By the standards of 12,000 years ago, the woman whose remains were found in a burial pit in an Israeli cave must have been one major dudette.
Buried with her were at least 71 tortoise shells, while an adjacent pit has yielded an unusually large number of bones from at least three prehistoric wild cattle.
This may be the earliest unambiguous evidence of feasting in the archaeological record, say the researchers uncovering the find. In this case, the feasting initially marked the death of the woman, who the researchers say probably was a shaman.
The site and its contents represent intriguing pieces of a puzzle that researchers are trying to assemble for a crucial period in human culture – the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to sedentary communities centered on agriculture.
The people who attended this prehistoric wake hadn't traded their slings and spears for the Neolithic equivalent of bib overalls yet. But the amount of effort needed to collect or kill, then butcher, the animals, as well as dig and line the burial pits inside the cave, suggests an increasing amount of social organization and complexity during the transition, known as the Natufian period.
The find adds to a growing body of evidence that during this time, "material culture is growing richer, and it seems to be a more symbolic kind of material culture," says Natalie Munro, an archaeologist at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, in an interview. Dr. Munro and Hebrew University colleague Leore Grosman describe the find in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Feasts would have helped knit disparate people into a community, greased the skids during delicate negotiations, and even provided a means for relieving the stress of a subsistence lifestyle, the researchers say.
Feasting certainly occurred before members of the Natufian culture sat down and roasted tortoises together, Munro notes, but on smaller scales.
Until now, the only other sites in the region – or in other parts of the world – with well-described evidence of larger communal feasts appear about 1,000 years later in the archaeological record, Munro says.
Thus this find at a site known as Hilazon Tachtit helps "mark significant changes in human social complexity" during this period, she and Dr. Grosman write.
The two researchers led a team that archaeology excavated the site between 2005 and 2008. Hilazon Tachtit turns out to be a burial cave, roughly 500 feet up the side of an escarpment halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean coast. Twenty-eight individuals from the same period also are buried in another pit in the cave.
Evidence for the feast came to light only over the past two years, after the site had been completely excavated and the team had time to analyze all the animal bones they'd recovered. While butchered animals appear at other Natufian sites, the number of shells and bones at Hilazon Tachtit is much higher than at any other site.
The use of the site only for burials is in itself intriguing, Munro notes.
"This is really unusual for this period," she says, because it is the only site that appears to have been used exclusively for burials. Other burials tended to be in the immediate vicinity of – even underneath – Natufian settlements.
The woman at Hilazon Tachtit had been buried with a range of artifacts, including body parts from an eagle, a wild boar, a pair of martens, a leopard, as well as other animals, noted the two researchers in their previous reports from the site. The carefully constructed burial pit, the apparent "offerings," the tortoise shells, and the physical characteristics of the woman herself point to the woman as having a unique status, likely as a shaman.
Based on the levels at which the woman and the other individuals were found in their respective burial structures, it's probable that the shaman was buried in the cave first, Munro says, adding, "this is speculative, but it may be that others were buried in the cave because she gave it special meaning."
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