What makes us human? Bringing food to a funeral

Mon Aug 30, 2010 6:15pm EDT
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Remains of the earliest known feast in a cave in Israel show that humans have been bringing food to funerals for millennia and suggest that burial feasts may have helped shape modern society, researchers said on Monday.

They found the remains of cooked tortoises and wild cattle called aurochs alongside the grave of a high-status woman, perhaps a shaman, at a site in the Galilee dating back 12,000 years.

The people living there at the time were known as Natufians. They had not quite progressed to farming but had settled down.

"Feasts likely served important roles in the negotiation and solidification of social relationships, the integration of communities, and the mitigation of ... stress," anthropologist Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut and colleagues wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We believe that feasts, especially in funerary contexts, served to integrate communities by providing this sense of community," Munro added in a statement.

Funerals probably date back farther than this but because the Natufians were beginning to settle down, in a dry area, the evidence is clear, the researchers said.

The mourners built a large structure for the funeral and went to a lot of trouble to prepare the feast. "The capture of aurochs and/or 71 tortoises for a specific event represents a monumental undertaking," Munro's team noted.

Earlier hunter-gatherers may not have had the time, resources or motivation to go to such trouble.

<p>A woman excavates the remains of the earliest known feast in a cave in Israel. REUTERS/Natalie Munro, Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut and Leore Grosman, Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University/Handout</p>