Death is one of the hardest challenges for humanity.  One of the attributes which distinguished people from other animals is there care for and respect for their dearly departed.  Extensive funerary rites exist in most cultures around the globe and serve to focus the cultural, moral values of that society.  It wasn’t always so.  We don’t have evidence of concerted attempts to deal with death all through the history of homo sapiens.  The earliest evidence of a cemetery, a central location to bury all the dead of one group of people, is here in Israel in the Carmel mountains.

During the Natufian era, roughly between 13,000 – 10,000 BCE, humanity was going through a lot of changes.  Settling down, the beginnings of agriculture and the domestication of animals  as an organized method for procuring food as often noted as the main developments of this time.  Weaponry became developed into bow and arrow for hunting instead of the spear.

In the Rakefet Cave near Daliyat al-Carmel, on the Carmel mountiain ridge, a Natufian society now adds another facet to the story.  In the entrance room to the cave, researchers from Stanford University and the University of Haifa have uncovered a cemetery where about 30 individuals have been buried.  These individuals include men, women and children, mostly buried in singular or double burial niches.

natufian burial
Double Burian niche in Rakefet Cave:  a. actual photograph; b. artist’s rendition showing bed of flowers (green coloration remains in a.)

The niches were hewed into the bedrock and then lined with mud or primitive plaster.  Next came the flowers and spices.  Mint and sage impressions on the lining of the niche give us an indication of the sweet smelling farewell provided for the dearly departed Natufians.  Other flowering plant impressions were also found.  These scents would have made it more pleasant for the living.

Ceremonies surrounding burying the dead did not stop once you laid your dearly departed in his savory smelling final resting place.  People stayed around for at least a bit.  The presence of food and drink stuffs near the burials suggests that the rites associated with death including eating and drinking – kind of a send-off feast.  Animal bones scattered in the cemetery, with signs of intentional slaughter, show that their diet included  deer, fallow dear, wild boar, rabbits, desert cats, badgers, birds, turtles – typical food sources in the Natufian period.

Drink was also part of the funeral rites, apparently.  Only this year, the researchers found evidence in the cemetery of beer production in small craters.  Microscopic grain proteins were found along with signs of their crushing and fermentation.  Beer production in the Rakefet Cave from 13,000 years ago or so pushes back the date for the origin of this important drink by 5000 years (it had previously thought to have originated in the area of today’s Iran).

It’s interesting how closely many modern culture’s rites are to those practiced so long ago.  Embalming with sweet smelling scents, flowers at funerals, having a feast to memorialize the honor of a person are still practiced today all over the world.

According to Hans Christian Andersen, “Just living is not enough…one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”  You could also throw in some beer.

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