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So, a group of archeologists from the year 4978 have uncovered something strange. They’ve been searching for the missing link between them and their primordial ancestors, and they seem to have found something interesting. Their was a a large stone, sticking up from the ground. On it were some unintelligible squiggles that read “Here lies Robert Paul Smith 1983-2057” They started digging, and they started finding remains, that looked nearly identical to modern human skeletons.

They don’t know it yet, but these future archeologists have just uncovered an ancient human burial ground. It is a modern cemetery to us, but they don’t know that. They can’t read any headstone markings, as they speak a different language. So my question is:

In a modern cemetery, what evidence could you find that the skeletons buried in the ground were intelligent?

In a cemetery, what evidence could you find that an intelligent, technologically advanced species existed?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please edit any needed clarifications into the question. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Jun 24 '18 at 4:49

18 Answers 18

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Medical Devices, Medical Evidence

Some of the skeletons will show obvious signs of recovery from normally fatal illnesses, obvious signs of advanced surgery like titanium pins in healed broken bones, artificial hip joints, dental crowns and fillings, root canals etc etc. They will see that the majority of the skeletons are from individuals who lived to very old ages. This will demonstrate to any future archaeologists that we had a highly organised society with advanced medicine and prolonged intensive care for the ill, which is one of the typical hallmarks for technological advancement.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget dental work. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Jun 21 '18 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget the coffins, some of them steel alloy and air tight, modern fabric, and the high brain case to body ratio. Not to mention any number of kinds of personal effects buried with them in the coffin. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Jun 21 '18 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ Ancient Egypcian buried and mummified some pets, finding a human burial means someone intelligent buried it. Of course the human skull size is a good hint of inteligence but an alien culture can thing of us a pets of a more evolved race $\endgroup$ – jean Jun 21 '18 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ The fact that we keep all our teeth into extreme old age is particularly telling. $\endgroup$ – Arcanist Lupus Jun 22 '18 at 1:02
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    $\begingroup$ You can parse out countless details from bones. Diet, diseases, medical history, even some lifestyle choices and professions. For instance I can identify the skeleton and tell whether it was a hiker, runner, or horseback rider. They will see lots of evidence of sedentary lifestyles as well. Evidence of reliance on technology for livlihood. $\endgroup$ – TCAT117 Jun 22 '18 at 3:33
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What does one normally find in a cemetery?

  • Headstones. Headstones have designs and markings, and chances are, they're going to be at least partially preserved.
  • Coffins. Coffins are less than 7000 years old; some wooden coffins have survived for that long somewhat intact. Modern coffins are often more durable than the early wooden constructs, and are going to last a lot longer.
  • The arrangement of graves. Most of the cemeteries I've seen involve graves laid out in grid-like patterns - which shows deliberate planning on a large scale. Unless there's major seismic activity, there's no way this alignment will change drastically over time.

I'd like to note that claims of burial by homo neanderthalensis and homo naledi have been disputed. It is possible that in one or two cases, they buried their dead, but certainly not with the degree of organization that modern human cemeteries exhibit. There does seem to be a divide between prehistoric human burial and modern human burial - namely, that it happens at all!

In short, the existence of a planned burial ground itself should be enough to convince the archaeologists that whoever made it was fairly intelligent.

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    $\begingroup$ Oh yeah. I guess your right about the grid patterns. Most animals don’t die exactly six feet underground in perfect orderly rows $\endgroup$ – MindX Jun 21 '18 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ after 3 millennia, they wouldn't be 6 feet under anymore, the grids point still stands though. $\endgroup$ – GOATNine Jun 21 '18 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ @GOATNine You could probably tell that they where buried at roughly the same depth though. Perhaps not exactly 6 feet, but you should be able to tell that it's not just some random depth. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Jun 22 '18 at 13:09
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't find the graves terribly convincing. Honeybees build hives with neat lattices, and while they have more complex communication and thought than most realize, I wouldn't say that they're close to as smart as humans, precisely. Perhaps the future archaeologists would simply conclude that, for whatever reason, humans instinctively put their dead in rows. $\endgroup$ – Obie 2.0 Jun 24 '18 at 3:29
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    $\begingroup$ As far as I know there’s no longer any serious dispute about the existence of neanderthal burial rituals. The reference on Wikipedia are seriously outdated (one of the papers cited is from 1989!). More recent evidence is compelling. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Jun 25 '18 at 10:16
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The headstone is probably more than enough; we understand the Ancestors had some sort of conception of death and possibly an afterlife because neolithic and even Neanderthals were buried, often with flowers or rubbed with red ocher or other dyes.

