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Palaeolithic funeral feast unearthed in Northern Israel

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« on: September 02, 2010, 05:34:00 pm »

 1 September 2010 Last updated at 10:17 ET

Palaeolithic funeral feast unearthed in Northern Israel
By Katie Alcock Science reporter, BBC News

Tortoise shells found at Hilazon Tachtit (Munro) Over 70 tortoise skeletons were found in one of the depressions, many of them with almost intact shells

The remains of a huge 12,000 year old feast have been found in a cave in Northern Israel.

Archaeologists working in Hilazon Tachtit found what they thought was a late Palaeolithic campsite, when they discovered tools and animal bones.

However they soon realised they were looking at a large burial site, with huge numbers of animal bones.

They found the remains of at least three aurochs - giant extinct cattle - and over 70 tortoise skeletons.

The site, from the era known as the Natufian phase, had at least 28 human bodies, ranging from babies to those who would have been elderly for the time - aged about 45.

Natalie Munro from the University of Connecticut in the US and Leore Grossman from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem were especially interested to find two pit-like depressions in the centre of the cave that were too small for habitation.

Instead, the depressions contained these animal bones. One depression had the auroch remains which had been butchered. The other contained the tortoise bones and shells, which were mostly intact, and some of which were burned.

The team drew the conclusion that the tortoises had been cooked and the meat had then been removed. This was the best evidence that the animals had been killed and cooked for eating, not killed as a sacrifice.

In the depressions they found three adult bodies - one was definitely a middle-aged woman and two others were likely also female - one of these was buried with the body of a foetus.

Hilazon Tachtit cave (Munro) The excavation took place in Hilazon Tachtit cave in Northern Israel

The middle aged woman probably died of natural causes, and was buried with a strange assortment of individual animal bones. These included the pelvis of a leopard, the wingtip of an eagle, and the skull of a stone marten - all animals with distinctive fur or feathers.

The woman herself had some unusual physical characteristics, probably congenital malformations which very likely led to a life-long limp.

Although the researchers couldn't recover any soft material from the clay soil, this combination of unusual features made them think that the woman had a particular significance for the culture, and that her burial was commemorated with a feast.

Evidence of such huge feasts has previously been found only in later archaeological sites, including some Neolithic sites in other areas of Israel, so this research, published in PNAS, is the earliest evidence for feasting on this scale.

The people who left these remains would have expended a great deal of effort to catch these huge wild cattle, and gather large numbers of tortoises.

All over the modern world, feasting rituals still celebrate the dead, including Western wakes and the Mexican Day of the Dead, when relatives hold dinners in cemeteries.
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« Reply #1 on: September 02, 2010, 05:36:09 pm »

Press Release 10-157
Feasts at a Funeral

Ancient Israeli burial site suggests that feasts were important to building first communities

Photo of woman excavating and the words Photo Gallery

View ancient feast in this photo gallery.
Credit and Larger Version

August 30, 2010

View the remains of a nearly 12,000 year old feast in this photo gallery.

Whether the occasion is a wedding reception or another milestone in life, the feast is a time-honored ritual in which a large meal marks a significant occasion. We know that the Romans, Greeks and Vikings did it, and today it's still an active part of occasions such as birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. Now a University of Connecticut (UConn) anthropologist says there is new evidence that nearly 12,000 years ago, feasts were used to celebrate burial of the dead, bringing about the world's first established communities.

UConn Associate Professor of Anthropology Natalie Munro and a team of scientists found clear evidence of feasting at the ancient Hilazon Tachtit Cave burial site near Karmiel, Israel. Unusually high densities of butchered tortoise and wild cattle led them to conclude that the Natufian community members who lived in the area at the time gathered at the site for "special rituals to commemorate the burial of the dead, and that feasts were central elements."

Some 14,500 to 11,500 years before the present, the Natufian people occupied the area around Karmiel, near the Mediterranean Sea. They lived there during the region's pre-Neolithic period, which marked the end of the very long Stone Age period.

"Feasting [...] is one of humanity's most universal and unique social behaviors," the researchers write in their report published in the Aug. 30 early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Our paper documents the first good evidence for feasting in the archaeological record that we know of," said Munro. She said that although many researchers believe feasting likely began with the emergence of modern humans, compelling supporting proofs have not been found.

Detection of feasting nearly 12,000 years ago may signal important culture changes.  The Natufian people were the first to settle into more or less permanent communities and the act of settling would have been a time of social and economic upheaval.

Prior to this, populations were more mobile and could separate into smaller groups for food and other resources to deal with disputes.  But, settling down probably strained social relationships.

The researchers theorize that feasts may have played a significant role in easing the potentially rocky transition from a hunting-gathering lifestyle to one of agricultural dependency.

"Sedentary communities require other means to resolve conflict, smooth tensions and provide a sense of community," said Munro. "We believe that feasts, especially in funerary contexts, served to integrate communities by providing this sense of community."

Funerals may have provided special opportunities to bring communities together to mark the last event in a person's life and send the deceased off to another life. Instilled with additional layers of spiritual meaning, they may have provided an opportunity to commemorate an individual's life and soothe social disputes. And it appears that feasts would have played a significant role in that.

The discovery of cattle and other animals at "Hilazon Tachtit testifies to symbolic and ritual continuity with the succeeding Neolithic cultures," the researchers write. "This continuity in tradition emphasizes the importance of local contributions to the agricultural transition."

Leore Grosman of the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem also contributed to this research. A grant from the National Science Foundation's Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences division supported it.

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« Reply #2 on: September 02, 2010, 05:36:59 pm »

 Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, NSF (703) 292-8070

Program Contacts
John E. Yellen, NSF (703) 292-8759

Principal Investigators
Natalie Munro, University of Connecticut (860) 486-0090

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2010, its budget is about $6.9 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 45,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes over 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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