Book review: “The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death” by Timothy Taylor Previous item Poem: Chemistry Next item Poem: First parents

Book review: “The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death” by Timothy Taylor

Timothy Taylor raises many questions in his 2002 book The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death, and, like any good anthropologist, he doesn’t provide clear-cut answers.  How could he?

The fact is, when you’re trying to dope out what life was like and what people were like and what people thought thousands and even hundreds of thousands of years ago, it’s all guesswork.  For scientist such as Taylor, it’s educated guesswork, but there you are.

The Buried Soul is filled with suggestions of what this might mean or that, usually presented in the context of competing suggestions from other experts.  Taylor does argue his theories well.  Still, it’s clear they’re theories.

His book is a glimpse into the efforts of modern-day experts to wrestle with the tantalizingly slim and few clues about ancient humans and to deal with the core question of belief in the human soul.  His key question comes early on in his book.

He’s writing about how traditional funeral rites around the globe and down the centuries have “a shared logic — a common funeral choreography of hidden depth designed to protect the living against the dead.”

In other words, the aim of these rites is rooted in the belief that the dead person, although dead, can have an impact on the living, and not in a good way.  To cause “terror in ancient people’s minds.”   And Taylor goes on:

That, in turn, poses a question: at what point did we, as a species, start to believe in something like an immortal soul?  Chimpanzees do not have such a belief, nor the capacity for it.  Did we, as humans, “invent death” when we first began to speak?  Perhaps it was when we first began to bury the corpses of our dead. That last suggestion is seductive.

And that’s the question that the book addresses — the burial of corpses (as well as other means of disposal) and what it signifies about the people doing the burying and about their beliefs concerning those who had died.

“Apologetic relativism”

That’s at the beginning of the book.  In the epilogue, Taylor writes about the “visceral insulation” of modern life, and what he means by that is everything that is done today so that you and I don’t see a dead body or, if we do, it’s prettied up by the funeral home.

Finally, it is death itself that we wish desperately to insulate ourselves against, isolating it and removing it from the cycle of life.  Yet an acceptance of inevitable mortality is the best spur to ethical behavior.  Death signals the end point beyond which our reputations become irrevocable because our actions, which were always indelible, have finished and any further personal reparation has become impossible.

This has implications, just as the decision by our far distant ancestors to put the dead in the ground had implications.

My interpretation of the unforeseen way in which the invention of burial created an image of the immortal soul follows this logic.

Our practices in the present day, whatever our reasons for them, will almost certainly rebound on us, in unexpected ways in the future….Shielded as many of us now are from the brutal facts of life and death, it is easy to become misled about the underlying nature of our species and to be drawn into an apologetic relativism, while the cruel, the powerful and the deviant visit their unresolved existential traumas on the weak and innocent.

If I understand Taylor correctly, he’s arguing that, when all death is distanced from us, the reported death of someone who is not close to us seems distanced.  It doesn’t feel like death.  It’s not really real.

“Not classed as murder per se”

As an example of cruelty inflicted on the weak and innocent and of some modern-day experts who accept it, Taylor tells about a form of ritual murder still practiced today, even in London, in which a child is killed to produce muti, ritual medicine.   

That’s shocking enough, but, even more, the author reports:

The sacrifice of children to produce muti is defended as traditional among the Zulu and related tribes by some insiders.  One indigenous cultural anthropologist, H. Ngubane, argues on the basis of thirty recent cases in Swaziland that muti killings should not be classed as murder per se and that white, imperialist laws put traditional isangomas and their associates in an invidious position.  She feels that it should be acceptable for a member of the community to be sacrificed for the greater good…

The key component of a muti killing, Taylor writes, is maximizing the pain and emotional suffering of the victim.  “The horrific agony of the child is seen both as an innate expression of animal terror and as a desired cultural outcome.” The agony is important because the victim must be innocent.

Why such people should want to torture a child to death is an interesting question.  There are many kinds of answer, but none more chillingly clear and logical than that a child, being innocent, has a good soul.

The body of the child and be thought of as generously imbued with unfolding spirit.  All its luck and aspiration lie in the future, whereas the perpetrators of muti murder are adults who feel as if their luck has run out and their spirits have been sapped….By taking [luck or good fate] from the child, in whom it is still overflowing, they believe that their own store of luck and be increased and their spirit revitalized.

The terror of the child is proof of the youngster’s purity.  That means, for the adults involved, that the pieces of that body will be rich in luck and good fortune.

Or, put another way, the child may be dead, but the child’s soul has gone into that cold tissue.  The child has been killed so the adults can ingest the child’s soul.

Scapegoats

The child in a muti killing is a scapegoat, and much of what Taylor looks at in The Buried Soul has to do with scapegoating in one form or another.

The idea of a scapegoat has everything to do with the person’s soul.  In one case, the scapegoat may take on the sins of the community and carry them away in death.  In another, the scapegoat may be slain to placate a god or take care of a prominent dead person, thereby enabling the community to avoid the god’s wrath or the dead chief’s machinations among the living.

Taylor takes great pains to point out how his colleague anthropologists often fail to recognize the role that the terror of the scapegoat played in such rituals.

This, it would seem, is a key reason for the warning he issues at the end of the book about an erosion in ethical behavior due to a distancing of dead bodies in modern culture.

“Edible”

In the face of political correctness about honoring other cultures, Taylor argues that ancient rituals, some still carried out today like the muti killings, had selfishness at their heart. 

The community wanted an easier or better life so its members let one of their number take the fall.  And it wasn’t only just to have an easier or better life.

Ancient humans disposed of their dead in a variety of ways ranging from eating them (cannibalism) to putting bodies on high places to be picked clean by animals and insects to various forms of burial.

Early not-quite-humans, Taylor writes, were probably like today’s wild chimpanzees: “The chimpanzees may prod the body of the deceased to see if it moves and keep a vigil for a while, but eventually they will abandon the remains to scavengers.”  He notes:

“The dead were edible.  Vultures, hyenas, crocodiles, rodents, insects, fish and bacteria each took the meat, blood and fat they wanted.  What remained was scattered and trampled, then shattered and powdered by wind and rain.”

“Very fatty”

At some point and then throughout much of ancient times and down to our own time in some places, cannibalism was an acceptable way of disposing of the dead for survival or for regenerating the dead person in the bodies of those still living or, like the muti victims, as a human sacrifice or scapegoat.

With regard to human sacrifice and scapegoating, there were cultural reasons — beliefs, superstitions — behind such actions, selfish in the sense of making one person pay the price so others could live better.  But, Taylor notes, that wasn’t all:

But epicureanism should not be overlooked either.  Cannibals enjoy eating human flesh.  Gillison notes this for the Gimi, Lindenbaum for the Fore, Chrstina Toren for the Fijians, and so on.

It is very fatty, which is a quality valued in nutrition/survival terms.  The Atchei told Pierre Clastres that “it is very sweet, even better than the meat of the wild pig” — closest to domestic pig of the whites and with more good fat (kyra gatu) than any animal of the forest.

Patrick T. Reardon

10.28.21

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