How to Care for the Dead

How long have we been burying the dead? And why is it so haunting when we can’t set those who have passed to rest?

Scientists have thought about burial—the act of interring a dead body—as a distinctly human behavior. So what happened when a group of paleoanthropologists discovered a primitive hominid that may have entombed its dead?

And how do modern-day humans respond when they are unable to find and care for the remains of their loved ones? SAPIENS host Jen Shannon talks to Mercedes Doretti, co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, about the 38,000 people who have disappeared in Mexico since 2006. They discuss forensic scientists’ strategies in situations where missing migrants cannot be found and in cases in which remains have not yet been identified.



Paige Madison is a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University where she studies the history of paleoanthropology. Her dissertation work examines the history of research on Neanderthals, Australopithecines, and Homo floresiensis. She blogs and tweets about fossils and the history of science. Follow her on Twitter @FossilHistory.

Mercedes Doretti is a forensic anthropologist who investigates human rights violations. She is a co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), where she directs the Central America, North America section. Doretti was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2007 for her work with the EAAF. She completed an advanced degree (Licenciatura) in 1987 from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, and she took courses in biological anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York.

Learn more about caring for and honoring the dead at SAPIENS:

This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Arielle Milkman, edited by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by Chip Colwell, Jen Shannon, and Esteban Gómez.

SAPIENS producer Paul Karolyi, executive producer Cat Jaffee, and House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek provided additional support. Fact-checking is by Christine Weeber, illustration is by David Williams, and all music is composed and produced by Matthew Simonson.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod.

Read a transcript of this episode here.