Earliest Evidence Of Burials With Flowers Found In Israel Cave
July 3, 2013

Earliest Evidence Of Burials With Flowers Found In Israel Cave

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A recent discovery in a cave in Israel has given researchers a new look into how our ancient ancestors treated their dead.

Daniel Nadel, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, has been leading a team of researchers since 2005 in the excavation efforts at Raqefet Cave on the slopes of Mount Carmel. The discovery was that of a Natufian pair that had been purposely buried together in a grave lined with flowers. The large cave was home to a band of hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area nearly 14,000 years ago and may have been the ancestors of the world's first farmers.

For years, scientists have debated when the first humans buried their dead with flowers. In the 1970s, a research team excavating a 70,000-year-old grave of a Neanderthal buried at Shanidar Cave in Iraq, found evidence of burial with flowers, based on pollen cultures discovered in the grave. However, archaeologists quickly pointed out how burrowing animals were the likely culprits in transmission of pollen to the grave. Apart from floral burials, many experts have even questioned whether Neandethals deliberately buried their dead.

The Natufian grave discovery may now be the oldest definitive proof that our ancestors lined graves with flowers, a common practice in many parts of the world today, said the study team.

Nadel and his team found evidence of at least four graves lined with flowers, one that holds the bodies of two people. The pair -- an adult male and an adolescent of undetermined sex -- was part of the Natufian culture that flourished from 15,000 to about 11,600 years ago in an region that is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Nadel noted the Natufian culture was likely the first group of people to transition from a roaming hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a permanent settlement culture, and were likely to have been the first to establish true graveyards. Nadel also found evidence the dead were buried in graveyards near their huts and also featured burial treasures such as beads and stone tools.

Nadel and his colleagues have so far excavated 29 skeletons at the Raqefet Cave. Of them, radiocarbon dating has shown dates between 13,700 and 11,700 years ago for the remains of at least four individuals found at the site. Of course, the most notable discovery was that of flowers lining the grave beds.

To be sure what they found could be attributed to burials with flowers, Nadel called in a number of experts to help study the graves. The grave containing the adult male and adolescent had been cut into limestone bedrock and was lined with a thin layer of mud. Pressed into the mud layer were impressions of stems of a number of plant species, some of which were identifiable. These plants included Judean sage, mint figwort and aromatic spring blossoms, some of which are still found along the slopes of Mount Carmel to this day.

Evidence of microscopic plant fossils, known as phytoliths, was found in several burial sites. These phytoliths, of which some can be identified at the species level, were known to have come from various grasses, shrubs, reeds and sedges. This led the team to conclude the graves were not only lined with flowers, but also with other types of plants that provided lush bedding for their deceased.

While the Natufian graves can likely be attributed to the oldest examples of dead being buried with flowers, Nadel suggests earlier cultures also used plants during burials. Just because there is no single evidence of floral burial chambers in early cultures doesn't mean cultures didn't use them. He said it is likely that the plants decayed over time, not being able to leave a fossil imprint on the earth.

"Finding such flowers is very difficult," Nadel said to National Geographic's Ker Than. "Asking for such preservation is asking for a lot."

The finding is important, not only for proving our ancestors used floral arrangements within burial sites, but in showing that these graves were prepared with great care. Some of the flowers used were likely chosen because of their strong aromas.

"There are hundreds of flowers on Mount Carmel during the spring, but only a small group provide very strong fragrances. It's impossible that the Natufians didn't recognize the smell" when they chose them for the graves, Nadel said.

Nadel also pondered if flowers had the same symbolic meanings for the Natufians as they do for today's cultures. He said he believes they did, citing previous research showing how flowers trigger positive emotional reactions on an unconscious, physiological level that transcends cultural invention. The team also cited other research that some archaeological sites held evidence of flowering plants being domesticated as early as 5,000 years ago, mainly for decorative purposes.

Nadel and his team's work are providing "multidimensional evidence" for the use of aromatic plants and flowers to line graves.

"[This is] the first time such evidence has been presented," Leore Grosman, an archaeologist at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) who has excavated at a nearby Natufian site also known for its burials, said in a statement to ScienceMag.

These findings provide "important clues to the views about death and dying in the Natufian culture," including the possibility that the lush flower burials were designed to make the dead "comfortable" and a sign of "concern about their well-being in the after-life," she said.

Nadel is now currently working on identifying the age, gender and relationships of the individuals in the flower-lined graves. Were they relatives? Were they parent and child? Or perhaps they were brothers or friends? Nadel hopes to find out why they were buried together.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.