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Circle of Life

Through the tough times of COVID, many individuals continue to lose their loved ones and mourn. Yet, why do they grieve, and how have they gained the ability to do so? These are the questions anthropologists seek to answer.


As shown in various close-up studies of animal relationships, researchers have found that several species exhibit strong emotional connections among themselves. In several cases, many of these species undergo extreme psychological distress after losing members they deeply value, which establishes a distinct relation between human and ancestral mourning practices that greatly intrigue anthropologists.

Over several years, archaeologists discovered several fossilized corpses of both Neanderthals and Homo Naledi arranged in resting positions. As they continued to excavate the site, they found many of the corpses in deeply hidden and isolated caves, which suggested that these ancient species purposefully buried their dead.

These discoveries were strong evidence that human ancestors already developed the emotional capacity to honor each other after death more than a thousand centuries ago.

The experiment didn't stop there, however, as many species still needed exploration. In 2005, a female Marmoset monkey fell off a tree canopy and passed away from a head injury she received. Her mate, whom she raised children with, embraced her in his arms as she lay limp, which further supported primates' emotional capacity to long for their loved ones.

A couple of years later, in 2010, at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia, a young male chimpanzee died due to a lung infection. After passing, his adoptive mother stayed by his body and brushed his teeth with a grass-made tool she crafted. Around the same time in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, mountain gorillas were seen grooming the bodies of two deceased apes.

However, these emotional practices were not only limited to close human relatives. Many species across a broad spectrum seemed to have their own coping rituals, such as elephants who occasionally buried their dead in leaves and branches.

Among marine life, in 2018, a female orca named Tahlequah swam 1,000 miles with her dead daughter's body on her own, which demonstrated the strong connection she had to her child.

So, why is this universal grieving mechanism important?

Well, these many examples provide evidence to the probing topic of animal affiliation. As species evolved, their emotional connections to their loved ones remained present throughout the years, starting as early as 100,000 years ago with the Neanderthals and possibly even before then.

But, mourning did not have to be between only animals who knew each other.

Researchers found there seem to be emotional attachments between strangers in animal species as well. In 2016, when an unrelated male silverback passed, several Grauer's gorillas were seen stroking and tending to him. Such a discovery came as an additional shocker to researchers as this practice could explain why we can sympathize with strangers we have never met before.

Yet, not all primates exhibit such compassionate feelings towards their dead. Many studies have found that the death of members in a group can evoke aggressive feelings among the rest and cause them to strike the corpses. This is also important to acknowledge as these unusual behaviors manifest themselves in occasional human actions as well.

For example, during a funeral, one may laugh to ease the tension or pain they're feeling at the time, which is a possible human equivalent for certain primates' inappropriate, aggressive outbursts.

Overall, however, anthropologists have concluded that mourning practices and emotional attachments to loved ones are practically universal among humans and many other animal species alike. Such an innate quality allows us to feel at peace with one another and bond with the ones we love.

As COVID continues to burden many families, this quality is evident in the ways surviving family members deal with their sadness to eventually move on. These methods help us heal our emotional wounds and have been passed down among many species for hundreds of thousands of years.

History has allowed us to deal with our pain and dampen its effects slowly, and we become stronger because of it. People will continue to pass, and others will continue to grieve. Across the board, though, we are not alone.

Many other organisms similarly undergo this cycle, and thus, grief has become a part of the everlasting circle of life.

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