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Archaeologists Find Evidence of 14,000 Year-Old Burial Rituals

Archaeologists Find Evidence of 14,000 Year-Old Burial Rituals

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports on a discovery revealing 14,000-year-old burial rituals conducted by one of the earliest human cultures living in fixed settlements in what is now Israel.

Nearly 50 years ago, archaeologists uncovered the first true gravesites in the world in Raqefet Cave in Mount Carmel, Israel. However, a more thorough excavation was recently carried out which revealed four burial sites containing a total of 29 skeletons, which contained impressions from plant stems and flowers, including mint, sage and other aromatic plants. The research team concluded that the flowers were placed in the grave before the bodies were buried there between 13,700 and 11,700 years ago.

The new find "is the oldest example of putting flowers and fresh plants in the grave before burying the dead," said study co-author Dani Nadel, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel.

The people who made the tombs were part of a Natufian culture that flourished in the Near East beginning about 15,000 years ago. They were the first people who transitioned from a nomadic, hunter-gathering lifestyle to a more sedentary one. They formed fixed settlements, built heavy furniture, domesticated the wolf, and began to experiment with domesticating wheat and barley. Soon after, humans evolved the first villages, developed agriculture and went on to develop some of the first empires in the world. It is also believed that the Natufian communities are the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements of the region, which may have been the earliest in the world.

A lot is still unknown about the Natufians and how they came to develop such a sophisticated culture.

Further research continues to try to uncover who the skeletons belonged to, what type of people they were and why the graves were decorated with flowers.

    Stone Age dog may have been buried with its master

    The "good boy" was buried in the middle of a Stone Age settlement.

    Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Stone Age dog that was buried alongside a human in a settlement in what is now southern Sweden. That honorary position suggests the dog wasn't wild rather, it likely lived amongst people about 8,400 years ago.

    "This is one of the oldest grave finds of dogs in the country," osteologist Ola Magnell with The Archaeologists with National Historical Museums, in Lund, Sweden said in a statement from Blekinge Museum. "The dog is well preserved and the fact that it is buried in the middle of the Stone Age settlement is unique."

    Oftentimes, people from this time period were buried with valuable or sentimental objects, so perhaps the dog fit into one of those categories, the archaeologists said.

    Excavators found the burial in Ljungaviken, a neighborhood in the municipality of Sölvesborg, at an archaeological site that researchers have been studying for the past 10 years. Already, crews have found the remains of about 60 houses there, as well as pieces of flint and fireplaces, Carl Persson, the project manager of the excavation, told SVT Nyheter, the Swedish national public television broadcaster.

    This settlement was abandoned soon after this person and dog were laid to rest. About 8,400 years ago, rising sea levels flooded the area. Those waters dumped layers of mud and sand over the site, burying it &mdash but also protecting it &mdash over time.

    Archaeologists have been digging through this muck to reach the settlement beneath it, meaning that this burial and the other traces of Stone Age life are seeing the light of day for the first time in more than eight millennia. The team hasn't fully excavated the dog yet, but plans to soon.

    "We hope to be able to lift the whole dog up in preparations, i.e. with soil and everything, and continue the investigations at [Blekinge Museum]," Persson said in the statement (translated from Swedish with Google Translate). He added that "a find like this makes you feel even closer to the people who lived here. A buried dog somehow shows how similar we are over the millennia &mdash the same feelings of grief and loss." (Of note, it's unclear whether the dog died a natural death, or whether it was killed to be buried with its human. An analysis of its remains may reveal this mystery.)

    Dogs were likely domesticated multiple times in different cultures, but have been living with humans since at least 33,000 years ago, according to a canine skull found in Siberia, a 2013 study published in the journal PLOS One found. An analysis of the Siberian skull showed that its DNA was more similar to modern dogs than it was to wolves, coyotes and prehistoric canid species, Live Science previously reported.

