Big eats from a 12,000-year-old burial

Communal feasting may have existed prior to farming’s invention

Nacho-fueled Super Bowl bashes and multi-course wedding banquets may hark back to a time when preagricultural people devoured wild animal meat at their comrades’ gravesides.

EAT, STAY, LEAVE Researchers say that at least 35 people held a ceremonial feast in this cave around 12,000 years ago. Naftali Hilger

CAVE CUISINE Tortoise shells such as this one, excavated from an elderly woman’s grave, offer clues to a possible prehistoric feast. N. Munro

That’s what happened 12,000 years ago at Hilazon Tachtit cave in Israel, say zooarchaeologist Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut in Storrs and archaeologist Leore Grosman of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At least 35 members of the Natufian culture gathered there to chow down on wild tortoise meat at the burial pit of an elderly woman who probably had been a shaman, the researchers report in a paper scheduled to appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wild cattle meat was also served either at that feast or at a separate gathering for another person interred in the cave, they propose.

Munro and Grosman say that they have the first solid evidence of feasting before farming began. Until now, the oldest remains of feasts came from Middle Eastern sites dating to around 9,500 years ago, after farming had taken root. Natufian population growth stoked a need for community-building rituals, such as feasting, the researchers propose. These social changes occurred at the same time as this ancient society intensified its use of wild plants and game that people living in the region later domesticated.

“I would not be surprised to find evidence of feasting at other Natufian sites,” Munro says. “The discoveries at Hilazon Tachtit are especially important because, unlike other Natufian sites, this one appears to have been used for ritual burials.”

It’s difficult to demonstrate that feasting ceremonies occurred at archaeological sites (SN: 5/23/98, p. 331). Munro and Grosman present “a plausible interpretation of the data on hand, but not a slam-dunk case,” remarks anthropologist Olga Soffer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Whatever actually happened at the ancient woman’s grave, the new evidence underscores the complexity of public rituals in Natufian society, comments Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef.

Natufian people lived from around 15,000 to 11,500 years ago in the Middle East. Theirs was the first known society to inhabit year-round settlements.

Munro and Grosman have already reported that a pit dug in Hilazon Tachtit cave contained the 12,000-year-old remains of an elderly female shaman (SN: 12/6/08, p. 14). In their new paper, the researchers say that her grave was strewn with shells and bones from at least 71 Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises. Those animals provided enough meat for at least 35 people, the scientists estimate.

Burnt areas on shells but not bones indicate that the tortoises were roasted in their shells.

Munro suspects that the Natufian woman was laid in a freshly dug grave shortly before her comrades held a feast around it. They then placed tortoise shells on and under the woman’s body.

Excavations in a Natufian pit located near the woman’s grave yielded bones from at least three wild cattle. Incisions at key locations on the bones indicated that the cattle were butchered with stones. Other bone damage was consistent with marrow removal.

Feasters at the woman’s grave may have thrown the cattle bones into this adjacent pit, Munro says. But she and her colleagues have excavated a grave in that second pit as well, so a separate feast might also account for the butchered refuse, she notes.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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