Sometime during our species’ ancient history, we began thinking about the bodies of our deceased family members and friends in a different way—as beings with emotional value that deserve ceremony respect, rather than simply as dead carcasses.
Other animals simply leave their dead in place, and our earlier ancestors either did the same or buried them in small, randomly placed pits, left in folded positions. But something changed roughly 15,000 to 11,000 years ago in the Middle East, at least for members of the Natufian culture, one of the world’s first civilizations that didn’t rely on nomadism. During this period, archaeologists have found, people began creating areas that we’d now call cemeteries: clearly delineated sites with multiple burials in which bodies are often carefully laid out at full length, and sometimes decorated with beads or pigments.
But these ancient humans went even further than we’d previously thought in developing ceremonial funeral practice to honor the dead—rituals that closely resemble the same ones people engage in today. In a series of recently excavated graves near Mt. Carmel, Israel, that are dated to 13,700 to 11,700 years ago, a team of archaeologists from the University of Haifa and elsewhere found impressions made by flowers and other plants apparently buried beneath the dead. Their findings, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are likely the earliest instance that we’ve found thus far of flowers being used in burials.
The research group found impressions left by flowers in the sediments of four burial sites that contained 29 bodies in total, a number that includes adults, children and even infants, most of whom were buried individually. Although they didn’t find actual flowers—which would have decomposed long ago and typically have no way of fossilizing—the team found marks and hollows left in the sediment that suggest that flowers and other plants were left in the graves at the time of burial.
In some cases, the researchers were even able to identify which particular plant species likely left the impressions and locate the plants growing in the wild nearby. Above, for example, is an impression left by what the researchers believe was Salvia judaica, a wild sage native to the area.
Although evidence of flowers was found in all these graves, one in particular seems to have been absolutely filled with them, a double burial of an adult (roughly 30 years old) and an adolescent (12 to 15 years old) that is between 12,550 and 11,720 years old, based on radiocarbon dating. As depicted at the top of this post, it appears that the pair was buried atop a thick bed of plants, with more than 30 plant impressions lining the bottom of the grave.
Thirteen of these impressions are of plant stems that, based on the size and angle of branching, appear to come from local species such as those in the mint and figwort families. These flower in the spring and then deteriorate, losing their stiffness over the course of the summer. The fact that stem impressions are clearly preserved is evidence that the plants were in their aromatic, flowering spring phase at the time of burial.
The burials also contain thousands of flint, stone and bone artifacts, but there are no impressions from these types of items left on the floor of the graves, suggesting that the plants and flowers were used to create a thick green carpet under the deceased, preventing any hard artifacts from leaving a trace in the sediment. A clue about the nature of these carpets can be found in another grave—its floor shows stem impressions at right angles, as though the plants were woven together in a mat below the body.
The graves seem likely to be the earliest use of flowers and other plants ceremonially in burial. Claims of flowers at Shanidar Cave, an older a Neanderthal grave in what is now Iraq, were based upon microscopic pollen grains found next to the skeletons, but these findings have recently come under scrutiny because of the presence of burrows most likely dug by small rodents called jirds, which have a habit of collecting and storing flowers and seeds.
In modern times, anthropologists have observed that flowers are used in a tremendous range of cultures worldwide to express sympathy, pride, joy and other emotions. These findings suggest that seeing flowers this way is also ubiquitous through time, tying us to those who lived many millennia ago.