Human Figure Detected on 14,000-year-old Burial Slab in Israel

The Natufians were the first to bury their dead in cemeteries, albeit in shallow graves, and mysterious slabs were placed in and above some graves. One found in Raqefet Cave bore an enigmatic engraving that may hint at elaborate ritual

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Human figure on a Natufian burial slab: Actual and illustration
Human figure on a Natufian burial slab: Actual and illustration Credit: Eli Crater Gerstein

A unique engraving of what looks like a dancing shaman has been identified incised on a burial slab in a Natufian cemetery in northern Israel.

The slab lay over the remains of several individuals dating from 14,000 to 12,000 years ago, based on radiocarbon analysis of several of the skeletons. However, the remarkable image on the slab was only noticed some years after its discovery, while the stone was being carefully studied in the laboratories of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, Haaretz has learned.

The image on the slab is an extremely rare example of an identifiable human figure made by Natufians, the researchers say.

The Natufian culture existed from about 15,000 to about 11,700 years ago, and spanned from Sinai in the south to northern Syria, and east into the Jordanian desert, according to professors Danny Rosenberg, György Lengyel and Dani Nadel, and research fellow Rivka Chasan, in their new paper in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

The protracted period of transition from Paleolithic hunter-gatherer society to Neolithic agriculture that started around 15,000 years ago in the Mediterranean region is dubbed the Natufian period. Small nomadic groups gave way to complex sedentary or semi-sedentary communities that existed on the threshold of agricultural society.

At some sites, archaeologists tend to agree that the Natufians actually settled year-round in hamlets. As they settled and began to farm (and had dogs), the Natufians established what may be the earliest distinct cemeteries, where communities buried at least some of their dead. At least some others who were dearly departed were relegated to beneath the floor of the home or laid to rest nearby.

The incised slab with the humanoid image in Raqefet Cave: front, back and profileCredit: Eli Crater Gerstein

But it seems that when they did bury their dead, Natufian mortuary practices were elaborate. Their funerals may have featured gathering and feasting, and – going by the newly found crude depiction – dancing. The figure on the slab could plausibly be a shaman with an exposed penis or be dressed up as an animal, in which case the protuberance could be a tail.

Or maybe it was a lizard. In time, hopefully more slabs will be found and examination with advanced technology will shed new light on this intriguing phenomenon, the researchers add.

Rites of the dead

Possible mortuary practices among archaic humans are one of the most hotly debated topics in anthro-archaeology. Did the enigmatic Homo naledi with its small, orange-sized brain deliberately inter its dead in the profoundly inaccessible depths of a cave in South Africa 300,000 years ago? Or did a bunch of them just get stuck and die there over the years? Did Neanderthals inter their deceased, at least sometimes, and did they at least one time say their goodbyes with flowers?

Evidence of the Natufians has been found at dozens of sites in Israel alone. At Raqefet Cave on Mount Carmel, there are no signs of Natufian-period settlement: it was used for burial, they say.

Certain hallmarks of the Natufian burials smack of ritual. Take, for instance, the slabs. Of the roughly 500 Natufian burials investigated throughout their range to date, most don’t seem to have such proto-gravestones; slabs were found at several sites like el-Wad Terrace and Nahal Oren (both also on Mount Carmel), and Hayonim Cave (near Carmiel), in addition to Raqefet Cave. It is possible that some excavations decades ago failed to notice certain rocks as artifacts.

Raqefet CaveCredit: Dani Nadel

In the case of the Raqefet Cave burials, the slabs clearly did not fall off the cave ceiling. They had to have been lugged there, at some effort – it would have involved climbing several dozen meters up a cliffside. Nobody does that without good reason.

“The cemetery is in the first chamber, a large hall at the entrance of the cave,” Nadel and Rosenberg say. The renewed excavations were led by Nadel and altogether some 30 individuals of all ages were found – from babies to children to adults, men and women, some in multiple burials and some individually. They found about 10 slabs.