    The new discovery is hardly the first archaeological evidence that ancient humans cared for their "good boys." A 14,000-year-old burial in western Germany may be the oldest known grave to contain both dogs and people, a 2018 study in the Journal of Archaeological Science found. The canid remains suggest the pup was young and sick when it died, but its people apparently still developed an emotional bond with it, the researchers of that study wrote, according to a previous Live Science article.

    Meanwhile, a domesticated dog in Scotland's northern Orkney islands was buried in an elaborate grave about 4,500 years ago. That dog was about the size of a large collie and resembled, in some aspects, a European gray wolf. It was recently recreated as a 3D bust with fur and lifelike eyes.

    Once the newfound Stone Age dog is excavated and archaeologists wrap up their work at Ljungaviken, construction crews are slated to build residential housing at the site.

    14,000-Year-Old Piece Of Bread Rewrites The History Of Baking And Farming

    This ancient piece of bread, more than 14,000 years old, is changing what archaeologists thought they knew about the history of food and agriculture.

    When an archaeologist working on an excavation site in Jordan first swept up the tiny black particles scattered around an ancient fireplace, she had no idea they were going to change the history of food and agriculture.

    Amaia Arranz-Otaegui is an archaeobotanist from the University of Copenhagen. She was collecting dinner leftovers of the Natufians, a hunter-gatherer tribe that lived in the area more than 14,000 years ago during the Epipaleolithic time — a period between the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras.

    Natufians were hunters, which one could clearly tell from the bones of gazelles, sheep and hares that littered the cooking pit. But it turns out the Natufians were bakers, too --at a time well before scientists thought it was possible.

    When Arranz-Otaegui sifted through the swept-up silt, the black particles appeared to be charred food remains. "They looked like what we find in our toasters," she says — except no one ever heard of people making bread so early in human history. "I could tell they were processed plants," Arranz-Otaegui says, "but I didn't really know what they were."

    So she took her burnt findings to a colleague, Lara Gonzalez Carretero at University College London Institute of Archaeology, whose specialty is identifying prehistoric food remains, bread in particular. She concluded that what Arranz-Otaegui had unearthed was a handful of truly primordial breadcrumbs.

    "We both realized we were looking at the oldest bread remains in the world," says Gonzalez Carretero. They were both quite surprised — with good reason.

    A researcher gathers breadcrumbs at an excavation site in Jordan. The 14,000-year-old crumbs suggest that ancient tribes were quite adept at food-making techniques, and developed them earlier than we had given them credit for. /Alexis Pantos hide caption

    A researcher gathers breadcrumbs at an excavation site in Jordan. The 14,000-year-old crumbs suggest that ancient tribes were quite adept at food-making techniques, and developed them earlier than we had given them credit for.

    The established archaeological doctrine states that humans first began baking bread about 10,000 years ago. That was a pivotal time in our evolution. Humans gave up their nomadic way of life, settled down and began farming and growing cereals. Once they had various grains handy, they began milling them into flour and making bread. In other words, until now we thought that our ancestors were farmers first and bakers second. But Arranz-Otaegui's breadcrumbs predate the advent of agriculture by at least 4,000 years. That means that our ancestors were bakers first —and learned to farm afterwards.

    "Finding bread in this Epipaleolithic site was the last thing we expected!" says Arranz-Otaegui. "We used to think that the first bread appeared during the Neolithic times, when people started to cultivate cereal, but it now seems they learned to make bread earlier."

    The Salt

    Where Did Agriculture Begin? Oh Boy, It's Complicated

    When you think about it, the idea that early humans learned to bake before settling down to farm is logical, the researchers behind the finding say. Making bread is a labor-intensive process that involves removing husks, grinding cereals, kneading the dough and then baking it. The fact that our ancestors were willing to invest so much effort into the prehistoric pastry suggests that they considered bread a special treat. Baking bread could have been reserved for special occasions or to impress important guests. The people's desire to indulge more often may have prompted them to begin cultivating cereals.

