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Humans have been cremating the dead since at least 7,000 B.C.

The burned bone fragments showed cremated remains found at a pit belonged to a young adult who had been injured by a flint projectile several months before dying. Photo by Mission Beisamoun
The burned bone fragments showed cremated remains found at a pit belonged to a young adult who had been injured by a flint projectile several months before dying. Photo by Mission Beisamoun

Aug. 13 (UPI) -- Cremation is a truly ancient practice, with a study published this week in the journal PLOS One showing that humans have been turning the dead to ashes for at least 9,000 years.

An international team of researchers led by Fanny Bocquentin, an archaeologist and anthropologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, uncovered evidence of direct cremation at a Neolithic dig site in Beisamoun, Israel.

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The researchers said it didn't take long after breaking the earth to realize they'd happened upon something special.

"Thanks to the presence of well-trained anthropologists doing fieldwork on the site, the burnt human bones were immediately identified and all attention was focused on digging this exceptional pit," Bocquentin told UPI in an email.

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"We realized during the excavation that this was indeed a cremation pyre pit," she said.

The team of scientists used an advanced imaging technique, infrared spectrometry, to determine the composition of the pit and identify the combustion temperature.

The excavation revealed 355 bone fragments. According to the spectral analysis, temperatures in the pyre pit reached 700 degrees Celsius. The size and condition of the bone fragments suggest the remains belonged a young adult who was injured by a flint projectile several months before their death.

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The positioning of the bones suggest the body was positioned in a sitting position and remained so throughout the cremation process.

By the 7th millennia B.C., the people of the Levant were practicing agriculture and herding, but they were still hunting for sustenance. Archaeological evidence suggests the region's communities during this time were more isolated than their ancestors, but some degree of interaction persisted.

"For instance, the obsidian found at Beisamoun was imported from Capadoccia, some 1,000 kilometers away," Bocquentin said.

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For now, Beisamoun is unique, but researchers have previously found evidence of bone-drying, the step taken prior to cremation, at another site in Jordan. Researchers have also unearthed similar pyre pits dated to 6,500 B.C. at a Syrian dig site.

"These cannot be coincidences, there must be contacts between these populations," Bocquentin said.

Researchers suggest the Bocquentin discovery is evidence of a transition in how humans in the Levant treated the dead.

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"In the periods prior to our discovery, funeral practices are often spread out over time, the deceased is buried, waited to decompose and then the grave is reopened, the bones are reorganized, the skull is removed, sometimes a face is plastered with lime on the dry skull, then the skull is re-buried in another grave with other people," Bocquentin said.

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The burial process was labor intensive and time consuming. Cremation provided a way to expedite the decomposition process. Additionally, with the advent of cremation, bodies are no longer relocated after decomposition.

"There is therefore a contraction of the time of the funeral which could reveal a new relationship of the living with their dead, [and] of the living with mourning, too," Bocquentin said. "I would bet that it is an efficient way to reduce the power of the ancestors probably to the benefit of other beliefs."

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