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A cremation pit recently unearthed at Beisamoun, just north of the Sea of Galilee, contained the burned remains of a person who died sometime between 7013 and 6700 BCE (according to radiocarbon dating). The person’s name and story are lost to us, but their remains are evidence of a drastic change not only in how people lived but in what they believed about life and death.
A time of change
The cremation dates to a time of social and cultural change in the region around what is now northern Israel. Around 7000 BCE, people abandoned many of the larger settlements in the region; the archaeological record shows homes and villages falling into disuse and disrepair. Until that time, people in villages like Beisamoun had often buried their dead in the floors of their homes. People evidently wanted to keep their ancestors and relatives close to the center of family life. At Beisamoun, people stuck around, but they started building in a lighter construction style and stopped burying dead relatives under the floor. It marked the end of a period that archaeologists working in the Levant call the Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, which is precise but not terribly catchy.
Its no coincidence that the oldest evidence of cremation in the Near East dates from this same time of cultural and social change. The way you handle the dead is directly connected to beliefs, Fanny Bocquentin, an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), told Ars.
Something as simple as where people put the deadbeneath the floors of their houses, in a cemetery in the middle of town, or in a necropolis on the far side of a rivercan offer big clues about how the living viewed their relationship with the dead. Graves beneath 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.
We have no way to know exactly what that relationship looked like or what kind of afterlife the dead experienced, though. Each household may have left offerings for their ancestors to earn their goodwill or to sustain them in the next life. Maybe people looked to their households ancestors for protection or guidance. People in many cultures have done those things for thousands of years. The archaeological evidence doesn’t fill in those details, and without written inscriptions or texts to tell us more, we can only speculate and wonder.
Neighborhood of the dead
Its possible that the cremated persons ancestors may have been buried under the floor of their family homesmaybe even in some of the houses that once stood within sight of the cremation pit. But this persons body was placed in an open, clay-lined pit about 60cm (2ft) deep and slowly burned. Once the pyre had burned down, the ashes and cracked, calcined bones remained in the pit, open to the air in an abandoned area of the village.
This is a redefinition of the place of the dead in the village and in society, said Bocquentin in a press statement. Thats true in a spiritual sense but also in a literal one. The open cremation pit stood in an abandoned part of the village, where empty houses crumbled into ruins. The walls of the previous houses were still half standing, the other half being ruined, Bocquentin told Ars. The pit is dug in a matrix of melted mud bricks that has fallen from the walls of abandoned houses.
This abandoned district had been taken over by the dead. Bocquentin and her colleagues found graves dug in the rubble of abandoned, ruined houses. Most of the graves we found were placed against the partial standing walls, inside the previous indoor space, she said. Ceremonial platforms and ritual offerings of animals were found on the streets and open spaces.
Why people came to an abandoned part of town to bury their dead in empty, crumbling houses is still an open questionone of the many things we can only speculate about until the right piece of evidence provides a key. Maybe some people still felt that the dead should be buried indoors but no longer quite so close to their living relatives. That, along with the cremation, suggests that people were starting to see the dead as less of an important part of everyday life and instead as something separate from the world of the living.
Bocquentin and her colleagues have found five other sets of cremated remains at the site, but all of them had been buried someplace other than where they were actually cremated. Its not clear why this person was left in the cremation pit while others were treated differently. Maybe something happened to the community just after the cremation, or maybe this persons social status dictated different treatment.
Or maybe it was just a matter of different beliefs or preferences in that persons family, or at that particular moment. Across the whole region, archaeologists have noticed a lot of variations in how people buried their dead over the last 10,000 years. Sometimes two or three people shared the same grave, but sometimes not; sometimes people placed their dead in one place to decompose and then buried the bones in a second place afterward, but sometimes they didnt. And often people removed the skull (cranium) of the dead person before burialbut not always. Just like today, practices seemed to vary between communities and individual people.