A typical modern human burial (at least in the West, as implied by the OP), would have the body preserved with formaldehyde, the skin prepared with makeup, the body dressed in a suit or similar clothing and then laid in a casket made of wood or metal, with metal fittings such as hinges, clasps, carrying handles etc. The casket is lowered in an artificially dug hole (traditionally 6'X4'X6' deep).

So the archeologists would discover:

A cut headstone, with indecipherable but fairly obviously artificial carvings on it. The stone itself may have marks on it left by mechanical saws used to cut it to size, or the polishing process. The stone is not simply set in the ground, it may be resting on a footer or foundation of some sort. Edit to add, based on some comments, the stone itself is unlikely to be native to the area where it was found, and even badly eroded would be an odd shape and size given the local geology of the region.

enter image description here

A headstone on a base

An obviously dug hole. The earth in the hole does not match the layering of the earth outside of the hole, but seems to have been randomly backfilled. This is even more obvious given the implication by the OP that the entire cemetery site has been buried for two millennia, there are distinct layerings of earth over top of the site as well.

enter image description here

natural layers of soil

The remains of the casket. The wood would leave fairly obvious residue in the ground, and a metal casket would be corroded but may possibly be recognizable depending on the material and conditions of burial. The metal fittings would be fairly obviously artificial as well. Current technologies would allow the archaeologist to date the remains of the wooden casket, and a good guess as to the age of the burial could be made by examining the metal, corrosion and so on.

enter image description here

A casket showing the multitude of fittings and liner that will become evidence in the ground

The body would likely have decomposed, but there would be interesting residues on the bones from the chemicals used to preserve the body, cosmetics, the decayed clothing and shoe leather, the lining of the casket and so on. It is possible that some of the materials (especially synthetics) night even have been preserved over this time. A skeleton with rayon socks and underwear would be a bit difficult to explain otherwise.

So the future archaeologists would not wonder for very long if the burial was "artificial", nor would they be in doubt about the ability of these long ago people to create and use technology. As an aside, considering we can read many "dead" languages from civilizations as far back as the Bronze age (Sanskrit, Hittite, Linear B, Egyptian hieroglyphs etc.), it seems a bit strange that they cannot read or decipher our languages. A well preserved plaque on the Moon on the side of the Apollo LEM's would provide a great way to begin studying English, for example.

enter image description here

LEM plaque. The LEM itself will be recognizable for a quarter billion years, the plaque should be good for a million or so

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    $\begingroup$ Sanskrit is very old but it is not a dead language! $\endgroup$ – Dhara Jun 22 '18 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget breast implants. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Jun 22 '18 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ @T.Sar I think the prevalence, and even existence, of breast implants shows how stupid we are, not how intelligent we are. $\endgroup$ – Bohemian Jun 22 '18 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Bohemian That's a matter of opinion, I guess... $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Jun 22 '18 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ yep, it's sure stupid for people to want to modify their appearnce given the technology to do so! Just like tattoos, peircings, haircuts, shaving, and clothing! $\endgroup$ – dn3s Jun 23 '18 at 6:42
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TL;DR Graves at all are a good suggestion, worked stone is a pretty big hint, worked metal is hard to ignore, dismissing plastic would be silly, but finding medical implants would have to be totally suppressed to make a theory of unintelligence plausible.


Some few other species take interest in their dead so the future people might be forgiven in placing "true intelligence" above some higher bar than just organized dead.

Modern graves often have casket liners of metal, plastic or cement, these are obviously worked materials requiring advanced logistics to create. Possibly this could be dismissed as the work of some other group potentially long posthumously.

Similarly grave goods like the metal and plastic parts of clothing should survive, and be very clear indications that the site was prepared by an intelligence. Whether that intelligence was the creature in the grave could still be doubted.

Objects in the graves intermixed with the remains would much trickier to explain. Fillings in teeth beside unfilled cavities imply advanced care during life because postmortem decoration would presumably get them all. Clearer but rarer; healed surgical wounds especially those involving permanent metal screws or pins would strongly imply contemporary materials and techniques.

Nuclear powered pacemakers and other non-natural radiation sources from medical treatment would be a huge giveaway if found, but are rare enough that it might not come up.


A point was raised that all of this might be true in a pet cemetery as well.

The best evidence that the interred are the intelligence might be that the hardware of the coffins and the fasteners for clothes are good fits for human hands. But the actual tool marks on them would likely all be machines.

Work related bone growth might also suggest humans occupation. 15th century longbow archers have been identified by skeletal deformities from using heavy bows, possibly back or neck problems from computer hunching or tool marks in bone from industrial accidents or murders could give hints to modern life.

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  • $\begingroup$ lol, gravediggers would get thirsty in hot weather. Achaeologist, holding artifact, to colleage; "Hey Fred, what's 'Diet Coke'?" $\endgroup$ – Martin James Jun 23 '18 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ As well as being rare, nuclear-powered pacemakers would typically be removed before burial. $\endgroup$ – Geoffrey Brent Jun 24 '18 at 6:53
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Jewelry! The first telltale clue of an intelligent being buried in that cemeter would be the jewelry -gold, gemstones...all showing a fine craftmanship. Especially diamonds: producers laser-carve an identification code in the crystals, and that would be the definitive proof that these ancestors were some smart people.

Also, it could be of help that in some cemeteries pets and owners are buried together. Studying the remains, these scientists could pinpoint the difference between humans and differently intelligent beings.

Also, several skeletons could display prosthetics implants, nails for bones, dental works in gold or ceramic, cardiac bypasses...that's the stuff of some serious technology, when they see the precision in that work.

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    $\begingroup$ Detecting the laser code will take some time, but the faceting of the diamonds is a very, very obvious clue. Given the hardness of diamonds, it is beyond any doubt that these were not created naturally. And the careful 3 dimensional arrangement of the facets reveals a thorough understanding of math. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Jun 22 '18 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent observation! I had pointed to the laser carving, though, because I expect archaeologists to use all precision tools to examine that jewelry, and the code would be evident under a microscope, thus adding to what you said: these guys knew how to work with gemstones $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 22 '18 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ @ValerioPastore How can you detect a cardiac bypass in a skeleton? $\endgroup$ – user Jun 22 '18 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ @user opening up the chest involves sawing through bone, literally bifurcating the sternum. This presumably leaves marks. That such a "wound" healed proves pretty significant knowledge of medicine. $\endgroup$ – Blue Footed Booby Jun 22 '18 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ @ValerioPastore Didn't think of that, thanks! $\endgroup$ – user Jun 22 '18 at 15:18
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Metal coffins are dripping with clues for an experienced archaeologist.

There's a reason that we talk about the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Metallurgy has been constantly developed and refined since the beginning of civilization. Our skill with metal would provide many indications as to exactly how technologically advanced we were.

While most of us would picture a wood coffin, metal coffins (in particular stainless steel) are increasingly common. Stainless steel was first developed in the 19th century. But a steel coffin is more than just a material. It's a process.

Some clues derived from the steel coffin manufacturing process:

  • Flat sheets of steel of uniform thickness are used.
  • The sheets are welded together.
  • The coffins are spray-painted.
  • The lids and handles are attached by screws.

All of these point to modern levels of technology and industrialization. In particular the chemical composition of the steel and the paint are going to be very telling.

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In addition to headstones and coffins as mentioned in other answers, many graves will have cremation urns. These can be made out of many materials such as brass, aluminum, steel, and they also have fancy engravings on them:

enter image description here

Urns from 9000 years ago have been found that are still intact. (source)

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A cemetery would already reveal that whoever used it had some sort of mental process which was used to elaborate on the death of a relative and, consequently, on the difference between life and death.

