31 August 2010
First human communities may have originated from funeral feasts
by Kate Melville
University of Connecticut (UC) scientists working at a 12,000 year-old archeological site in Israel say they have evidence that ancient feasts to celebrate the burial of the dead brought about the world's first established communities.
UC anthropologist Natalie Munro and co-workers found clear evidence of feasting at the ancient Hilazon Tachtit Cave burial site near Karmiel, Israel. Unusually high densities of butchered tortoise and wild cattle led them to conclude that the Natufian community members who lived in the area at the time gathered at the site for special rituals to commemorate the burial of the dead, and that feasts were central elements. The Natufian people occupied the area around Karmiel, near the Mediterranean Sea some 14,500 to 11,500 years ago.
"Feasting [...] is one of humanity's most universal and unique social behaviors," the researchers write in their report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Our paper documents the first good evidence for feasting in the archaeological record that we know of," says Munro.
Munro contends that the ancient feasting signaled important culture changes. The Natufian people were the first to settle into more or less permanent communities and the act of settling would have been a time of social and economic upheaval. Prior to this, populations were more mobile and could separate into smaller groups for food and other resources to deal with disputes. Settling down probably strained social relationships, adds Munro, who theorizes that feasts may have played a significant role in easing the potentially rocky transition from a hunting-gathering lifestyle to one of agricultural dependency.
"Sedentary communities require other means to resolve conflict, smooth tensions and provide a sense of community," said Munro. "We believe that feasts, especially in funerary contexts, served to integrate communities by providing this sense of community."
Funerals may have provided special opportunities to bring communities together to mark the last event in a person's life and send the deceased off to another life, Munro speculates. Instilled with additional layers of spiritual meaning, they may have provided an opportunity to commemorate an individual's life and soothe social disputes. And it appears that feasts would have played a significant role in that.
Source: National Science Foundation
Pic courtesy Lisa Raffensperger, National Science Foundation