de suggérer quelques pistes de réflexion : « Pourquoi donc tous ces chasseurs-cueilleurs font-ils des tombes doubles ? Et pourquoi en font-ils tant ? » Le présent article revient sur ces questions, en envisageant les différentes raisons pouvant conduire à inhumer simultanément plusieurs morts dans une même sépulture et en essayant de déterminer quelles sont les plus probables chez les chasseurs-cueilleurs.

Une première explication possible est qu’à des inhumations simultanées correspondent des décès survenus à différents moments, éventualité non identifiable par l’archéologie si des processus naturels ou artificiels ont retardé ou stoppé temporairement la décomposition. Or, au Paléolithique, la préservation naturelle du cadavre par le froid devait être un phénomène relativement fréquent dans certaines régions. Par ailleurs, la conservation artificielle du corps est attestée par l’ethnographie chez les chasseurs-cueilleurs, y compris mobiles, qui, en outre, transportent parfois leurs morts, notamment les enfants.

Dans l’hypothèse où à une inhumation simultanée correspondent des décès concomitants, ceux-ci peuvent être indépendants ou dépendants. Le premier cas est une explication des tombes multiples vraiment très peu probable. Le second se subdivise selon que les décès sont dus à une cause commune ou que l’un d’entre eux va conduire aux autres (enchaînement). Les causes communes (famines, épidémies, conflits armés) expliquent sans doute une bonne part des tombes multiples. L’enchaînement renvoie essentiellement à la pratique des morts d’accompagnement, dont différentes formes sont possibles, et qui elle aussi peut expliquer une partie de ces tombes. Même la forme hiérarchique reste une possibilité ouverte pour le Paléolithique.

Finalement, il y a plusieurs explications à ce que les chasseurs-cueilleurs fassent des tombes doubles ou multiples. Quant au taux important de ces tombes, il peut refléter des divergences dans certains comportements entre chasseurs-cueilleurs et producteurs, mais on ne peut écarter un biais, c’est-à-dire que des décès concomitants ont pu conduire les premiers à préférer l’inhumation à d’autres pratiques.


Mots-clés : chasseur-cueilleur, sépulture multiple, crise de mortalité, mort d’accompagnement, transport des morts.


Bruno Boulestin — Why do all these hunter-gatherers do double burials?


In his book on accompanying dead published in 2004, Alain Testart raised two issues, to which, though, he gave no definitive answer, merely suggesting thinking frames: “But why do all these hunter-gatherers do double burials? And why so many?” Getting back on these issues, our paper examines all the reasons that could possibly have led to bury several individuals simultaneously in the same feature, and tries to establish which were the hunter-gatherers’ most likely motivations.

What is needed first is to define a scope of thinking, on one hand, and to make sure that the questions are relevant, on the other hand. Regarding the former point, even though the conclusions put forward may be extended to other cases, the main issue is really that of the multiple primary burials. We thus mean a funerary context and consider graves containing not only two individuals, but also from a more general point of view those with more than one individual, and in which all of them were buried simultaneously (that is what the French term ’multiple’ implies) at a point when all skeletal elements were still in complete anatomical articulation (definition of ’primary’). Concerning the latter issue, all the various estimations, despite a certain degree of uncertainty, show that the rate of primary multiple burials among the prehistoric hunter-gatherers is indeed three times higher than among the populations coming after, and that these questions are hence relevant. It is also important to notice that multiple burials have a large proportion of immature individuals, even though this is difficult to quantify precisely.

Since the description as ’primary’ results from an observation and meets a strictly archaeological definition with no prejudice of what may have happened before the ultimate inhumation, it is important to consider at first that all the individuals buried simultaneously did not necessarily die at the same time. A primary deposit can indeed refer to an immediate burial as well as to a postponed one. In the second case, the body may simply have been preserved from decay, either naturally (low temperature, desiccation…) or artificially (mummification). Since we are unable to distinguish one possibility from the other, it is impossible to assimilate simultaneous burial and simultaneous death on a systematic basis. Yet, on one hand, corpses naturally preserved by the cold during the Palaeolithic must have been fairly frequent in some areas. And on the other hand, the artificial preservation of bodies is widely attested ethnographically among hunter-gatherer populations, even nomadic ones. In addition, these populations frequently carry along the corpses of children, the wrappings helping preserve the anatomical articulations. As a consequence, there are many possible reasons why a multiple deposit may gather individuals deceased at different points. Information as to why exactly they were buried together is lacking, but various motivations are documented or can be considered.

Assuming that a simultaneous burial might correspond to concomitant deaths, the latter may be either independent or dependent. The first case pertains to pure chance and highly unlikely explains multiple burials. The second case is divided into two categories, depending on whether deaths are due to the same cause, or whether one of them induces the others (chain of events). The joint causes, the very ones which provoke mortality crises, are mainly famine, epidemics and armed conflicts. Even though for Alain Testart armed conflicts were the only possible cause, all these are obviously likely to produce multiple burials, and they even certainly explain most of them. The afore mentioned chain of events refers mainly to the practice of accompanying dead, their being people who kill themselves or are killed when an important person dies. This practice can take many forms that can be grouped in two major categories. The first is called hierarchy-based accompanying, since it establishes the existence of a direct power over people. The hierarchy-based accompanying is very much widespread, including among hunter-gatherer societies, but has not been identified in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic yet. Nevertheless some discoveries raise the issue of its existence as early as these time periods. The second major category is a form of accompanying non based on hierarchy. It happens for instance very frequently in the form of children being killed at the death of one of their parents. It is likely to explain part of the prehistoric multiple burials, especially those containing the body of a very young immature. Besides, other forms of accompanying non based on hierarchy may have existed among hunter-gatherers, such as the jepy, documented by P. Clastres among the Guayaki.

As a conclusion double/multiple burials in hunter-gatherer societies can be explained in different ways. Three in particular—carrying along deceased children for a postponed burial, epidemics/famine, and the children being killed on the occasion of the death of one of their parents—are well documented, and they alone certainly account for most of the cases, all so more so that they are also perfectly consistent with the high rate of immature individuals. Other cases though can refer to other reasons that may sometimes strike us as strange. The high number of these burials can show a difference of behaviour between hunter-gatherers and producers, keeping in mind though that it could also be biased by the fact that concomitant deaths could have led the former to choose inhumation over others practices.


Keywords: hunter-gatherer, multiple burial, mortality crisis, accompanying dead, dead carrying.