Studies of cemeteries have been extremely important during the earliest phases of the transition from mobile hunter/gatherers to sedentary agriculturalists. Mortuary studies can aid in interpretations about how culture changed with the the change to new subsistence and settlement patterns. It is often argued that this transition is where we see the beginnings of social complexity and social stratification. By looking at patterns of burials and their associated grave goods we can infer social status and cultural identities. In the Middle East, the transition to complexity and agriculture was thought to have occurred during the Late Epipaleolithic, also known as the Natufian period (13,000 – 9,600 BCE) as this is when this culture first becomes clearly defined. Research has shown that this is the period in which we begin to see more formal cemeteries, with up to 400 burials with grave goods like worked stone, bone, and the special relationship of animals and humans. The Natufian mortuary pattern is distinguished from earlier Epipaleolithic periods by the removal of the skull and internment of animals with bodies (Byrd and Monahan 1995).
Uyun al-Hammam is a pre-Natufian burial ground that may prove that mortuary complexity occurred much earlier than previously thought. It is the earliest known site in the Levant region, and includes 11 burials in 8 graves. The site is located in Jordan within a small river valley. The burials date to around 13,650 years before present. The most important graves in this excavation were Grave I and VIII. It contained two individuals, an adult female (Burial A) and an adult male (Burial B). The male was the first to be interred in that location and was found with an articulated fox skull and humerus, worked bone, ground stone tools, and unmodified animal bone all on a layer of red ochre. Burial A was interred after B, and the upper portion of the skeleton is absent due to historic construction. It included a number of red ochre pieces, and a large limestone pounder. Both burials were disturbed after the primary internment and a number of skeletal elements like the scapulae, clavicles and skull were removed. Grave VIII included both articulated remains of an adult male, as well as numerous disarticulated ones that have a minimum number of 2 individuals. Artifacts included within the grave are bone spoons, stone implements, animal bones, a deer antler, a and a fox skeleton that was missing only the skull and humerus (Maher et al. 2011).
The removal of skulls form these burials, and the inclusion of animal remains was thought to have made its first appearance in the Natufian era, but the above evidence from Uyun al-Hammam suggests this practice began much earlier. The inclusion of the fox is seen as being symbolically significant to the Natufians, and this evidence shows that its importance has deep historical roots. The similarity between this Middle Epipaleolithic site and the Natufian mortuary complexes suggest that there is strong cultural continuity in the region, and that the rise to complexity was may have occurred as a gradual change instead of a sharp break.
This type of investigation is exactly what I find interesting about mortuary patterns. Many of the ‘monumental’ changes in the past have been viewed as abrupt occurrences. Even the phrasing of these events, like the agricultural revolution, gives the illusion that these adaptations were quite sudden. By examining the actual evidence for social complexity and changes in behavior associated with large scale change, we begin to see a more complex picture of slow gradual change in behavior and adoption of new patterns. The full article should also be read for its excavation method. The authors looked closely at the taphonomic processes occurring in the grave and explicated in detail what these meant to the timing of the burials, and secondary inclusions and disturbance. It is rare to see decomposition and disarticulation discussed in prehistoric material, but it is something that should be included in all reports as it is pivotal to interpretation. For more information on this topic, and a good methodology for excavation of burials, read “Archaeology of the Dead” by Henri Duday (2009).
Maher LA, Stock JT, Finney S, Heywood JJN, Miracle PT, et al. 2011 A Unique Human-Fox Burial from a Pre-Natufian Cemetery in the Levant (Jordan). PLoS ONE 6(1): http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0015815
Byrd, B. and Monahan, C. 1995. Death, Mortuary Ritual and Natufian Social Structure. In Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 14:251-287.