    "In our opinion, instead of domesticating cereals first, the bread-making culture could have been something that actually fueled the domestication of cereal," says Gonzalez Carretero. "So maybe it was the other way around [from what we previously thought.]" The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Andreas Heiss, an archaeologist at the Austrian Academy of Science who is familiar with the project but not directly involved in the study, finds the discovery "thrilling." He says it shows that ancient tribes were quite adept at food-making techniques, and developed them earlier than we had given them credit for.

    The Salt

    From Cattle To Capital: How Agriculture Bred Ancient Inequality

    "It tells us that our ancestors were smart people who knew how to use their environment well," Heiss says. "It also tells us that processing food is a much more basic technique in human history than we thought — maybe as old as hunting and gathering."

    As the team analyzed the crumbs further, they found out that the Natufians were sophisticated cooks. Their flour was made from two different types of ingredients — wild wheat called einkorn and the roots of club-rush tubers, a type of a flowering plant. That particular combination allowed them to make pliable elastic dough that could be pressed onto the walls of their fireplace pits, much like flatbreads are baked today in tandoori ovens — and baked to perfection. Besides the einkorn and tubers, the team also found traces of barley and oats.

    The Natufians may have had rather developed taste buds, too. They liked to toss some spices and condiments into their dishes, particularly mustard seeds. "We found a lot of wild mustard seeds, not in the bread but in the overall assemblage," says Gonzalez Carretero.

    But, she adds, mustard seeds had also been found in some bread remains excavated from other sites, so it's possible that Natufians sprinkled a few on their own pastries. So far, the team has analyzed only 25 breadcrumbs with about 600 more to go, so they think chances are good that some charred pieces with mustard seeds might turn up. Arranz-Otaegui thinks it's possible. "The seeds have [a] very particular taste, so why not use them?"

    Exactly how delicious was this special Natufian treat? It's hard to tell. Modern-day bread recipes don't include ancient wheat or roots of tuberous plants. But Arranz-Otaegui does want to find out how the Epipaleolithic bread played on the palate. She has been gathering the einkorn seeds, as well as peeling and grinding the tubers. She plans to partner up with a skilled chef and baker to reconstruct the exact mixture in correct proportions.

    It will be the oldest bread recipe ever created by mankind.

    Lina Zeldovich is a science and food writer based in New York City.

    Human Ancestors Tamed Fire Earlier Than Thought

    Fire control changed the course of human evolution, allowing our ancestors to stay warm, cook food, ward off predators and venture into harsh climates. It also had important social and behavioral implications, encouraging groups of people to gather together and stay up late. Despite the significance of kindling flames, when and where human ancestors learned how to do it remains a subject of debate and speculation. There is even little consensus about which hominins—modern humans, a direct predecessor or a long-extinct branch𠅏irst acquired the skill.

    The oldest unequivocal evidence, found at Israel’s Qesem Cave, dates back 300,000 to 400,000 years, associating the earliest control of fire with Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Now, however, an international team of archaeologists has unearthed what appear to be traces of campfires that flickered 1 million years ago. Consisting of charred animal bones and ashed plant remains, the evidence hails from South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave, a site of human and early hominin habitation for 2 million years.

    The researchers found the evidence in a layer of rock containing hand axes, stone flakes and other tools attributed by previous excavations to a particular human ancestor: Homo erectus. Characterized by its upright stance and robust build, this early hominin species lived from 1.8 million to 200,000 years ago. “The evidence from Wonderwerk Cave suggests that Homo erectus had some familiarity with fire,” said Francesco Berna, an archaeology professor at Boston University and the lead author of a paper on the team’s findings.

    Other groups of researchers armed with remains from Africa, Asia and Europe have also claimed that human fire control originated very early—up to 1.5 million years ago. These studies, however, rely on evidence from open-air sites where wildfires could have blazed, Berna said. And while scorched objects were found and analyzed, the deposits surrounding them were not, meaning the burning could have taken place elsewhere, he added.

