A cremation pit recently excavated at Beisamoun, just north of the Sea of Galilee, contained the burnt remains of a person who died sometime between 7013 and 6700 BCE. died (by radiocarbon dating). The person’s name and story have been lost to us, but their remains are evidence of a drastic change not only in how people lived, but also in what they believed about life and death.
A time of change
The cremation dates back to a time of social and cultural change in the region around what is now northern Israel. Around 7000 BCE, people left many of the larger settlements in the region; the archaeological finds show houses and villages falling into disuse and decay. Until then, people in villages like Beisamoun had often buried their dead in the floors of their homes. Apparently people wanted to keep their ancestors and relatives close to the center of family life. At Beisamoun, people lingered, but they started building in a lighter architectural style and stopped burying deceased relatives under the floor. It marked the end of a period that archaeologists working in the Levant call Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, which is precise but not very catchy.
It is no coincidence that the oldest evidence of cremation in the Near East dates back to the same time of cultural and social change. “The way you interact with the dead is directly linked to beliefs,” Fanny Bocquentin, an archaeologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), told Ars.
Something as simple as where people lay the dead — under the floors of their homes, in a cemetery in the middle of town, or in a necropolis across a river — can provide great clues as to how the living relate to the dead. dead. Digging under the floors of houses, sealed with plaster, suggest that the people of Neolithic Israel probably believed in a close relationship between the living and the dead.
However, we have no way of knowing exactly what that relationship was like or what kind of afterlife the dead experienced. Each household may have left sacrifices for their ancestors to earn their goodwill or to support them in the next life. Perhaps people looked to their household’s ancestors for protection or guidance. People in many cultures have been doing those things for thousands of years. The archaeological evidence doesn’t fill in those details, and with no written inscriptions or texts to tell us more, we can only speculate and wonder.
Near the Dead
It’s possible that the cremated person’s ancestors may have been buried under the floor of their childhood home—perhaps even in some of the houses that once stood within view of the cremation pit. But this person’s body was placed in an open clay-lined pit about 60cm (2ft) deep and burned slowly. Once the pyre burned down, the ashes and cracked, calcined bones in the pit remained open to the sky in a deserted part of the village.
“This is a redefinition of the place of the dead in the village and in society,” Bocquentin said in a press statement. That is true in a spiritual sense, but also in a literal sense. The open cremation pit was in a deserted part of the village, where vacant houses fell into disrepair. “The walls of the previous houses were still half standing, the other half was destroyed,” Bocquentin told Ars. “The pit is dug in a matrix of molten mud bricks that have fallen from the walls” of abandoned houses.
This deserted neighborhood had been taken over by the dead. Bocquentin and her colleagues found graves dug in the rubble of abandoned, destroyed homes. “Most of the graves we found were placed against the partially standing walls, in the previous interior space,” she said. Ceremonial platforms and ritual animal sacrifices were found in the streets and in clearings.
Why people came to a deserted part of town to bury their dead in empty, crumbling houses is still an open question — one of many things we can only speculate about until the right piece of evidence provides a key. Perhaps some people still felt that the dead should be buried indoors, but not so close to their living relatives anymore. That, along with cremation, suggests that people began to see the dead as a minor part of everyday life and instead as something separate from the world of the living.
Bocquentin and her colleagues found five other sets of cremated remains at the site, but all were buried somewhere different from where they were actually cremated. It is not clear why this person was left in the cremation pit while others were treated differently. Maybe something happened to the community right after the cremation, or maybe this person’s social status dictated a different treatment.
Or maybe it was just a matter of different beliefs or preferences in that person’s family, or at that particular time. Throughout the region, archaeologists have noticed many variations in the way people buried their dead over the past 10,000 years. Sometimes two or three people shared the same grave, sometimes not; sometimes people placed their dead in one place to decompose and then buried the bones in a second, but sometimes they didn’t. And often people removed the skull (cranium) of the dead before burial, but not always. As today, practices seemed to differ between communities and individual people.
