Have Archaeologists Found Evidence of an Ancient Funeral Feast?

By Andrew Moseman | August 31, 2010 11:14 am

CavePeople come together for ceremonial feasts. They do it now, they did it a hundred years ago, they did it a thousand years ago, and they may have done it even 12,000 years ago, archaeologists argue in a new study.

But the question is: If ancient humans devour tortoises in a cave and there are no scientists there to see it, is it a ceremonial occasion, or just a big meal?

The ancient eaters belonged to a culture called the Natufian, according to Natalie Munro and Leore Grosman, who authored the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In a burial cave in Israel, the researchers turned up a slew of tortoises shells and bones of cattle, and the remains suggest the Natufians butchered and cooked them.

According to Munro, a feast of so many animals could have fed 35 people.

“This is the first solid evidence that supports the idea that communal feasts were already occurring – perhaps with some frequency – at the beginnings of the transition to agriculture,” she said. “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. The best we can do is give a minimum estimate based on the bones that are present.” [The Independent]

Indeed, the date is particularly important here. According to National Geographic, the Natufians were the first people known to have given up the nomadic lifestyle for one based on settlement, and as such, bridge the gap between the paleolithic and neolithic ages. The estimated date for this feast—12,000 years ago—falls smack in the middle of what Munro identified at the “late Natufian period” in a previous paper (pdf).

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. [Science News]

How, though, do you gauge the intent of 12,000-year-old tortoise-eaters? Two years ago Munro and Grosman argued that this site was the burial ground for a female shaman, and they interpret this new find as evidence for a funeral feast in memory of her or others buried here.

That’s the key. Early humans surely ate together in large groups long before this, but a meal is just a meal. A feast or a banquet is something more: repast imbued with communal or spiritual significance in the eating.

Whil Munro and Grosman are convinced that this is what they’ve seen, some scientists, like Notre Dame’s Ian Kuijt, are not.

He argues that Munro and Grosman have not fully proved that this was an actual feast rather than the remains of a communal meal without much symbolic significance. “Do all communal meals serve as feasts? No,” Kuijt says, adding that the size and scale of the event are not reliable indicators of feasting. He says that a large neighborhood barbecue might not commemorate anything in particular, whereas a small Thanksgiving dinner might have great symbolic meaning. [ScienceNOW]

Related Content:
80beats: In a 12,000-Year-Old Grave, a Shaman Shares Her Tomb With Animal Totems
80beats: Stone Age Graveyard in the Sahara Recalls an Era of Lakes and Wetlands
The Intersection: Point of Inquiry—Rediscovering Fire with Richard Wrangham
DISCOVER: The Dawn of Civilization: Writing, Urban Life, and Warfare

Image: Naftali Hilger (the cave in Israel)

  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    I knew the urge to party was innate.

  • Brian Too

    I’d argue with Kuijt’s point. My parents host the odd neighborhood barbeque, and they always mean something. Even if the hosts decline to say so.

    In a modern urban setting, the BBQ can be used as as ‘getting to know you’ event. This allows subsequent interactions with less formality and distance. If you already know the invitees, the shared event reinforces existing social bonds.

    A BBQ invitation can also be used as a form of payment or completed social obligation. Perhaps as a reply to a previous meal at the neighbor’s place.

    In social contexts as old as the Israeli site, there’s a good possibility that food was scarcer than in a modern suburban setting. Any such scarcity would greatly increase the meaning and value of a shared feast. Plentiful meat would also up the prestige factor I would think.

  • JC

    The picture looks like it could have been taken in northern Mexico where African grasses are invasive and prickly-pears (or nopales as we call them) are native. I wonder if I am looking at just the opposite invasive-native vegetation relationship here?
    I have to agree with Brian Too that scarcity of food would seem to increase the significance of sharing it as a large group but without further ceremonial evidence who knows?

  • PJD

    Good lord, what are future scientists going to make of our massive trash dumps? Imagine what kind of feast they might think one of those to be!

  • Kay

    If the food remains were in the same place as the burial site, I wouldn’t think they would just eat where they buried their ancestors on a regular basis. I would think that is was part of the ceremony. I doubt they would have the normal dining area in the same place as where they buried their people… but I guess there are those who might argue with that. :(

  • http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com Alice C. Linsley

    The Natufians were East Africans and had priests, not shamans. The evidence at the site doesn’t support the view that the woman was a shaman, only that she held a high rank in her community. See this: http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2010/11/kushite-expansion-and-natufians.html


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