    Wonderwerk Cave, by contrast, is a protected environment less prone to spontaneous flames. What’s more, an analysis by Berna and his colleagues showed that sediment clinging to charred items there was also heated, suggesting fires were kindled onsite. For these reasons, the team described the singed traces unearthed at Wonderwerk as “the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context.”

    Scientists working outside the realm of archaeology—most notably primatologist Richard Wrangham—have persuasively argued that Homo erectus tamed fire, Berna noted. Wrangham has long been championing the theory that cooking allowed human ancestors to consume more calories and, as a result, to develop larger brains. He has largely based his hypothesis on physical changes in early hominins𠅏or instance, a shift toward smaller teeth and stomachs—that took place around the time Homo erectus evolved.

    “So far, Richard Wrangham’s cooking hypothesis is based on anatomical and phylogenetic evidence that show that Homo erectus may have been already adapted to a cooked food diet,” Berna explained. “Our evidence from Wonderwerk is consistent with Homo erectus being able to eat cooked food.”

    Berna and his colleagues have been excavating at Wonderwerk since 2004, but more work is on the horizon, he said. In addition to seeking even earlier evidence of fire control, the researchers plan to investigate whether the cave’s Homo erectus inhabitants actually cooked𠅏or instance, by checking for cut marks on bones, Berna explained. “More work needs to be done to exclude that meat was consumed raw and bones were disposed in the fire after that,” he said.

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    Viking Burials

    Although they weren’t burned at sea, most Vikings were cremated. Their ashes filled a ceremonial urn that went in their burial mound along with grave gifts and sacrifices.

    Many other Vikings were buried whole. People we call Vikings came from several Scandinavian cultures, and there were differences in burial rites and funeral traditions.

    Essentially all Vikings, however, were at least buried with the tools and wealth they would need in the next life, wherever that may be.

    Common burial gifts included everyday items like pottery and good clothes alongside weapons and transportation. Much of what archeologists know about Vikings’ lives comes from their deaths.

    Member of the Pack

    In 1914, workers uncovered a grave at Oberkassel, today a suburb of Bonn, Germany. The remains — a dog, a man, and woman, along with several decorated objects made from antler, bone, and teeth — date back to the Paleolithic era, around 14,000 years ago.

    It is the oldest known grave where humans and dogs were buried together and provides some of the earliest evidence of domestication.

    Now, new analyses show this puppy was not only domesticated, it also appears to have been well cared for.

    In examining the remains, veterinarian and Leiden University PhD candidate Luc Janssens noticed problems with the teeth that had not been previously reported.

    “I’m lucky because I am both a veterinarian and an archaeologist,” says Janssens. “Archaeologists aren’t always looking for evidence of disease or thinking about the clinical implications, but as a vet, I have had a lot of experience looking for these things in modern dogs.”

    The puppy was about 28 weeks old when it died. Telltale signs on the animal’s teeth revealed it probably contracted canine distemper virus at about 19 weeks old, and may have suffered two or three periods of serious illness lasting five to six weeks.

    Dogs: (Prehistoric) Man's Best Friend

    Early symptoms of distemper include fever, not eating, dehydration, lethargy, diarrhea, and vomiting. Neurological signs like seizures can occur during the third week.

    “Since distemper is a life-threatening sickness with very high mortality rates, the dog must have been perniciously ill between the ages of 19 and 23 weeks,” says Liane Giemsch, paper co-author and curator at the Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt. “It probably could only have survived thanks to intensive and long-lasting human care and nursing.”

    This might have included keeping the puppy warm and clean and providing it with water and food. Without this care, the authors conclude, the puppy would not have survived.

    Scientists find Africa's oldest human burial, a child from 78,000 years ago

    The discovery of a deliberately buried toddler may offer new insights into the Middle Stone Age, a key period in the human timeline.

