Cremation in the Middle East dates as far back as 7,000 B.C.

The gender of the human remains found inside a cremation pyre pit in Beisamoun, Israel remains unknown. What is known is that the individual was a young adult injured by a flint projectile several months prior to their death in spring some 9,000 years ago. Preserved due to it being buried, the pit represents the oldest proof of direct (1) cremation in the Middle East.

cremation Middle East Beisamoun
Flint point thrust inside a burnt shoulder blade
© mission Beisamoun

An international team lead by CNRS archaeo-anthropologist Fanny Bocquentin (2)with aid from PhD candidate Marie Anton and several experts in animal, plant, and mineral remains, discovered and studied the bones found inside the pyre. An analysis of the clay used to coat the inside of the pit showed the 355 bone fragments, some of which were burnt, were exposed to temperatures reaching 700°C. The position of the bones and the preserved joints seem to indicate the body was placed seated onto the pyre and was not moved during or after cremation.

Excavations of the pyre pit.
© mission Beisamoun

Whether used as fuel, as ornamentation, or as a scent, siliceous traces indicated the presence of flowering plants, which made it possible to identify the season the person died. In addition to the exceptional pyre pit, the cremated remains of five other adults were discovered at the site. They dated back to the same period as burials whose traces were discovered among the ruins of abandoned dwellings.

cremation Middle East Beisamoun Israel
Archaeological site at Beisamoun, Israel. © mission Beisamoun

The use of cremation indicates an evolution of the relationship to death in the region. The veneration of ancestors and lengthy funerary practices seem to have given way to shorter rituals. This could be evidence of a transition phase because, some two to three centuries later, the dead were no longer buried inside or near villages and their traces are much more difficult to find.

The study is based on joint archaeological digs completed between 2007-2016 by the CNRS, the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A section of the Beisamoun site (Israel) where the pyre pit is visible.
© mission Beisamoun
Bibliography

Emergence of corpse cremation during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Southern Levant: A multidisciplinary study of a pyre-pit burial, Fanny Bocquentin, Marie Anton, Francesco Berna, Arlene Rosen, Hamoudi Khalaily, Harris Greenberg, Thomas C. Hart, Omri Lernau, Liora Kolska Horwitz. PLOS ONE, 12 August 2020. DOI : 10.1371/journal.pone.0235386

Notes

(1) The body was cremated directly, as opposed to other practices where dried exhumed bones were burnt.

(2) Member of the Prehistoric ethnology team at the Archéologies et sciences de l'Antiquité laboratory (CNRS/Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne/Université Paris Nanterre/French Ministry of Culture). This study also involved a PhD candidate from the Eco-anthropologie laboratory (CNRS/Museum national d’Histoire naturelle) with support from the Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem (CNRS/French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs/Aix-Marseille Université).

Press release from CNRS on the cremation pyre pit in Beisamoun, Israel, Middle East.


3D reconstructions of boats from the ancient port of Rome

Today, Fiumicino in Italy is a busy airport, but 2,000 years ago this area was filled with boats – it was a large artificial harbour only a stone’s throw from the ancient port of Rome (Ostia). To tie in with the opening of the site’s newly refurbished museum, Giulia Boetto, a CNRS researcher at the Camille Jullian Centre (CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université), has coordinated 3D reconstructions of three of the wooden boats found at Fiumicino.

3D boats Rome
3D reconstructions of the three boat types found in Fiumicino: fishing boat (left), small sailboat (centre) and a harbour lighter (right). © D. Peloso, Ipso Facto scoop. Marseille/P. Poveda, Centre Camille Jullian, CNRS, Aix Marseille Université

These boats, in use between the 2nd and early 5th centuries AD, were abandoned in the port when they became outdated. At which time, they became waterlogged and covered with a layer of sediment. These oxygen-free conditions enabled the boats to survive until they were excavated, almost 60 years ago. Recovered and initially housed in the museum, which required major structural work, these wooden remains were documented using state-of-the-art digital survey techniques, then analysed and reconstructed in 3D, thanks to Boetto's expertise in naval archaeology.

The researcher also called on Marseille-based start-up Ipso Facto to create 3D models of the remains and on her colleague Pierre Poveda, a CNRS research engineer in the same laboratory, to restore the missing parts using archaeological comparisons and iconographic representations. By the end of the year, these 3D reconstructions will be housed at the new Roman Ship Museum in the Archaeological Park of Ancient Ostia.

This exhibition will enable visitors to discover ancient boat construction techniques and what life was like on board these Roman vessels. It will also allow them to virtually navigate in what was the most important Mediterranean port complex during the Roman Empire.

A video of the fishing boat's 3D reconstruction is available here.

Press release from CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange)


Neanderthal extinction

Declining fertility rates may explain Neanderthal extinction, suggests new model

Declining fertility rates may explain Neanderthal extinction, suggests new model

Population modelling shows population could have dwindled to extinction due to demographics, not catastrophe

Neanderthal extinction
Spatial distribution and location of the 3 Neanderthal subpopulations.
Southern Europe (labeled A in green), Northern Europe (labelled B in yellow), and Eastern Europe (labeled C in purple) according to [61]. The full demographic model we used to simulate Neanderthal population dynamics was composed of three sub-models corresponding to each of the identified sub-populations. We included a migration parameter (noted ψ) to allow for individuals to move from a sub-population to another. Copyright: © 2019 Degioanni et al.
A new hypothesis for Neanderthal extinction supported by population modelling is put forward in a new study by Anna Degioanni from Aix Marseille Université, France and colleagues, published May 29, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The lack of empirical data allowing testing of hypotheses is one of the biggest challenges for researchers studying Neanderthal extinction. Many hypotheses involve catastrophic events such as disease or climate change. In order to test alternative hypothetical extinction scenarios, Degioanni and colleagues created a Neanderthal population model allowing them to explore demographic factors which might have resulted in declining populations and population extinction over a period of 4,000-10,000 years (a time frame compatible with known Neanderthal history). The researchers created baseline demographic parameters for their Neanderthal extinction model (e.g. survival, migration, and fertility rates) based on observational data on modern hunter-gatherer groups and extant large apes, as well as available Neanderthal paleo-genetic and empirical data from earlier studies. The authors defined populations as extinct when they fell below 5,000 individuals.

The authors saw that in their model, extinction would have been possible within 10,000 years with a decrease in fertility rates of young (<20 year-old) Neanderthal women of just 2.7 percent; if the fertility rate decreased by 8 percent, extinction occurred within 4,000 years. If this decrease in fertility was amplified by a reduction in survival of infants (children less than one year old), a decrease in survival of just 0.4 percent could have led to extinction in 10,000 years.

The authors intended to explore possible Neanderthal extinction scenarios rather than to posit any definitive explanation. However, the researchers note that this study is the first to use empirical data to suggest that relatively minor demographic changes, such as a reduction in fertility or an increase in infant mortality, might have led to Neanderthal extinction. The authors note that modelling can be a useful tool in studying Neanderthals.

The authors add: "This study of the disappearance of the Neanderthals published today in PLOS ONE does not attempt to explain "why" the Neanderthals disappeared, but to identify "how" their demise may have taken place. This original approach is made on the basis of demographic modeling. The results suggest that a very small reduction in fertility may account for the disappearance of the Neanderthal population. According to this research, this decrease did not concern all female Neanderthals, but only the youngest (less than 20 years old)."

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