It’s difficult to recreate the rationale behind practices in prehistory. How did prehistoric peoples, even possibly species other than Homo sapiens, come to bury their dead rather than leave them lying to be eaten by animals (or by each other)? Was it expedience, respect or even veneration?
We can even detect ancient whispers of ritual, such as Neanderthals in today's Iraq possibly laying out their deceased on a bed of flowers, or pre-agricultural modern humans in today’s Israel feasting and dancing at funerals.
Now a paper in the journal PLOS One shows the earliest clear evidence of primary cremation – the burning of a fresh corpse rather than dry bones – in the Near East. The rather small pyre pit with the remains was found at Beisamoun in the northern Jordan Valley in Israel, and dates to about 9,000 years ago.
In the exhaustive multidisciplinary paper, Fanny Bocquentin of the French National Center for Scientific Research, Hamoudi Khalaily of the Israel Antiquities Authority and colleagues from France and Israel describe the pit containing the unevenly burned remains of a young adult in a village's burial ground near the paleo-Lake Hula. The period was the Neolithic, a time of transition following the Natufian period.
The Natufian is the name for the period in the Near East from 15,000 years ago to about 9,500 years ago when hunter-gatherers began settling down amid early signs of crop cultivation.
Funerary practices in the Natufian ranged widely in terms of the choice of burial site and ritual, differing between communities and even within communities. Some people were buried in possibly the earliest distinct cemeteries in this region, while others were interred in the floor at home or nearby. (“The people lived with their dead,” Khalaily observes.)
Based on the evidence found to date, Natufian funerary rituals were elaborate – though Bocquentin says the locals may only have cared about some of their dead: Not all were buried in the village. Following that, in the Neolithic, mortuary rites became even more varied, says the team: single and multiple burials, manipulation of bodies, primary and secondary burials – primary being what we do today, burying the freshly dead. Secondary means collecting dry bones and reinterring them.
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Neolithic mortuary practices sometimes involved defleshing, dismemberment and even temporary mummification. (In some places, such as the Neolithic village of Catal Hoyuk in Turkey, anthropologists observed that the dead weren't buried as fresh cadavers but after a time of exposure to sun and wind during which the body dried, Bocquentin told Haaretz.)
The time of this early fiery funerary rite, if such it was, was during the gradual transition from the pre-pottery Neolithic B period to the pottery period – in the Near East, at least. Pottery had long since developed in parts of prehistoric Asia by this time, but in the Near East cooking by barbecue over open fires rather than in clay pots was still the norm.
To be clear, the pyre pit at Beisamoun isn’t the first indication of cremation in the Neolithic Near East, the team writes, but in other cases accidental fire exposure can't be ruled out. Archaeologists found hearths near or in association with graves in the Natufian, too, but deliberate cremation of the dead seems not to have been in their repertoire.
Apparently “fire-induced modification” of the dead was a Neolithic innovation, but so far the cases found seem to have involved secondary cremation of dry bones, not fresh corpses. The pit in Beisamoun, an area that had been inhabited from about 9,200 years ago to about 8,200 years ago, is the earliest known occurrence of primary cremation in the region.
Altogether at Beisamoun, the archaeologists found 33 burials: 18 adults and 15 juveniles, of whom 12 were infants. (Separate research suggests an infant mortality rate of about 70 to 80 percent at the time.)
Orderly mortuary ritual there was not. Some of the dead were in single graves, some double; 19 were primary burials and 11 secondary – of whom five were secondary burials of cremated old bones. In some cases the skull was removed and plastered, and now there is apparent disposal of a fresh body by burning.
The pyre pit
At the time, that part of the village seems to have been abandoned and turned into a cemetery and ritual site of sorts. Evidence attesting to ritual includes platforms and animal bone deposits, the team writes.
The pit itself was about 80 centimeters (31 inches) in diameter and 60 centimeters deep, and was dug starting in an archaeological layer featuring collapsed mud-brick walls from an earlier era of the village .
The pit was plastered with rather unevenly applied reddish mud 1 centimeter to 3 centimeters thick, which hardened unevenly during the cremation process. Within the pit, the researchers identified 355 bones.
An adult human has around 206 bones; we’re born with around 270 but many fuse by maturity. Ergo the pit contains remains from more than one person, says Khalaily of the Israel Antiquities Authority. One was the almost complete body of a young adult – the “primary deposit” – and there were also bones from apparently two other people, which were burned in the pit as secondary cremations that could have happened later.
“People knew of the site, and it seems others added the ashes to the remains of the primary deposition,” he posits.
The archaeologists identified the primary deposition as a young adult, based on the state of vertebral fusion, though they also identified moderate spinal arthritis – today a condition mainly confined to the elderly but found in younger adults who engage in intense physical activity, Bocquentin explains. The remains of the primary deposit were too far gone to tell if the person was male or female.
The researchers didn’t find many teeth, but that can’t necessarily be taken as evidence of poor dental hygiene, though the team did identify more tooth decay at Beisamoun than during previous periods. But the adults, especially the younger ones, definitely still had their teeth; teeth are scarce in the pyre pit because enamel explodes when fired, Bocquentin notes.