    /> Enlarge Image

    The trench excavation at the mouth of a Panga ya Saidi cave shows where archaeologists unearthed the ancient child's grave.

    A cluster of 78,000-year-old bones found at the mouth of a Kenyan cave represent the earliest known human burial in Africa, shedding light on how our ancient ancestors interacted with the dead.

    The remains belong to a Middle Stone Age child believed to have been between 2.5 and 3 years old. The bones of the toddler, whom scientists nicknamed Mtoto ("child" in Swahili), come from the Panga ya Saidi cave complex in coastal southeast Kenya. The excavation site has yielded a rich trove of historical artifacts, including beads made from seashells and thousands of tools that reflect technological shifts from the Middle Stone Age to the Later Stone Age.

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    When archaeologists found Mototo's highly decomposed remains, they couldn't immediately identify them as human. In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers from Germany's Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the National Museums of Kenya detail how they came to conclude, through microscopic analysis of the bones and the surrounding soil, that the skeleton in a cave's shallow circular pit belonged to a child who'd intentionally been laid to rest.

    "Deliberate burial of the dead is so far confined to just Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, setting us apart from all other ancient hominins, and any other animal," Nicole Boivin, an archaeological scientist and director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, tells me. "Study of mortuary and burial practices gives us insight into the evolution of our own species, our thoughts, emotions and cosmological beliefs, and what it means to be human."

    Earlier hominins also treated the dead in special ways. For example, the archaic human species Homo naledi appears to have placed bodies in the back of South Africa's Rising Star Cave about 300,000 years ago. That's a practice referred to as funerary caching.

    Mtoto's case, in contrast, demonstrates a more complex process through evidence of a purposefully excavated pit followed by intentional covering of the corpse. The child appears to have been prepared for a tightly shrouded burial, placed on one side with knees drawn toward the chest. Even more notable is that the position of the child's head suggests it rested on some sort of support, like a pillow. That indicates the community may have performed a mourning rite.

    A virtual reconstruction of Mtoto's original position at the moment of its discovery at the excavation site in Kenya.

    Jorge González/Elena Santos

    The archaeologists first came upon parts of the bones in 2013, and four years later, discovered the burial pit about 10 feet (3 meters) under the cave floor.

    "At this point, we weren't sure what we had found," says Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya. "The bones were just too delicate to study in the field. So we had a find that we were pretty excited about, but it would be a while before we understood its importance."

    Once they made plaster casts of the remains they brought those to the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, for further study.

    It was there the team started uncovering parts of the skull and face, which still had some unerupted teeth in place. "The articulation of the spine and the ribs was also astonishingly preserved, even conserving the curvature of the thorax cage, suggesting that it was an undisturbed burial and that the decomposition of the body took place right in the pit where the bones were found," says professor María Martinón-Torres, director of the center.

    More ancient finds

    The origin and evolution of human mortuary practices are subjects of intense interest and debate, as they can help reconstruct the past by illuminating details on cognition, migration, social strata, disease, religion and more. Evidence of burials of both Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia date back earlier in the Middle Stone Age, to as far as 120,000 years ago. But evidence of burials in Africa have been scarce, and hard to attach exact dates to.

    "It is great to have such a well-dated example of a modern human from Africa being buried," says professor Andy Herries, head of archaeology at Australia's La Trobe University, who isn't affiliated with the Nature study. "I think, however, that the find, while being very important, perhaps raises more questions than it answers."

    Questions, for example, about whether humans of the time buried one another according to specific rituals or whether our earliest ancestors thought about death and the afterlife the same way we do today.

    Still, for anyone interested in human evolution, it's an exciting discovery -- both for what it could teach us about our forebears and the way it unfolded layer by sedimentary layer.

    Herries calls Panga ya Saidi one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world. Archaeologists, geologists, earth scientists, paleoecologists and biological anthropologists plan to continue excavating the cave complex for more insights into the world of Mtoto, Mtoto's ancestors and the people who followed.

