Israeli Researchers Discover Evidence of Feast Dating Back 12,000 Years

Burial site of female shaman found close to Sakhnin includes funeral fetish objects.

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An archaeological site near Sakhnin has turned up evidence of a ritual meal going back some 12,000 years, far earlier than researchers had previously thought such events took place.

The excavation site at Hilazon Cave in the Lower Galilee in 2006.Credit: Naftali Hilger

Over the years archaeologists have found considerable evidence of large-scale funeral feasts from the Neolithic (New Stone Age ) era onward. That period was characterized by the rise of agriculture, which spurred mankind's transition from a nomadic to a sedentary way of life. That revolutionary change, roughly 9,500 years before the common era, was attended by the development of collective rites and rituals, which helped ease the transition from a foraging existence to a farming one.

The burial pit uncovered this year in a cave in the Lower Galilee suggests such collective rites were being practiced as early as the Upper Paleolithic (Late Stone Age ), more than 12,000 years ago.

A Hebrew University team led by Dr. Leore Grosman has discovered remnants of a funeral feast held by members of the Netufian people, a prehistoric culture that lived across the Levant region. The feast appears to have marked the burial of a female shaman, and in addition to her body, the site contains 50 complete tortoise shells and body parts of a wild boar, eagle, cow, leopard, two martens and a complete human foot.

The grave was excavated at Hilazon Cave, near the Sakhnin, in the Lower Galilee. The dig started in 1995, and since then archaeologists have discovered three large pits containing the remains of 26 people.

In an article published yesterday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, Grosman and colleagues Dr. Natalie D. Munro, of the University of Connecticut, and Prof. Anna Belfer-Cohen, who like Grosman is at the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology, describe the grave as "providing a rare opportunity to investigate the ideological shifts that must have accompanied these socioeconomic changes."

The researchers said the grave contained at least 300 kilograms of meat, enough to feed a number of large families. The tortoises alone, they said, could have fed at least 35 people.

The researchers said the funeral feast represented part of the new cultural apparatuses that developed to help ease the transition into new ways of life. "This period saw the establishment of relations between individuals and large societies, and the passage into family units," Grosman said yesterday. "Rituals like the funeral feast were held to that end," she said.

"The Natufians are the first culture that employed cemeteries. Essentially these are testimony to the sedentary life and complex cultural rites that had not been seen beforehand," Grosman said. "Members of the Natufian culture have one leg in the Neolithic and another in the Palaeolithic. These latest finds help us understand that transition."

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