Shot in the back
Either way, the deceased person had survived being shot or speared in the back. The archaeologists found a fragment of a flint projectile point embedded in the left shoulder bone, but the wound had clearly healed. You need about six weeks to months to heal if you get speared through your shoulder blade, the researchers say. The person died only months or years later.
Asked if the other 32 burials found at Beisamoun showed evidence of violence, Khalaily says no: This is the only direct sign of violence there so far. “Some others had skull traumas but that wasn’t necessarily the result of violence. Perhaps they fell and broke their skull. It could have been accidental,” he says.
As to whether Neolithic burials in our corner of the world show evidence of violence, this is a controversial issue. “Some researchers believe there are signs of violence and others say there aren’t. At Motza we found the biggest corpus of burials – about 300, with no signs of violence whatsoever,” Khalaily says, referring to a Neolithic site also about 9,000 years old near Jerusalem.
By the way, at Motza, archaeologists including Khalaily found a range of burials: single, multiple and what seems to be family – two adults and a baby. And in one they found seven bodies. “It could have been the extended family,” he says.
Burned while sitting
But back to the Beisamoun pyre pit. The primary corpse was placed whole in the pit, based on an analysis of the position of the bones. That strongly suggests that the body was fresh when cremated.
The body was placed in a sitting position, which had become more common in the Neolithic, the researchers deduced. They point out that at Tel Hallula, the funerary position of the deceased was exclusively seated, in rather smaller pits.
The archaeologists even postulate that the Beisamoun cremation may have begun with the body placed on a pallet over the pit and subsiding into it during or after the burning. Some pyre pits found in Europe dating to thousands of years later – dating to the Bronze Age and Iron Age – were similar in size to the Beisamoun pit. And the corpses were placed either within or atop the pit.
The most intense burning appeared on the skull and backbone, followed by the upper limbs and then the lower limbs – “the body was only half burned,” Khalaily says.
An analysis of the bones indicates that the fire burned at least at 500 degrees Celsius (932 Fahrenheit) and likely as much as 700 to 800 degrees. The team reports no evidence of post-cremation manipulation of the bones; marks on a heel are interpreted as a dog or some other carnivore taking a bite before burial.
In the pit, the researchers identified a high concentration of remains of sedge reed – a water-loving plant. Its concentration could indicate that the body had been wrapped in a sedge shroud.
No grave goods were detected, with the possible exception of a shattered spatula made of bone – and animals. Most of the bone fragments remained unidentified, but those that were included bones of pigs, gazelles, goats, rabbits and fish, though there’s no telling if they were burned with the body or were in the sediment layer where the pit was dug. There wasn’t much room in that pit, though.
The team adds that the bone fragments’ condition doesn’t support the theory that they were used as fuel for the cremation. It all adds up to accidental inclusion.
And then they left
Finally, with he body burning or burned, the pit’s walls partially imploded and the pit was left open to the elements, the researchers say. Also, some of the bones from the primary corpse seem to be missing and there is evidence that the community also practiced secondary burial, so maybe some bones were removed for burial elsewhere.
All other instances of cremation at prehistoric Beisamoun were secondary burnings of selected bones. None were in deep, walled pits other than the fresh corpse.
Secondary burials, by the way, were confined to dead adults: The children were buried intact.
So there we have it: A person survived a shot to the back only to die still young, and was placed while still fresh in or on a pit, and cremated at high temperature. Some other bones or their ash were added to the pit, then or later.
Cremation was apparently an innovation for the culture: This primary cremation at Beisamoun is one of the earliest known for this region.
Khalaily adds, however, that archaeologists have long been puzzled by the paucity of burials in the Neolithic transition phase, before the pottery phase. The settlements were large, and logically there should have been more. Perhaps cremation was becoming a thing back then, but the evidence is lost.
Why might the people have adopted cremation? At Beisamoun, this may have to do with the people’s settling near paleo-Lake Hula, a low-lying swampy area, Khalaily suggests. Chances are that the place was ridden with disease, not least malaria.
“If the person had an infectious disease, for instance from drinking dirty water, it would have been better to burn than to bury,” he says, adding that the team is currently doing isotope analysis of the bones to seek indications of illness.
About the skull plastering, about which enough can never be written – that was the practice of removing the skull, defleshing it and covering it with plaster, with shells replacing the eyes. It was practiced widely around the Levant and what is today Turkey from around 11,000 to 8,000 years ago, the “pre-pottery Neolithic C” period, when the practice ceased (and cremation began, Bocquentin points out).
At Beisamoun, two plastered skulls had been found previously and recently the researchers unearthed another partial third one.
They say the plastered skulls might have been “portraits” of the deceased, whose other parts were probably buried under the family home. Other theories include ancestor worship, territorial markers or souvenirs of decapitated enemies.
Khalaily says he's pretty sure the plastering was confined to “special people within the society who won the honor of having a mask made. Maybe they were leaders, or of the leader’s family, because archaeologists found plastered skulls of children in Syria,” he says.
“The purpose would have been to commemorate the leader himself, so he [his spirit] would guide the new leader until he established his status in the society. Once the new leader found his feet, the plastered skull would have been reburied. It was for society to remember that the new leader was the son of the old one you loved. Or didn’t.”