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Ritual and Burial: The Strange and Elaborate Ways Humans Prepared Animals for the Afterlife

The practice of animal burial is one that dates back to prehistoric epochs. Many cultures around the globe have buried animals for various reasons: sentimentality, religious rituals, superstition, and more. Archaeological studies of animal burials aren’t just to catalogue what the ancient humans ate or which animals they domesticated, but these finds also shed light on the very lifestyles, beliefs and spiritual customs of ancient societies.

This article touches on only a few of the surprising ways humans have buried animals through history.

Illustration of the Hindu epic Ramayana depicting Ashwamedha (horse sacrifice). Public Domain

Countless types of animals were interred in the past, the large and the small. Around the globe, a myriad of  animals were either buried alone or alongside humans because they held a value to the society, they were seen to be connected to a power, or they served as a symbol or offering.

The Dog – Man’s Best Friend

The prehistoric connection of man and his ‘best friend’ the dog has been revealed through animal burial.

Studies of ancient dog burials in ancient Siberia from 10,000 years ago demonstrate the bond the humans and animals have shared. Dogs were often buried in sleeping positions, and laid to rest with tools or ornaments, or toys. The dogs were buried with their presumed owner, and still other dogs wore necklaces with deer teeth pendants.

The location of prehistoric dog burials reveal that hunter-gatherer societies buried their dogs, but farming societies did not. This suggested to researchers that the farmers may not have seen the dogs as important to life and survival as the hunters did.

Dogs held a high status in ancient China. There is rarely found an ancient tomb that does not have evidence of consecration by canine sacrifice, and domestic dogs and horses were vital to tradition and ancient Chinese society. Dogs were ritually killed and wrapped in reed mats or lacquered coffins, and were sometimes adorned with bells. The sacrifice was thought to drive out pestilence, bring calm weather, or ward off evil.

Cats are well known for being venerated in Ancient Egypt, but dog burials were also prevalent, and they were mummified in the traditional manner.

Dog Mummy, 305 BC – 395 AD. (Brooklyn Museum/Creative Commons)

Dogs certainly featured in Iron Age burials in Britain. Dogs were seen as companions and guardians of humans. They were high-value sacrifices to the gods as protectors, easily able to track or navigate the way through the afterlife.

Excavations at the Ashkelon National Park in Israel revealed the largest dog cemetery in the ancient world.

Ashkelon National Park, Israel. (CC BY 3.0)

The Horse – Divine Status, Speed and Strength
The horse has embodied many qualities to many different cultures globally, and was largely seen as divine.

The Uffington White Horse, a prehistoric hill figure. Public Domain

Vast horse burials, with skeletal remains numbering in the hundreds, have been found, such as the mass horse burial site in China. The tomb of a high status man was filled with 600 horses, arranged neatly in rows.

Hundreds upon hundreds of horse skeletons in the “Sacrificial Horse Pit”, a burial site believed to have belonged to the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi (547 to 490 BC). (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Today homeowners in Ireland are sometimes surprised to find horse skulls under the floorboards of their homes dating to the 16 th and 17 th centuries. These equine deposits were thought to provide good luck to the homestead, or protect it from evil. It is said that due to the hollow skulls beneath the ground the acoustics of the structure were improved; when danced upon, the skulls would resonate.

Sketch plan of the kurgan burial mound at Kostromskaya in southern Russia. Public Domain

Cats – Venerated Hunters

The wooden coffin of a mummified cat [left] and a CT scan revealing the ancient cat skeleton inside. Credit: University of Manchester

As adept hunters and symbols of grace and poise, cats were held in the highest esteem in Ancient Egypt, as avatars of the deity Bast, goddess of protection, dance, joy, music and love, protector from disease and evil spirits. Some cats were given the same mummification and burial as humans.

Mummified cat from Ancient Egypt. Public Domain

But the ancient Egyptians were not the only culture to bury felines with elaborate ceremony and in recognition of status or symbolism.

In an important mound burial from 2,000 years ago, archaeologists found the remains of a bobcat. The mound was usually reserved for humans, but the feline was important enough to the Hopewell people of western Illinois to be included. The bobcat had been decorated with sea shells and bear-teeth pendants, and found with its paws placed together. It was included in the human burial mound, while dogs were buried around the village. Researchers speculate the bobcat was a beloved pet, not sacrificed or violently killed, and that it held spiritual significance to the Native Americans.

Frankenstein Burials – Hybrid Animals and Monstrous Creations

In what might seem disrespectful today, ancient cultures sometimes mixed and matched animal parts to create strange and misshapen creatures which they interred for reasons that researchers still speculate on. Ancient burial sites in Britain have revealed the combination of different animal bones, intentionally combined, creating what seems to be mythological beasts.

Late Iron Age British burial sites include hybrid animal forms such as a cow with the legs of a horse, a sheep with its own head and also a bull’s head on its rear end, and a horse with cow horns.

Medieval representation of a harpy, which combines the head of a woman with the body of a bird (Wikimedia Commons)

It is believed by researchers that the ancient Britons believed in the power of mythological creatures, and added them to human burial sites as potential guardians, wise counselors, or monsters. The majority of such hybrid skeletons were found in pits under entrances to ancient houses.

Pet Cemeteries

The establishment of ‘modern’ pet cemeteries began largely in the Victorian era, as people wanted to have their pets buried nearby, maintaining the status of cherished family member that they held in life.

In 1899 the Cimetière des Chiens in Paris became what is believed to be the first public zoological necropolis in the world. The Hartsdale pet cemetery in New York, the largest in America, was begun in 1896 by a veterinarian. The site today holds more than 70,000 buried animals.

The Dog’s Cemetery at Victoria Gate in Hyde Park contains over 300 graves of dogs, cats, birds and a monkey. (Leonard Bentley/CC BY-SA 2.0)

While the purposes and methods have changed over the course of history, man’s connection to animals and the importance they hold in our societies have not. We still treat the remains of our animal friends with respect, perform modern ceremonies with them, and seek have them protect us from, or accompany us into, the unknown realms of death.