Some 9,000 years ago, a young adult in what is now Israel survived a spear or arrow to the back, recovering from the injury only to die under unknown circumstances some months or years later. Shortly after the individual’s death, their body was arranged into a sitting position and burned in a pit at Beisamoun in Israel’s northern Jordan Valley.
Now, reports Ruth Schuster for Haaretz, archaeologists have identified traces of this ancient funerary rite as the Near East’s earliest evidence of cremation. The researchers’ analysis of the remains, which date to between 7031 and 6700 B.C., are published in the journal PLOS One.
Burying the deceased underground was the dominant funerary practice for millennia, says Fanny Bocquentin, an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, to Michael Marshall of New Scientist. Prior research suggests Neanderthals buried their dead as early as 70,000 years ago.
The advent of cremation may have signaled a shift away from ancestor worship, which encouraged the living to care for “the dead for a long time,” according to Bocquentin, and house their remains nearby. Comparatively, cremation was a faster, less involved process.
“This is a redefinition of the place of the dead in the village and in society,” says the archaeologist in a statement.
Bocquentin and her colleagues excavated the U-shaped burial pit, which measures 32 inches across and 24 inches deep, in 2013. They unearthed 355 bone fragments, the majority of which were charred, reports Laura Geggel for Live Science. Per the team’s analysis, the cremation reached temperatures of around 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
The shards of scorched bone all appeared to come from a young adult whose sex and cause of death could not be determined. A half-inch-long sliver of flint, likely the point of a spear or projectile, was embedded in the skeleton’s left shoulder blade. It would have caused “severe pain but not necessarily impaired function,” according to the study.
The researchers found ash from the wood that fueled the funeral pyre but couldn’t ascertain whether the body had been placed beneath, on top of or inside the stack of wood, per New Scientist.
As Bocquentin tells Brooks Hays of United Press International (UPI), the emergence of cremation in Beisamoun is indicative of a cultural shift.
“In the periods prior to our discovery, funeral practices are often spread out over time, the deceased is buried, waited to decompose and then the grave is reopened, the bones are reorganized, the skull is removed, sometimes a face is plastered with lime on the dry skull, then the skull is re-buried in another grave with other people,” she explains.
Cremation, on the other hand, is quite efficient. “You don’t even wait for the decay process,” Bocquentin tells New Scientist. Reducing the time invested in interring the dead “could reveal a new relationship of the living with their dead, [and] of the living with mourning, too,” she says to UPI.
The archaeologists plan on continuing excavations at Beisamoun in hopes of better understanding this cultural evolution. To date, they have found 33 additional burials at the site. According to Live Science, some of the graves predate the remains detailed in the current paper. They showcase an array of interment styles, including single and double burials and “secondary” cremations that occurred after the corpse was dried out. Comparatively, the cremated young adult was burned before their body had begun to desiccate and decompose.
Beisamoun is the oldest known instance of cremation in the Near East, but evidence of the practice predates the newly cataloged site by some 2,500 years. In 2014, researchers detailed an ancient cremation in Alaska, where a dead child was lit aflame around 11,500 years ago.