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17 February 2014
Plants used in Middle Eastern prehistoric rituals

Cavemen in ancient Israel not only buried their dead with flowers, they apparently had an advanced culture of plant use.
     The earliest evidence of using flower beds for burial, some 13,700 years ago, was reported in Raqefet Cave in Mount Carmel in 2013. In four different graves from the Natufian period, 13,700 to 11,700 years ago, dozens of impressions of salvia and other mint species were found beneath human skeletons.
     Professor Dani Nadel from the University of Haifa and his colleagues argue that use of plants in the cave was much wider than for just burial rituals. They describe how Carmel dwellers of that time processed grains and used plants in day to day living, based on phytoliths found in the cave.
     Phytoliths are rigid, microscopic particles formed by plants that continue to exist long after the plant decomposes. Their distinct shapes enable scientists to identify the kinds of plants used thousands of years ago.
     The Raqefet dwellers were part of the Natufian culture, which existed in the Middle East between 15,000 and 11,500 years ago. The Natufians are believed to be among the first humans to settle in permanent locations, and are among the first known to establish graveyards. Raqefet was a burial site: 29 skeletons of babies, children and adults were discovered inside the cave.
     The researchers also found about 100 features carved into the bedrock, in different sizes and shapes - from holes 2 to 5 centimeters wide, to cupmarks, small bowls, and mortars. Some of these holes were used to prepare food - notably to grind or pound cereals, the scientists believe - based on samples of phytoliths taken from the graves, from mortars, and from other locations in and around the cave.
     The highest phytolith concentrations were found in sediments related to human activity, and the main plant category found in the cave was grasses.
     Of particular interest were phytoliths extracted from sediments near the abdomen of two of the humans buried in the cave. Professor Nadel and his colleagues think they may represent a food offering to the dead. They evidently ate wheat and barley seeds, as well as smaller-seeded grasses. The grasses could have been consumed in the cave as a final meal. This would be consistent with another finding from the same site - that the inhabitants held wakes with animal meat, especially gazelle, after burying their dead.
     There is evidence of other symbolic acts in the cave - elongated stone slabs on edge near the head of the dead, and flat stones placed horizontally above several graves. With the flowers in some of the graves and the plant offerings to the dead, a more detailed picture of ritual and symbolic behavior regarding burials about 13,000 years ago is emerging.

Edited from Haaretz (23 January 2014)

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