Something similar happens with elephants, which are known to tribute honors to their deceased peers.

Add to this that the content of the graves could contain items which would further hint to some sort of higher capabilities: metal artifacts like golden ring, the stone itself, the coffin, any object buried with the dead.

All this inevitably point toward an intelligent species.

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Laser engraved gemstones in jewelry

Many dead would be buried with jewelry. Many of the stones would have identifiers lazer etched.

Nobody is going to be able to etch something as precisely and small in a low-tech society.

engraved diamond

3D lazer engraved photos

Many people are buried with photos or keepsakes, occasionally they can be things like this:

images in crystal crystals

Such images would likely last for millions of years if the glass was just sitting underground even if the surface was degraded a little. They would show us to be a species capable of engraving images into the center of glass/crystal blocks (high technology) and the images would show relationships, clothing and other elements of everyday life.

Mobile Phones, watches and electronics.

It's not uncommon for people to be buried with a few pieces of personal electronics, some CD's or similar. Particularly when the deceased is younger. These would show silicon chips which no low-tech society would have.

Glass, very perfect glass

It's hard to make very flat, very perfect glass. Up until the invention of float glass such glass was impossible to make.

Phone screens and even photo frames that people are often buried with would show to be made of very perfect glass and some would show to be far higher tech materials.

The text on the gravestones

The text from hundreds of headstones would be an extremely usable corpus for figuring out our number and date system, some common verbs like "died", family terms like mother/father/son/daughter with regular terms to distinguish them like "survived by".

The people of the future will not be idiots. Show them enough text in a meaningful context and they'll figure out plenty of elements of our language.

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    $\begingroup$ Ahem; "Buried with mobile phones... and laptops After five years in the role Rachael has received many requests and seen personal touches including a number of people asking for the deceased to be buried with a mobile phone or even a laptop. Some families have asked for a bottle of alcohol, in particular vodka or whisky, to be put inside the coffin." - walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/… $\endgroup$ – Richard Jun 23 '18 at 21:36
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They already found overwhelming evidence

A graveyard and, especially, a headstone is a piece of technology and they should be able to recognize it as such without any question. Being able to read the writing doesn't matter if they can tell that there is writing at all.

As far as I know, there are no unintelligent beings on the planet which have graves so finding a grave is itself clear evidence that the people who made the graveyard where intelligent -- the headstone only makes this clearer and having multiple graves in the same area makes it a no-brainer.

A graveyard, by Danish standards at least, are always aligned in some sort of grid like structure, with paths between the graves. The graves are almost always dug so that the heads of the dead are facing the same way and the dead are always buried in some sort of casket -- all of these things will be very evident when digging starts, even thousands of years after the cemetery has been abandoned.

Whatever else they might find is only useful if they want to assess how advanced the civilization was, but won't really change if the people where intelligent or had technology.

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Mausoleums

If the archaeologists can find cemeteries, they should be able to also find mausoleums, which are indisputably built by technological creatures. For instance, if the Taj Mahal got buried by the dust of the ages, uncovering it would reveal finely carved stones from a variety of sources, plus modern pipes, railings, and the like to support fountains, visitors, etc. The adjacent grounds contain toilets, gift shops, and other indications of civilization.

A moderately well-sealed private mausoleum should be able to preserve all kinds of high-quality urns and grave effects for a very long time. The craftsmanship and materials would demonstrate that a technological society would have had to build the structure and everything in it. For instance, if they managed to uncover this little gem, there would be no question of technology: https://gizmodo.com/this-is-probably-the-most-high-tech-cemetery-in-the-wor-1696153589

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Very good first post. The only way I could see to make it better was to add an image from the site you linked to. This is important because the site may go down and devalue your post in the future. By copying images or quoting text into your answer, you future proof your answer. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jun 22 '18 at 19:58
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You can't make conclusions on limited information.

