Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Flowers For Graves - A Very Ancient Custom

A flower of Mentha longifolia
Photo by Michael Becker at Wikimedia Commons,
CC BY-SA 3.0 License 
Researchers at the University of Halfa in Israel have discovered that 13,700 years to 11,700 years ago Stone Age people belonging to the Natufian culture put flowers in the graves of their dead. Although we can't assume that these earlier people thought the same way as we do, the modern custom of showing respect and love for a dead companion with flowers may have had a very ancient origin.

The Natufian People of Israel

According to the investigators, the Natufians of Israel were one of the first people to have permanent settlements instead of being nomads. They were also one of the first people to create cemeteries. The Natufians buried multiple people in the same area instead of in isolated spots.

Natufian Graves

The researchers found 29 Natufian skeletons in the Raqefet Cave in Mount Carmel, located in Northern Israel. Many of the skeletons were discovered in separate pits, but a few of the pits contained two skeletons. The graves were lined with a thick layer of flowers that left their imprint in the mud below the bodies. Most of the flowers were members of the mint family and would have been very aromatic when freshly collected. Interestingly, objects such as bones and stone objects buried with the people didn't leave imprints in the mud, causing the investigators to conclude that the layer of flowering plants below the bodies was very thick.

Why Did the Natufians Bury Flowers With Their Dead?

What was the purpose of the flowers in the Natufian graves? Professor Daniel Nadel suggests that they may have been used to make the deceased person feel comfortable or perhaps to make the people viewing the grave feel better. It's important that we don't assign our own sensibilities to another culture, however. We are guessing how the Natufians felt about death. Some of their behavior is puzzling based on our present customs. For example, some Natufians "ceremonially" exhumed a dead body some time after a funeral and removed the skull.

At least some Natufians held funeral feasts. In 2010 the remains of 71 roasted tortoises were found in one particular cave that was used as a burial site. Cattle bones were found buried with one woman in the same cave. Burials may have been major events.

A Neanderthal skeleton from La Chapelle-aux-Saints
in France; photo by Luna04 at Wikimedia Commons,
CC BY-SA 3.0 License 

Did Neanderthals Bury Flowers with Their Dead?

When I first read about the discovery that people buried their dead with flowers 13,000 years ago I was puzzled about why this was news. When I was in university I learned that flower pollen had been found in Neanderthal graves at the Shanidar IV cave in the Levant, dating from 37,000 years ago. The pollen was taken as a sign that the Neanderthals buried flowers with their dead and was another indication that they were not as primitive or as brutish as was once thought.

A little investigation showed me that the theory that Neanderthals deliberately buried flowers with their dead companions has been discounted by many researchers. The pollen is thought to have been either washed into the grave by moving water after the burial or carried into the area by rodents visiting the graves.

Learning about an ancient culture that has disappeared is fascinating but often difficult. Hopefully we'll learn more about Natufian and Neanderthal beliefs and customs very soon.

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