It was impossible to tell to whom the particular slab with the enigmatic engraving “belonged”: It wasn’t inside a burial, it was situated above several.

Mark you, Rosenberg points out, these weren’t graves as we think of them. They were usually shallow pits, and unmarked.

Rosenberg adds that the team didn’t identify any patterns on the other slabs: They seem unmodified, though he says the Natufians could have painted them or created some other decoration that has not survived the millennia. We may never know. Or there is something there but “we may not understand what we see,” he observes.

Some slabs found in Hayonim Cave, where dozens of burials were found, bore etchings, but they don’t seem to have been human forms. They may have been abstracts or animals, but they’re too far gone to be sure of much. The one now reported at Raqefet Cave is the first humanoid depiction known from Natufian graves, if humanoid it is.

The find spot of the incised slab with the humanoid image in Raqefet CaveCredit: Dani Nadel

Mystery of the missing dead

Speaking of which, if the archaeologists found only 30 skeletons in the excavated part of Raqefet Cave, that seems a tad parsimonious for centuries of mortality. What happened to all the rest? And where did these come from? Did they all die naturally?

We don’t know. Since the graves were shallow, bodies could have been dug up and eaten by animals, or removed by later users of the cave. Or maybe they weren’t ceremonially buried: perhaps that distinction was confined to the prehistoric elites, though again we note that the human remains in the cave were from all ages and both sexes. And in all positions. They didn’t have a preferred burial position, the archaeologists say.

In all cave and open-air burial sites in prehistoric Israel, whether of early modern humans or Neanderthals, there are only a few skeletons, if any at all: cemeteries as such are only found in Natufian or later sites.

The largest Natufian cemeteries were found in the el-Wad cave and terrace – which has been undergoing archaeological investigation for almost 100 years now (not every year) – and Eynan in the Hula Valley. In each site, more than 100 Natufian burials were found.

As for the crude humanoid image on the Raqefet slab, it is true that tens of thousands of years earlier, hunter-gatherers in Europe and Southeast Asia were doing spectacular art on cave walls. Maybe they were in Israel too but it hasn’t been preserved.

A boulder mortar found at the Natufian burial site in Raqefet Cave, Mt. Carmel.Credit: דר דני נדל

Natufians did, however, make figurines of stone, bones and antler, which included human heads, animal heads and other things that we can’t identify – possibly because they were abstract or because they didn’t weather well.

They also buried their dead (when they buried them) with grave goods, including meat, stone tools and even heavy stone mortars. The use of massive mortars found at burial sites remains mysterious, though Nadel and Rosenberg have suggested they weren’t used solely to pound grain or meat, but maybe as musical instruments (such as drums) to summon the people for a funeral or for other reasons.

One burial, of a woman about 12,000 years ago, found by Hebrew University archaeologists in Hilazon Tachtit Cave, Western Galilee, was so elaborate that Leore Grosman and colleagues postulate she had to have been a shaman or was otherwise held in profound esteem. Her grave goods included 86 tortoise shells, an eagle’s wing, a leopard’s pelvic bone, the leg of a pig and tailbone from a cow, among other things.

In Raqefet Cave, Nadel and Rosenberg also found a large bedrock mortar with grid-like incisions accompanied by irregular lines inside its shaft. “We have no idea why, but it was very clear because they repeatedly went over the lines by scratching to make sure they were there,” Nadel says, adding: “I can’t imagine who could see into the narrow mortar.”

They also found four graves with the impressions of green plants lining the pits before inhumation. These included flowers such as wild sage, the archaeologists say.

So the bottom line is that the Natufians had a remarkable respect for the dead and may have held complex and sophisticated rituals that included feasts, judging by the animal bones and garbage they left behind. They may also have indulged in the demon alcohol, judging by evidence for brewing noted at Raqefet Cave as well; and  the last rites may have also featured music and a dancing figure, perhaps even a shaman.

The find spot of the incised slab with the humanoid image in Raqefet CaveCredit: Dani Nadel