by Revilo P. Oliver
WE DO NOT KNOW when or how or by whom the notion of a life after death was invented. All mammals instinctively fear death, but if they escape their natural enemies and survive to senility, they seem to acquiesce in a quiet extinction of their enfeebled consciousness. We cannot suppose that the Australopithecus or any species of Homo erectus imagined a possible prolongation of life, and, despite some very recent claims, it is highly improbable that the Neanderthals did. The remote ancestors of our own race, the Cro-Magnons, must have had the capacity for such imagination, but we have no means of knowing what they believed.
We are often told that burials are evidence of some belief in an afterlife, but they may be no more than a manifestation of an instinctive respect or affection for the dead man and an unwillingness to see his corpse devoured by beasts. When a man’s possessions are buried with him, there may have been some notion (as is attested in Egypt, for example) that the equipment would be useful to him in a post-mortem existence, but it is equally possible that some or many instances of this custom may indicate the emergence of a strong sense of private property: the spear or the beads or the golden drinking-horn were the dead man’s, and no one should steal from him when he dies.