Archaeologists have found a cave in Israel that was clearly used for funerals and feasts 12,000 years ago, during a time when humans were just starting to settle down in villages. Among the menu items: piles of steak and tortoise meat.
"We guess that people were having communal meals previously, but this is different from that," said Natalie Munro, a zooarchaeologist from the University of Connecticut and co-author of a study on the find appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "It's more than just an opportunity. It's an intentional, planned event."
The evidence suggests that the feasts and the funerals were connected — sort of like the dinners that were served after funerals at the American Legion Hall when I was growing up in Iowa. There's no sign that the Hilazon Tachtit Cave in the Galilee region of northern Israel was used as a residence 12,000 years ago, but there's plenty of evidence of funerals: Earlier excavation work turned up at least 28 human skeletons buried there, including a woman who appeared to be interred with ritual items as a shaman.
Munro and her colleagues estimate that the woman priestess was about 45 years old when she died — which would make her an elder in the Natufian culture. Bone spurs were found on her skeleton, leading researchers to conclude that she was disabled and may have walked with a limp. Based on the way the woman's grave was hollowed out, archaeologists think she was the first person to be buried in the cave.
That makes it sound as if the cave served not only as a prehistoric Legion Hall but also as a Westminster Abbey, with a fallen spiritual leader in the place of honor. But Munro said she couldn't take the story quite that far. "We don't know if it was a shrine," she told me, "but certainly she was buried with many special things, so she was very important in the culture."
The people who lived in the area 12,000 years ago are known as the Natufians. "These are really the last of what we would call hunting and gathering cultures," Munro said. "They're on the brink of agriculture. ... If you compared them to earlier cultures in the area, they're of interest because they seem to be settling down into permanent communities."
She and the study's other co-author, Leore Grosman of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, theorize that as individual family groups banded together in these communities, they needed ways to blow off steam.
"People were coming into contact with each other a lot, and that can create friction," Munro said in a news release. "Before, they could get up and leave when they had problems with the neighbors. Now, these public events served as community-building opportunities, which helped to relieve tensions and solidify social relationships."
Natalie Munro / University of Connecticut
The Hilazon Tachtit Cave in northern Israel is thought to have served as a hall for feasts and funerals 12,000 years ago.
And what events they were: When the archaeologists excavated two hollows that were carved out in the cave, they counted up the remains of at least 71 tortoises and three wild cattle, also known as aurochs. They said the bones and shells showed signs of being carved up and cooked for human consumption. The tortoise shells were found surrounding the shaman's skeleton, in such a way as to suggest that they were thrown in during the burial ceremony.
The tortoises alone would provide enough meat to feed 35 people, although many more than that may have been in attendance. "We don't know exactly how many people attended this particular feast, or what the average attendance was at similar events, since we don't know how much meat was actually available in the cave," Munro said in the news release. "The best we can do is give a minimum estimate based on the bones that are present."
Munro and Grosman consider their find to be the first clear evidence of communal feasting, but there's ample evidence that humans had meals together thousands of years earlier. Last year, archaeologists reported finding a barbecue pit in the Czech Republic that was used about 30,000 years ago for roasting mammoth meat and other morsels, luau-style. In 2007, scientists turned up evidence that humans cooked up mussels, clams and snails on South Africa's seashore 164,000 years ago — and perhaps even gussied themselves up for the clambake.
Munro said the important thing about the feasts that took place in the Hilazon Tachtit Cave is that they weren't just meals. They were community events that signaled an important turning point for ancient civilizations.
"Taken together, this community integration and the changes in economics were happening at the very beginning when incipient cultivation was getting going," she said. "These kinds of social changes are the beginnings of significant changes in human social complexity that lead into the beginning of the agricultural transition."
"Early Evidence (ca. 12,000 B.P) for Feasting at a Burial Cave in Israel" is being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For more about the find, check out the National Science Foundation's news release and photo gallery.
This report was last updated at 4 p.m. ET.