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3 Cultural views on death through the lens of Archaeology, Ancestry, and Legacy

For thousands of years, humans have had ceremonies and rituals around death and ancestral reverence. In every culture, it looks different, but we all share this experience of dying and living. Humans crave Rituals around death and there seems to be a disconnect in today’s "mainstream" society. In my experience as an archaeologist, I see the evidence beneath our feet on the ancient cultures that used ceremonies for this important rite of passage in order to ease grief and suffering and to release the transformation of the soul.

A couple of months ago, I had the great pleasure of being on the "Conversations on Death" podcast, hosted by the amazing Lorena Alvarez Ruiz, where she explores death, dying and is on a mission to make death less taboo by bringing forward the many lessons death can teach the living. We spoke about three main cultural views on death that interest me and the ceremonies that ritualized this human phenomenon and why preserving legacies is a crucial part of a person's life. You can have a listen to the podcast to hear the full conversation by following this link.


Here are some of the Cultures we talked about:

1. The Aztecas

Precolombian Tenochtitlán, México.

Their world view is very different from ours. They understood that death was a part of life. And that death was necessary to the astral forces that gave them the privilege of life (Augilar-Moreno, 2007).

Transitioning into another form of existence. For them the way that one dies, is almost more important than how you live. Sacrifices, for example, were seen as greatly revered and women who died during childbirth were seen equal to a death that happened during a battle.

Coatlicue, Aztec diosa of self-sufficiency;mother of Life and Death.

2. The Talayot

Prehistoric Menorca, Spain.

Thanks to the study of an intact walled cave, the Es Carritx cave, we now know that in 1100 BCE, a strange ritual was carried out. It consisted of combing, dyeing, and cutting a number of locks of hair, which were then placed in small receptacles made of wood, horn, or leather and left inside the cave. Then their skulls were separated from the skeleton and placed along the walls of the cave. This additional attention given to the head would involve the desire to identify the individual from within the group. Perhaps it was believed that the head was where a person’s essence was found or somehow differentiated the individual (Whitehouse, 1997).

3. The Kumeyaay

Present-day, Northern border of Baja California in Mexico and the Southern border of California.

After death, the spirit stays on earth for a year, the Kumeyaay believe. Sending personal belongings to the sky as smoke makes the afterlife more welcoming for the spirit. Traditionally, this sacred burning lasted for 3 nights where no one could touch their loved one nor their possesions. In order to facilitate the spirit to elevate completly, returning to smoke facilitated transitioning from this world over to the spirit world. They burned clothes and willow dwellings. Today, some even burn cars and motorcycles. Archaeological artifacts show they have been doing this for hundreds of years. Some Kumeyaay say the practice stretches back to prehistoric times (Schaefer, 2000).

Now, with all of the construction, and demolition that has happened in their land, especially with the Boarder Wall being constructed, we have disrupted that process, and they have had to recreate these ceremonies. This is why it is not only important to know of the people who are the ancestors of the land we inhabit, but to continuoulsy understand how this affects them.

To support check out Kumeyaay Defense Against the Wall to get updates on the Boarder and to Donate. And to learn more about the Kumeyaay nation, Live from the Rez, is a great podcast to start.

Death looks different in every culture, but it is a window to how we see life. In my experience, conducting life interviews as a right of passage to ancestry has ritualized this phenomenon of Sacred Death and has given our people and their families a chance to reflect, honor and celebrate life.

I hope you enjoy the conversation, and hopefully inspires you to think about the ways that we can revere and honor loved ones when they pass.

Cuando Yo Muera, Mi Huipil Florecerá’ by Santiago Savi


Work Cited and Resources

Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel. Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. Illustrated, Oxford University Press, 2007.

“Archeology, Ancestry & Legacy - Conversations on Death.” Buzzsprout, uploaded by Lorena Alvarez Ruiz, 20 July 2020, Website Link.

“Live From the Rez Podcast.” YouTube, uploaded by Ral Christman, 18 July 2019, Website Link.

“Ritual Flames Honor Kumeyaay Matriarch - The.” San Diego Union-Tribune, 5 Sept. 2016, Website Link.

Schaefer, J. (2000). "Now Dead I Begin to Sing": A Protohistoric Clothes-Burning Ceremonial Feature in the Colorado Desert. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, 22(2). Website Link.

Whitehouse, R.D., 1997. Sa Cova d'es Carritx: a new p rehistoric cult cave on Menorca. Archaeology International, 1, pp.20–22. Website Link


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