July 4, 2013 — The earliest evidence of using flower beds for burial, dating back to 13,700 years ago, was discovered in Raqefet Cave in Mt. Carmel (northern Israel), during excavations led by the University of Haifa. In four different graves from the Natufian period, dating back to 13,700-11,700 years ago, dozens of impressions of Salvia plants and other species of sedges and mints (the Lamiaceae family), were found under human skeletons.
“This is another evidence that as far back as 13,700 years ago, our ancestors, the Natufians, had burial rituals similar to ours, nowadays,” said Prof. Dani Nadel, from the University of Haifa, who led the excavations.
The Natufians, who lived some 15,000-11,500 years ago, were of the first in the world to abandon nomadic life and settle in permanent settlements, setting up structures with stone foundations. They were also among the first to establish cemeteries — confined areas in which they buried their community members for generations. The cemeteries were usually located at the first chambers of caves or on terraces located below the caves. In contrast, earlier cultures used to bury their dead (if at all) randomly. Mt. Carmel was one of the most important and densely populated areas in the Natufian settlement system. Its sites have been explored by University of Haifa archeologists for dozens of years.
A Natufian cemetery containing 29 skeletons of babies, children and adults was discovered at Raqefet cave. Most of the burials were single interments, although some were double, in which two bodies were interred together in the same pit. In fours graves, researchers found plant impressions on a thin layer of mud veneer which was presumably spread like plaster inside the grave. Before burying the bodies, the Natufians spread a bed of blooming green plants inside the graves. The impressions are mostly of plants with square stems, common among the mint family. In one incident, flowering stems of Judean Sage were found, one of three Sage species currently growing in the vicinity of the cave. This led the researchers to suggest that the burials were conducted in springtime, using colorful and aromatic flowers. The Raqefet cave remains are the earliest example found of graves lined with green and flowering plants.
According to the researchers, apparently flowerbeds were not restricted to adults alone and graves of children and adolescents were also lined with flowers. Since the mud veneer doesn’t include impressions of stone objects and bones, despite the presence of thousands of these hard and durable artifacts within the cave and grave fills, the researchers suggest that the green lining was thick and continuous, covering the entire grave floor and sides, preventing objects from leaving impressions on the moist mud veneer.
The researchers even found evidence of Natufian bedrock chiseling in the graveyard, demonstrating grave preparation to fit their needs. The Natufians also chiseled a variety of mortars and cupmarks in close vicinity to the graves and on rock exposures on the terrace below the cave. The graves were directly radiocarbon dated. Samples from three different human skeletons were dated to 13,700-11,700 years ago.
“The Natufians lived at a time of many changes — a time when population density was rising and the struggle for land, food and resources was increasing. The establishment of grave yards and unique burial rituals reflects the complexity of the Natufian society. Communal burial sites and elaborate rituals such as funeral ceremonies must have strengthened the sense of solidarity among the community members, and their feeling of unity in the face of other groups,” concluded Prof. Nadel.
The project was led by researchers from the Zinman Institute of Archaelogy at the University of Haifa, with expert partners from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute, the Max Planck Institute (Germany), The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Paris) and the Anthropology Department at the University of Texas at Austin (USA). The research results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research project in Raqefet cave has been ongoing since 2004, and is largely sponsored by a National Geographic research grant (Committee for Research and Exploration). Additional funds were provided by the Wenner-Gren and CARE Foundations. Raqefet cave is located in a national park (the Israel Nature and Parks Authority). The excavation was conducted under license from the Israel Antiquities Authority. University of Haifa students from the Department of Archeology also participated in the excavations and lab research that followed.