There are some very good answers here. But what if the head stone said "Here lies rover 1999 - 2021" and the dog had a pace maker, they discovered a pet cemetery. Do they conclude that rover was intelligent, for the same reason they concluded humans were intelligent?

As per the other answers a cemetery can suggest the presence of intelligence, but by itself, can't tell you who had the intelligence.

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  • $\begingroup$ "...a cemetery can suggest the presence of intelligence, but by itself, can't tell you who had the intelligence." The ratio of human graves to dog graves, and even more so the ratio of graves of humans with pacemakers to graves of dogs with pacemakers might give them a hint! $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Jul 1 '18 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance The OP suggests in their question that only a single cemetery of the era has been found. $\endgroup$ – James Jenkins Jul 1 '18 at 21:29
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Practically everything will point to a technological species.

Alloys, especially those that are uniform, require technology as do synthetics.

You can find this evidence everywhere. in the order that they would probably find them:

The grounds

There is usually plumbing for watering the grounds. Most modern plumbing is plastic (PVC). Even extruded uniform copper piping will imply a level if industry.

Caskets

They won't have to see the bodies. As has been pointed out, a lot of technology goes into the casket. Even cheap wooden caskets have screws that were made via mass production.

Clothes

Most clothes contain synthetic fabrics. There may be a few people who have all cotton (or whatever) clothes but most have at least some synthetics. Synthetic fabrics don't grow on trees (unless some mad genetic scientist creates the great polyester forest).

Jewelry

As has already been pointed out, modern diamonds have laser etching. Then there are the fake gems. Those would be a dead giveaway (if you forgive the expression) if they looked closely enough. Then there are watches. Even old watches have mechanisms that show a level of tech and before everyone had a clock on their cell phone people wore digital watches. Another dead giveaway.

Medical

Old Tooth fillings show some tech and modern ones are obvious. Medical implants contain alloys that are not simple or producible in quantity without technology. Medical devices contain circuits and circuit boards. Mended bones implies a level of medical knowledge and care for the sick (we look at that in "caveman" bones).

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  • $\begingroup$ This is good, however after 2000 years much of this would be gone, certainly the casket, piping, and clothes, only the jewelry, bones and some medical bits like fillings and plates for broken bones would survive. $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith Jun 26 '18 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ @BladeWraith, You forget that even decay leaves evidence. Alloys that have completely corroded will still have the chemical signature of the elements that made them. We've found copper tools from several places around the world that are many thousands of years old and copper corrodes pretty easily. I doubt that anything left will be in functional shape but a good percentageof it should still be recognizable.. Also, in a good part of the western US, corrosion doesn't happen so fast due to the lack of water. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jul 2 '18 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for mentioning the grounds themselves! Well before these archaeologists will reach the layer of ground with the concrete crypts and their coffins, they should find the cemetery's road network, its water pipes (gotta water all those flowers!), drainage works, above ground chapels, the cemetery offices with their remains of plumbing, electronics and advanced construction materials, the maintenance garages full of derelict machinery (snow plows, diggers, cranes, etc) plus the waste storage facility (where all those dead flowers and plastic vases go to be recycled). $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Jul 13 '18 at 2:12
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Answer presumes a typical, large, present-day American/Australian/European cemetery.

Isotopes

Modern-day archaeology uses isotope analysis of bones to figure out what people ate at different stages in their lives, and where that food came from.

At a bare minimum, this should tell them that people living in the same area at the same time had very different diets, and probably that much of their food was sourced a long way away from where they were buried. This strongly suggests a technologically advanced society.

Isotopic analysis of soil, ice cores, etc. should also tell them that somebody detonated a whole bunch of nuclear weapons around 1950-2000, but that's not specific to the cemetery.

