If you died 55,000 years ago in the lands east of the Mediterranean, you'd be lucky to be buried in an isolated pit with a few animal parts thrown in. But new archaeological evidence shows that by about 12,000 years ago, you might have gotten a flower-lined grave in a small cemetery.
An international team of archaeologists led by Dani Nadel, a professor at the University of Haifa who previously found what's believed to be the world's oldest bedding, started excavating burial grounds on Mount Carmel, in what is now Israel, in 2004. The team has unearthed hundreds of Natufian skeletons. Four near the Raqefet Cave high on the hillside contained what Nadel's team believes is the oldest certain evidence of humans using flowers when burying their dead.
"Some of my partners did not believe me in the beginning," Nadel says with a chuckle. But "once you see them, they're all over the place."
What archaeologists saw were patterned impressions in the earth under the skeletons. Some first thought the imprints were chisel marks — the Natufians of the Mesolithic era both dug graves and chiseled them into bedrock. But botanists helped determine that the graves were lined with plants. Among them, sage or mint, identified by square stems.
Nadel says the plants don't appear to be related to preserving the body, but preparing the grave in a purposeful way.
"It's lined, it's prepared, it's colorful," he says. "It added color and fragrance, and probably all those at the funeral were impressed. So it was for the dead and for the living."
The paper describing the findings, prepared for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, notes that earlier Neanderthal graves in Iraq contained high concentrations of pollen, suggesting flowers may have been used in those burials. But it also calls that evidence questionable because bones of a rodent that habitually buries flower heads were found in the Neanderthal graves too.
The Natufian graves were lined with a simple mud plaster. Flowers covered that, and the bodies placed on top. To preserve impressions of the plant cushion, Nadel says, that mud would have to have been still damp when the burial happened. There may have been more flowers placed on top of the bodies as well, but if so, they left no archaeological evidence behind.
Nadel says the similarity to burial practices today is striking, but cautions there isn't enough evidence preserved to know how frequently or how continuously people used flowers at funerals.
"This doesn't mean that from the Natufians to the 21st century there is a direct, undisturbed link," he says. "It may have come and gone several times or [been] invented several times, or indeed pursued since then until today."