The dead tell some tales after all
- A: Model seen from its back showing the location and direction of entrance of the projectile point within the bone (red triangle; copyright: Alexmit Can Stock Photo Inc). B and C. The posterior side of the fragment of scapular spine. Note the healed bone around the projectile tip. D. Detail of the projectile tip (copyright A. Legrand).
- E. Another view of the scapula with embedded projectile point (copyright R. Brageu). F. Close-up of the flexion break of the proximal segment of the projectile point (copyright R. Brageu). G and H: The projectile point embedded in the bone, with the healed bone around it. (copyright F. Edon and D. Beloeil).
What do we know about this person who died between 7013 and 6700 BCE during a time of cultural and social change in their community and the wider world? Their bones are too cracked and fragmented to suggest what their sex may have been, but they seem to have been slightly less than 30 years old. (The ends of their long bones had finished fusing to the shaft, which means the person was an adult when they died; but the vertebrae of the sacrum, the lowest part of the spine, hadnt finished fusing together that usually happens around the age of 30.)
Despite being relatively young, this person already showed some signs of moderate arthritis, especially in their 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 off to the left, lodging the 11.6mm (0.46in) point in their shoulder. The wound would have torn one of the muscles of the rotator cuff (the infraspinatus, if youre an anatomy nerd), which would have hurt and caused a large bruise but probably would have left the arm usable.
The wound seems to have healed reasonably well; the bone remodeled itself around the embedded stone, which probably took between six weeks and a few months, and theres no sign of inflammation that would suggest an infection. That means this person probably received some kind of medical care and managed to keep the wound fairly clean.
It would be traditional to suggest that this injury means the dead person must have been male, but a growing body of evidence (not even sorry) suggests that women in many cultures participated in combat either as fighters or as targets. A recent study of North American indigenous remains from multiple cultures found that women were just as likely as men to have injuries caused by violence.
New ways of life, new ways of death
A few months or years later, according to Bocquentin and her colleagues best estimate, the person died; nothing in their remains can tell us how or why. And with their death, they became part of a cultural shift that gradually overthrew 2,000 years of local tradition.
About 9600 BCE, people living in northern Israel had started settling in permanent villages, growing crops, and raising livestock. Around that time, they also started burying their dead in more complex ways, like removing the skull (cranium) before burial. The last evidence of cranium removal shows up in the archaeological record around the same time as the earliest cremations, around 7000 BCE.
The appearance of cremation at approximately the same period constitutes a major shift in burial practice and signifies a clear break with the preceding Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, wrote Bocquentin and her colleagues in the journal PLOS ONE.
A funeral in springtime
When Bocquentin and her colleagues found the cremation pit, the remains were scattered in what looked to the untrained eye like a chaotic jumble of bones. Thats because muscles tend to flex during cremation, moving the body in the process, and bones also tend to scatter when they fall. Bocquentin and her colleagues managed to reconstruct this process from the position of the bones, and it looks as if the person was placed into the pit sitting upright with their knees flexed (probably held in position with a fabric tie, like some burials in the area), leaning back against the southern wall. Its also possible that they may have been laying on a platform or pallet above the flames and fallen into this position when the platform burned away beneath them.
Based on microscopic plant remains found among the ashes, the pyre may have used reed grasses along with wood as fuel or as a platform for the dead. Sedges may have been woven into a burial shroud. Whole blossoming stalks of grass were placed into the pit, possibly for their appearance or their pleasant smellin any case, the presence of the florets suggests the funeral happened in late winter or early spring.
Wheat husks among the ashes suggest that people have placed wheat in the pyre as an offering, maybe for the dead person to take to the afterlife or maybe to influence the gods on their behalf. Then again, 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 remains hidden, unfortunately, Bocquentin told Ars. We can make hypotheses but no certainty.
If I could meet a Neolithic person, I would have a lot of questions. Bocquentin told Ars. In this particular case, I possibly would ask what was the feeling during the cremation and if all the villagers could come and see. What kind of music or dance they performed. Where is the dead person traveling, according to him, and why they decided to destroy its body and leave it in the pit instead of burying it as they were doing before.
PLOS ONE, 2020 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0235386 (About DOIs).