The dead tell some stories
What do we know about this individual who died between 7013 and 6700 BCE during a time of cultural and social change in their community and around the world? Their bones are too cracked and fragmented to suggest what their gender may have been, but they appear to have been just under 30 years old. (The ends of their long bones had finished fusing with the shaft, meaning the person was mature when they died; but the vertebrae of the sacrum, the lowest part of the spine, hadn’t completely fused together – that usually happens around the age of 30.)
Despite being relatively young, this person was already showing signs of moderate arthritis, especially in the back. They probably also had a sore left shoulder and an interesting story to tell, thanks to the flint projectile point embedded in their left shoulder blade. Based on the angle, someone apparently shot them from behind or from the left, with the 11.6 mm (0.46 in) point in their shoulder. The wound would have torn one of the rotator cuff muscles (the infraspinatus, if you’re an anatomical geek), which would have hurt and caused a big bruise, but the arm would probably have remained usable.
The wound seems to have healed quite well; the bone reformed itself around the embedded stone, which probably took six weeks to a few months, and there are no signs of inflammation that would indicate infection. That means this person probably received medical care and was able to keep the wound fairly clean.
It would be traditional to suggest that this injury means that the dead person must have been a man, but a growing body of evidence (not even remorse) suggests that women in many cultures took part in combat, either as combatants or as targets. A recent study of North American Indigenous remnants from multiple cultures found that women were just as likely to be injured as a result of violence as men.
New ways of living, new ways of dying
A few months or years later, according to the best estimate of Bocquentin and her colleagues, the person died; nothing in their remains can tell us how or why. And with their deaths, they became part of a cultural shift that gradually overthrew 2000 years of local tradition.
By 9600 BCE, the people living in northern Israel had settled in permanent villages, growing crops and raising livestock. Around this time, they also began to bury their dead in more complex ways, such as removing the skull (cranium) for burial. The last evidence of skull removal appears in the archaeological record around the same time as the earliest cremations, around 7000 BC.
“The appearance of cremation around the same time period represents a significant shift in burial practice and marks a marked break from the preceding Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B,” Bocquentin and her colleagues wrote in the journal. PLOS ONE†
A funeral in the spring
When Bocquentin and her colleagues found the cremation pit, the remains were scattered in what to the untrained eye looked like a chaotic jumble of bones. That’s because muscles tend to flex during cremation, causing the body to move in the process, and bones also tend to scatter when dropped. Bocquentin and her colleagues managed to reconstruct this process from the position of the bones, and it appears as if the person was placed upright in the pit with knees bent (probably held in place with a cloth tie, as some graves in the area do). ), leaning against the south wall. It is also possible that they may have been lying on a platform or pallet above the flames and fell into this position when the platform burned out below them.
Based on microscopic plant remains found among the ashes, the pyre may have used reed grasses along with wood for fuel or as a platform for the dead. Sedges may have been woven into a shroud. Whole flowering blades of grass were placed in the pit, possibly because of their appearance or their pleasant smell – in any case, the presence of the florets suggests that the burial took place in late winter or early spring.
Wheat chaff among the ashes suggests that humans burned wheat as a sacrifice, perhaps for the dead to take to the afterlife or to influence the gods on their behalf. On the other hand, the wheat may also have been included in animal dung used to fuel the fire, which really highlights the challenges of interpreting archaeological evidence. “99 percent unfortunately remains hidden,” Bocquentin told Ars. “We can make hypotheses, but not certainty.”
“If I could meet a Neolithic person, I would have a lot of questions.” Bocquentin told Ars. “In this particular case I might ask what the feeling was like during the cremation and if all the villagers could come and watch. What kind of music or dance they performed. Where does he think the dead is traveling to and why have they decided to destroy the body and leave it in the pit instead of burying it as they did before.”
PLOS ONE2020 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0235386 (About DOIs).