    Colorful connections

    Teaming up with other scientists and divers, the research crew began documenting the ancient mining activity inside the identified sites. Across 100 dives totaling more than 600 hours underwater, the team collected samples and captured video, along with tens of thousands of photos to construct a three-dimensional model of the La Mina site. The analysis paints a colorful picture of well-planned expeditions underground by generations of people knowledgable of the landscape for some 2,000 years.

    The charcoal found around the mines comes from high-resin woods, and was likely selected for its ability to burn bright and long, according to analysis by study author Barry Rock of the University of New Hampshire. The site also seems to preserve the ancient miners’ thought process on excavating materials, notes Reinhardt: The miners followed along the deposit beds until the ocher petered out. They then shifted sideways to dig another pit. “They understood. some basic geological principles that weren’t really codified or formalized until the mid 1600s,” he says.

    The pigments themselves were also very high quality, MacDonald adds, with few impurities and a very fine grain size. This means it readily imparts its vibrant hues to everything it touches. “It stains like crazy,” she says.

    Yet what exactly were the people doing with this abundance of pigment? Ocher is an iron-rich material that humans around the world have used for hundreds of thousands of years. The pigments were used to mix a vibrant slurry in abalone shells in South Africa around 100,000 years ago. They illuminate the outline of hands held up to cave walls in Chauvet, France some 30,000 years ago. They coat a woman buried in a cave in northern Spain some 19,000 years ago.

    Ocher’s uses are also practical. It can act as a mosquito repellent or a sunscreen. It may have formed the base for adhesives in toolmaking. Some indigenous Africans and Australians still use these vibrant pigments today for both ritual and practical purposes.

    However, for the people mining ocher in the caves of the Yucatán, the end goal remains unclear. “At this time, we just don’t know,” MacDonald says.

    The oldest human burial in Africa

    Despite being home to the earliest signs of modern human behaviour, early evidence of burials in Africa are scarce and often ambiguous. Therefore, little is known about the origin and development of mortuary practices in the continent of our species' birth. A child buried at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave site 78,000 years ago is changing that, revealing how Middle Stone Age populations interacted with the dead.

    Panga ya Saidi has been an important site for human origins research since excavations began in 2010 as part of a long-term partnership between archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany) and the National Museums of Kenya (Nairobi).

    "As soon as we first visited Panga ya Saidi, we knew that it was special," says Professor Nicole Boivin, principal investigator of the original project and director of the Department of Archaeology at the MPI for the Science of Human History. "The site is truly one of a kind. Repeated seasons of excavation at Panga ya Saidi have now helped to establish it as a key type site for the East African coast, with an extraordinary 78,000-year record of early human cultural, technological and symbolic activities."

    Portions of the child's bones were first found during excavations at Panga ya Saidi in 2013, but it wasn't until 2017 that the small pit feature containing the bones was fully exposed. About three meters below the current cave floor, the shallow, circular pit contained tightly clustered and highly decomposed bones, requiring stabilisation and plastering in the field.

    "At this point, we weren't sure what we had found. The bones were just too delicate to study in the field," says Dr. Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya. "So we had a find that we were pretty excited about -- but it would be a while before we understood its importance."

    Human remains discovered in the lab

    Once plastered, the cast remains were brought first to the National Museum in Nairobi and later to the laboratories of the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain, for further excavation, specialised treatment and analysis.

    Two teeth, exposed during initial laboratory excavation of the sediment block, led the researchers to suspect that the remains could be human. Later work at CENIEH confirmed that the teeth belonged to a 2.5- to 3-year-old human child, who was later nicknamed 'Mtoto,' meaning 'child' in Swahili.

    Over several months of painstaking excavation in CENIEH's labs, spectacular new discoveries were made. "We started uncovering parts of the skull and face, with the intact articulation of the mandible and some unerupted teeth in place," explains Professor María Martinón-Torres, director at CENIEH. "The articulation of the spine and the ribs was also astonishingly preserved, even conserving the curvature of the thorax cage, suggesting that it was an undisturbed burial and that the decomposition of the body took place right in the pit where the bones were found."