Genetics

DNA analysis of bodies in the graveyard may discover the following information:

  • Genetic relatives are often buried near one another, even when separated by several generations. This implies that these ape-creatures aren't just burying their dead in the next available vacant spot; in some cases they have large family plots, implying some level of organisation.
  • Genetic diversity within a cemetery is much higher than you would expect from a small insular community, implying a highly mobile population.
  • The population is fairly monogamous, and characteristics such as size and physical fitness aren't strongly correlated with reproductive success - strongly suggesting a technologically advanced society.
  • Depending on where the cemetery was, you could deduce the existence of different races who used to be largely separate but have recently (last few hundred years) shown up in the same territories and started interbreeding - but not so much so that the different populations have completely homogenised. Implication: society has recently undergone significant changes that made it much easier for people to move about.
  • In a US cemetery, examination of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA will indicate that two of these groups are much more closely related along the male line of ancestry than the female line, giving a pretty strong hint that one of these racial groups enslaved another group from a long way away.
  • In certain genetically distinctive subpopulations, e.g. Ashkenazi Jewish, it might be possible to determine that this subpopulation had a high prevalence of carriers for certain harmful recessive conditions (e.g. cystic fibrosis) but a relatively low rate of marriage between carriers, implying that they had access to premarital DNA screening. However, this would require a large number of bodies to test - probably tens of thousands.

If headstones have survived in legible form

  • Because Y chromosomes are passed down the male line, genetic markers on that chromosome correlate strongly with surnames on headstones. This provides a major clue to deciphering headstones, and allows our archaeologists to determine that the species paid attention to male-line descent (further supporting the case for a largely monogamous society).
  • Comparison to genetics allows identification of typically male vs. female names, and name differences by race.
  • Comparison of birth/death dates to the approximate ages of those buried, and to their genetic relationship, should be enough to decode the meaning of these dates. This will then imply that these creatures were counting time from a date approximately two thousand years earlier.

What they don't find

Parasites.

Pretty much every wild creature and every low-tech society in existence is carrying a significant load of parasites, but there are few or no flea shells and worm eggs among these burials. How did they manage that?

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I think the use of the term “intelligence” is relative. If the signs of intelligence are advanced beyond the level of comprehension of those perceiving them, then those signs may go unnoticed. Also, some signs of intelligence may also be culturally or societally dependent.

As such, I think an important aspect of signs of intelligence is how they are perceived. Math and science are universal, so showing examples of mastery in these fields is one way.

As an example, the Voyager spacecraft carried a plate with inscriptions showing various mathematical formulas/identities (example: pi), our place in the solar system, and even a Beatles record.

Are you looking for signs of intelligence within a certain context?

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To pull inspiration from the original Planet of the Apes series: anything someone would be buried with today. Their skulls could show dental work, especially synthetic fillings, they might have artificial hearts/pacemakers and other implants, there might be jewelry, watches, or glasses present on their person, and, of course, toys. Many people are buried with some form of stuffed animal or toy, often placed there by a child in their family. These are the sorts of clues someone could look at and realize they aren’t just looking at the remains of animals.

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I would like to bring another aspect, somehow inspired by the forensic work that was done on Ötzi.

Cause of death

  • High speed crash: If they find a large cemetery, they will discover by analyzing skeletons that an important percentage of people died because of high-speed crashes (car crashes, and others ski/plane/... accidents). To travel at high speed implies technology.
    • Additionally they will see that even more survived such crashes, implying advanced medicine. (But there are already enough answers about medicine)
  • Bullets hole: Probably will still be recognizable in the skeleton. It's advanced tech again.
  • Age: Analyze of skeleton will show that many people were old. This implies advanced medicine and hygiene and agriculture tech.

DNA

  • If they can retrieve some DNA, they will see that we are pretty mixed. Someone that is born in Australia can die in Europe, ... People from all over the world are having babies together, mixing genes at an unprecedented speed. This implies fast and cheap long distance communication and travel, ...
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2000 years is long, but a lot of objects would be preserved, see Tutankhamun's grave. The painted murals are still visible, all the pottery and jewels are almost intact. It's different if someone is buried in the directly, but caskets can be fairly resistant.

Then, if someone is buried fully clothed like it's common in many countries, and with a watch for example, that would be a clear sign of intelligent life and technological advancement.

Even if they were buried in a wooden casket and it completely disappear and their clothes too, there's no way a wristwatch would disappear, it would still be around the wrist of the skeleton, even after 2000 years.

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