| 6 September 2010
Remains of funeral feast found in Israel
A team of archaeologists believe they have found the earliest evidence of a ritual feast in an Israeli cave near the Sea of Galilee. Natalie Munro from the University of Connecticut and Leore Grosman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have been conducting an excavation for several years at Hilazon Tachtit. The cave was occupied by the Natufian hunter-gatherers 20,000 years ago and contained the remains of 28 individuals including children.
In 2008, they discovered the burial of a woman approximately 45 years of age who suffered in life from a deformed spine and pelvis. The condition would have caused her to display a pronounced limp when she walked. The bones were interred with unusual animal remains, leopard, eagle, and stone marten, leading the researchers to conclude that she was a shaman.
Now Munro, Grosman and their team have uncovered 71 tortoise shells and the bones of 3 aurochs, a type of wild cattle. The shells and bones show cut marks from stone tools and are burned, indicating cooking over a campfire. It is estimated that the animals would have provided 17 kilograms of meat, perhaps enough for 35 people.
In an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they propose that this was a funerary feast for the woman shaman. Her head was placed on one of the tortoise shells and others were arranged around her body.
There is debate in the scientific community around these conclusions. While it is agreed that the research conducted was careful and thorough, not everyone agrees that this was ritual feasting. Ian Kuijit from the University of Notre Dame (US)argues that the evidence proves only a communal meal. He argues that one cannot assume symbolic meaning simply by the size of the event. "Do all communal meals serve as feasts? No."
Support of the ritual feast hypothesis is expressed by Brian Hayden from Simon Fraser University (Canada). He calls the evidence "very convincing" and believes that this is the "best documented case" of early feasting.
The distinction between a ritual feast and a large communal meal is important for the sociological significance. Many anthropologists hold to the theory that symbolic behavior and ritual marked the beginning of the transistion from hunter-gatherer socities to farming and permanent settlements. And shared meals may have offered the opportunity to resolve disputes in a non-threatening setting and lead to binding with communities.
Sources: National Science Foundation, Science (30 August 2010), BBC News (1 September 2010), Haaretz.com (5 September 2010)
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