    Microscopic analysis of the bones and surrounding soil confirmed that the body was rapidly covered after burial and that decomposition took place in the pit. In other words, Mtoto was intentionally buried shortly after death.

    Researchers further suggested that Mtoto's flexed body, found lying on the right side with knees drawn toward the chest, represents a tightly shrouded burial with deliberate preparation. Even more remarkable, notes Martinón-Torres, is that "the position and collapse of the head in the pit suggested that a perishable support may have been present, such as a pillow, indicating that the community may have undertaken some form of funerary rite."

    Burials in modern humans and Neanderthals

    Luminescence dating securely places Mtoto's at 78,000 years ago, making it the oldest known human burial in Africa. Later interments from Africa's Stone Age also include young individuals -- perhaps signaling special treatment of the bodies of children in this ancient period.

    The human remains were found in archaeological levels with stone tools belonging to the African Middle Stone Age, a distinct type of technology that has been argued to be linked to more than one hominin species.

    "The association between this child's burial and Middle Stone Age tools has played a critical role in demonstrating that Homo sapiens was, without doubt, a definite manufacturer of these distinctive tool industries, as opposed to other hominin species," notes Ndiema.

    Though the Panga ya Saidi find represents the earliest evidence of intentional burial in Africa, burials of Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia range back as far as 120,000 years and include adults and high proportion of children and juveniles. The reasons for the comparative lack of early burials in Africa remain elusive, perhaps owing to differences in mortuary practices or the lack of field work in large portions of the African continent.

    "The Panga ya Saidi burial shows that inhumation of the dead is a cultural practice shared by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals," notes Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute in Jena. "This find opens up questions about the origin and evolution of mortuary practices between two closely related human species, and the degree to which our behaviours and emotions differ from one another."

    Archaeologists study earliest recorded human burial site in Ireland

    Archaeologists have shed new light on the belief systems of early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers after analysing cremated remains and artefacts given as grave offerings from the earliest recorded human burial site in Ireland.

    The team says it shows a rare and intimate glimpse of the complex funerary rituals taking place on the banks of the River Shannon at Hermitage, County Limerick, over 9,000 years ago.

    The team, led by Dr Aimée Little from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, analysed cremated remains dating from 7530-7320 BC -- the earliest recorded human burial and grave assemblage.

    Unusually for such an early burial, the person's body had been cremated and then buried, rather than a more simple form of inhumation.

    Polished adze

    The site also featured evidence for a grave-marker a post which would have marked the spot at which the cremated remains were buried long after the event itself.

    A highly polished stone adze interred with the remains, thought to represent the earliest known completely polished adze or axe in Europe, was revealed to have been commissioned for burial at the site.

    Microscopic analysis of the adze's surface demonstrated a short duration of use, indicating its purpose was for funerary rites.

    Funerary rites

    It was then intentionally blunted, probably as part of the funerary rites, which the researchers have suggested may have been a ritual act symbolising the death of the individual.

    The findings mark Hermitage out as an exceptionally important site for the Early Prehistory of North West Europe.

    Dr Little said: "Through technological and microscopic analysis of the polished adze it has been possible to reconstruct the biography of this remarkable grave offering.

    "The special treatment of this adze gives us a rare and intimate glimpse of the complex funerary rituals that were taking place graveside on the banks of the River Shannon over 9,000 years ago."


    Dr Ben Elliott added: "The adze is exceptional as we traditionally associate this polished axes and adzes like this with the arrival of agriculture in Europe, around 3000 years later.

    "Although polished axes and adzes are known from pre-agricultural sites in Ireland and other parts of Europe, to find such a well-made, highly polished and securely dated example is unprecedented for this period of prehistory."

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