Stone Age people were cremating their dead in fire pits about 9000 years ago, in what is now Israel. The development of cremation may have been linked to a shift in their religious beliefs, away from worship of ancestors.
For tens of thousands of years, people tended to bury their dead, says Fanny Bocquentin at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. There is also evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead about 70,000 years ago. Cremation, in which the body is intentionally burned, is a relatively recent invention.
Bocquentin and her colleagues have excavated a Stone Age village called Beisamoun in Israel. It was occupied between at least 7200 and 6400 BC.
During the dig, they discovered a U-shaped pit, 80 centimetres across and 60 centimetres deep. The sides of the pit had been plastered with wet mud, similar to that used elsewhere in the village to make mud bricks. In the middle of the pit, the team found a large quantity of ash, which contained 355 fragments of charred human bone.
The bones all seem to belong to one individual: a young adult, whose sex couldn’t be determined. The remains have been dated to between 7030 and 6700 BC.
It isn’t clear how the person died. There was a projectile point embedded in the left shoulder blade, indicating the person had been injured, but this had healed. “It was a clean wound, no infection,” says Bocquentin.
The ash was the remains of wood that had been stacked into a pyre and burned. It isn’t clear if the body was on top of the pyre, inside it or under it.
Previous burial practices were occasionally elaborate. In some instances, people would bury a body, then they would return, dig it up and remove the skull – which they reburied in a new pit with other skulls. Sometimes they plastered the skull with lime plaster or mud, creating a new face. “It’s long funeral practices in several steps,” says Bocquentin. “You are taking care of the dead for a long period of time.” In the Stone Age village of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, bodies were buried under the floors of houses. This all indicates a reverence for ancestors and a desire to be close to them, says Bocquentin.
Cremation is much faster, says Bocquentin. “You don’t wait even for the decay process.”
This could reflect a shift in religious beliefs, suggests Bocquentin. “I would say the status of the dead and the relation between dead and living is totally different,” she says. “We might think that there are new beliefs, maybe that the dead are not as important as they were, and maybe a new kind of god appearing.”
The Beisamoun cremation is the oldest in south-west Asia, but not the oldest in the world. For instance, archaeologists have found the cremated remains of a child from 11,500 years ago in Alaska. It isn’t clear how many times cremation was independently invented, says Bocquentin.