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.


'Ein Qashish Neanderthal

Neanderthals made repeated use of the ancient settlement of 'Ein Qashish, Israel

Neanderthals made repeated use of the ancient settlement of 'Ein Qashish, Israel

This site provides a rare opportunity to study long-term use of an open air settlement

'Ein Qashish Neanderthal
The archaeological site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues. Credit: Ekshtain, 2019, CC-BY

The archaeological site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues.

In the Levant region of the Middle East, the main source of information on Middle Paleolithic human occupation comes from cave sites. Compared to open air settlements, sheltered sites like caves were easily recognized and often visited, and therefore are more likely to record long periods of occupation. The open-air site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel, however, is unusual in having been inhabited over an extended prehistoric time period. This site provides a unique opportunity to explore an open-air locality across a large landscape and over a long period ranging between 71,000 and 54,000 years ago.

In a joint collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority Ekshtain and colleagues identified human skeletal remains in 'Ein Qashish as Neanderthal and observed more than 12,000 artifacts from four different depositional units in the same location on the landscape. These units represent different instances of occupation during changing environmental conditions.

From modification of artifacts and animal bones at the site, the authors infer that the occupants were knapping tools, provisioning resources, and consuming animals on-site.

Whereas many open-air settlements are thought to be short-lived and chosen for specialized tasks, 'Ein Qashish appears to be the site of repeated occupations each of which hosted a range of general activities, indicating a stable and consistent settlement system. The authors suggest that within a complex settlement system, open-air sites may have been more important for prehistoric humans than previously thought.

Ekshtain adds: "Ein Qashish is a 70-60 thousand years open-air site, with a series of stratified human occupations in a dynamic flood plain environment. The site stands out in the extensive excavated area and some unique finds for an open-air context, from which we deduce the diversity of human activities on the landscape. In contrast to other known open-air sites, the locality was not used for task-specific activities but rather served time and again as a habitation location. The stratigraphy, dates and finds from the site allow a reconstruction of a robust settlement system of the late Neanderthals in northern Israel slightly before their disappearance from the regional record, raising questions about the reasons for their disappearance and about their interactions with contemporaneous modern humans."

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What kind of beer did the Pharaohs drink?

Cocktails with Cleopatra?

Israeli scientists resurrect yeast from ancient beer jugs to recreate 5,000-year-old brew

beer antiquity
Beer cruse from Tel Tzafit/Gath archaeological digs, from which Philistine beer was produced. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

What kind of beer did the Pharaohs drink? In ancient times, beer was an important ingredient in people's daily diet. Great powers were attributed to beer in the ancient world, particularly for religious worship and healing properties. The pottery used to produce beer in antiquity served as the basis for this new research. The research was led by Dr. Ronen Hazan and Dr. Michael Klutstein, microbiologists from the School of Dental Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI). They examined the colonies of yeast that formed and settled in the pottery's nano-pores. Ultimately, they were able to resurrect this yeast to create a high-quality beer...that's approximately 5,000 years old.

Many cooks were invited into this'beer kitchen to isolate the yeast specimens from the ancient debris and to create a beer with it. First the scientists reached out to vintners at Kadma Winery. This winery still produces wine in clay vessels, proving that yeast may be safely removed from pottery, even if it had lain dormant in the sun for years.

The yeast was then photographed by Dr. Tziona Ben-Gedalya at Ariel University's Eastern R&D Center. Following her initial examination, the team reached out to archaeologists Dr. Yitzhak Paz from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAI), Professor Aren Maeir at Bar Ilan University and Professors Yuval Gadot and Oded Lipschits from Tel Aviv University. These archaeologists gave them shards of pottery that had been used as beer and mead (honey wine) jugs back in ancient times--and miraculously, still had yeast specimens stuck inside. These jars date back to the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Narmer (roughly 3000 BCE), to Aramean King Hazael (800 BCE) and to Prophet Nehemiah (400 BCE) who, according to the bible, governed Judea under Persian rule.

The researchers, with the help of HUJI student Tzemach Aouizerat, cleaned and sequenced the full genome of each yeast specimen and turned them over to Dr. Amir Szitenberg at the Dead Sea-Arava Science Center for analysis. Szitenberg found that these 5,000-year yeast cultures are similar to those used in traditional African brews, such as the Ethiopian honey wine tej, and to modern beer yeast.

Now it was time to recreate the ancient brew. Local Israeli beer expert Itai Gutman helped the scientists make the beer and the brew was sampled by Ariel University's Dr. Elyashiv Drori, as well as by certified tasters from the International Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), under the direction of brewer and Biratenu owner Shmuel Nakai. The testers gave the beer a thumbs up, deeming it high-quality and safe for consumption.

Dr. Ronen Hazan tests a sample at Hadassah Medical Center-Hebrew University of Jerusalem School. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Dr. Ronen Hazan, Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Dental Medicine: "The greatest wonder here is that the yeast colonies survived within the vessel for thousands of years--just waiting to be excavated and grown. This ancient yeast allowed us to create beer that lets us know what ancient Philistine and Egyptian beer tasted like. By the way, the beer isn't bad. Aside from the gimmick of drinking beer from the time of King Pharaoh, this research is extremely important to the field of experimental archaeology--a field that seeks to reconstruct the past. Our research offers new tools to examine ancient methods, and enables us to taste the flavors of the past."

Dr. Yitzchak Paz, Israel Antiquities Authority: "We are talking about a real breakthrough here. This is the first time we succeeded in producing ancient alcohol from ancient yeast. In other words, from the original substances from which alcohol was produced. This has never been done before."

Prof. Yuval Gadot, Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures: "We dug at Ramat Rachel, the largest Persian site in the Judaean kingdom, and found a large concentration of jugs with the letters J, H, D - Yahud - written on them. In a royal site like Ramat Rachel it makes sense that alcohol would be consumed at the home of the Persian governor."

Prof. Aren Maeir, Bar-Ilan University's Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology: "These findings paint a portrait that supports the biblical image of drunken Philistines."

L'chaim! The Israeli research team samples their ancient brew. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Press release from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem