Science & Environment

Palaeolithic funeral feast unearthed in Northern Israel

Tortoise shells found at Hilazon Tachtit (Munro)
Image caption Over 70 tortoise skeletons were found in one of the depressions, many of them with almost intact shells

The remains of a huge 12,000 year old feast have been found in a cave in Northern Israel.

Archaeologists working in Hilazon Tachtit found what they thought was a late Palaeolithic campsite, when they discovered tools and animal bones.

However they soon realised they were looking at a large burial site, with huge numbers of animal bones.

They found the remains of at least three aurochs - giant extinct cattle - and over 70 tortoise skeletons.

The site, from the era known as the Natufian phase, had at least 28 human bodies, ranging from babies to those who would have been elderly for the time - aged about 45.

Natalie Munro from the University of Connecticut in the US and Leore Grossman from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem were especially interested to find two pit-like depressions in the centre of the cave that were too small for habitation.

Instead, the depressions contained these animal bones. One depression had the auroch remains which had been butchered. The other contained the tortoise bones and shells, which were mostly intact, and some of which were burned.

The team drew the conclusion that the tortoises had been cooked and the meat had then been removed. This was the best evidence that the animals had been killed and cooked for eating, not killed as a sacrifice.

In the depressions they found three adult bodies - one was definitely a middle-aged woman and two others were likely also female - one of these was buried with the body of a foetus.

Image caption The excavation took place in Hilazon Tachtit cave in Northern Israel

The middle aged woman probably died of natural causes, and was buried with a strange assortment of individual animal bones. These included the pelvis of a leopard, the wingtip of an eagle, and the skull of a stone marten - all animals with distinctive fur or feathers.

The woman herself had some unusual physical characteristics, probably congenital malformations which very likely led to a life-long limp.

Although the researchers couldn't recover any soft material from the clay soil, this combination of unusual features made them think that the woman had a particular significance for the culture, and that her burial was commemorated with a feast.

Evidence of such huge feasts has previously been found only in later archaeological sites, including some Neolithic sites in other areas of Israel, so this research, published in PNAS, is the earliest evidence for feasting on this scale.

The people who left these remains would have expended a great deal of effort to catch these huge wild cattle, and gather large numbers of tortoises.

All over the modern world, feasting rituals still celebrate the dead, including Western wakes and the Mexican Day of the Dead, when relatives hold dinners in cemeteries.

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