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.


The settlement of Europe could be the result of several immigration waves by a single population

The settlement of Europe could be the result of several immigration waves by a single population

The CENIEH conducts the morphological and metric analysis of the lower molars in the mandible from Montmaurin-La Niche (France) using micro-computed tomography, to study the origin of the Neanderthals.
settlement Europe immigration population
Montmaurin-La Niche mandible/M. Martínez de Pinillos

The Dental Anthropology Group of the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), in collaboration with the paleoanthropologist Amélie Vialet of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) in Paris, has just published a detailed external and internal study of the molars in the mandible from the French site of Montmaurin-La Niche in the Journal of Human Evolution, whose results strengthen the hypothesis that the settlement of Europe could have been the result of several waves of migration at different times by a common source population.

The aim in this paper, led by the researchers Marina Martínez de Pinillos (CENIEH) and Laura Martín-Francés (CENIEH and PACEA-University of Bordeaux), is to shed light on the origin of the Neanderthals. The latest data obtained from paleontological and geomorphological studies place the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible in a chronologically intermediate position between the fossils of the Middle Pleistocene and the Neanderthals.

The micro-computed axial tomography (microCT) technique has enabled the molars in this mandible to be compared with the external and internal structures of over 400 other molars from the European, Asian and African Pleistocene and Holocene.

This exhaustive metric and morphological analysis has revealed that, while the mandible is more closely related to African and Eurasian populations from the Early and Middle Pleistocene, the enamel and dentine morphology and pulp cavity proportions are similar to those in Neanderthals. “Nevertheless, the absolute and relative enamel thickness values (2D and 3D) show greater affinity with those exhibited by certain Early Pleistocene hominins”, says Martínez de Pinillos.

Possible hybridization

Over recent decades, finds of human fossil remains from the European Middle Pleistocene have prompted the debate on the evolutionary scenario of the genus Homo on that continent to be reopened. “The great variability we find among the European Middle Pleistocene fossils cannot be ignored in studying human evolution on our continent”, states Martín-Francés.

This variability in European Middle Pleistocene populations could indicate different migrations at different times and/or fragmentation of the population, thought it might also be due to possible hybridization between residents and new settlers.

Montmaurin-La Niche mandible/M. Martínez de Pinillos

Full bibliographic information

Martínez de Pinillos, M., Martín-Francés, L., Bermúdez de Castro, J. M., García-Campos, C., Modesto-Mata, M., Martinón-Torres, M., & Vialet, A. (2020). Inner morphological and metric characterization of the molar remains from the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible: the Neanderthal signal. Journal of Human Evolution, 145, 102739. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2019.102739.
Press release on the settlement of Europe due to immigration waves from a common source population from CENIEH

Pachacamac Idol

The colors of the Pachacamac idol, an Inca god, finally revealed

Pachacamac Idol of ancient Peru was symbolically painted

Chemical analysis of the statue reveals its age and original polychromatic design

Pachacamac Idol
The wooden statue of the Pachacamac Idol. Credit: Sepúlveda et al, 2020. CC-BY

The Pachacamac Idol of ancient Peru was a multicolored and emblematic sacred icon worshipped for almost 700 hundred years before Spanish conquest, according to a study published January 15, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Marcela Sepúlveda of the University of Tarapacá, Chile and colleagues.

The Pachacamac Idol is a symbolically carved wooden statue known from the Pachacamac archaeological complex, the principal coastal Inca sanctuary 31 km south of Lima, Peru during the 15th-16th centuries. The idol was reportedly damaged in 1533 during Spanish conquest of the region, and details of its originality and antiquity have been unclear. Also unexplored has been the question of whether the idol was symbolically colored, a common practice in Old World Antiquity.

In this study, Sepúlveda and colleagues obtained a wood sample from the Pachacamac Idol for chemical analysis. Through carbon-dating, they were able to determine that the wood was cut and likely carved approximately 760-876 AD, during the Middle Horizon, suggesting the statue was worshipped for almost 700 years before Spanish conquest. Their analysis also identified chemical traces of three pigments that would have conferred red, yellow, and white coloration to the idol.

This nondestructive analysis not only confirms that the idol was painted, but also that it was polychromatic, displaying at least three colors and perhaps others not detected in this study. The fact that the red pigment used was cinnabar, a material not found in the local region, demonstrates economic and symbolic implications for the coloration of the statue. The authors point out that coloration is a rarely discussed factor in the symbolic, economic, and experiential importance of religious symbols of the pre-Columbian periods, and that more studies on the subject could illuminate unknown details of cultural practices of the Andean past in South America.

The authors add: "Here, polychromy of the so-called Pachacamac Idol is demonstrated, including the presence of cinnabar."

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Citation: Sepúlveda M, Pozzi-Escot D, Angeles Falcón R, Bermeo N, Lebon M, Moulhérat C, et al. (2020) Unraveling the polychromy and antiquity of the Pachacamac Idol, Pacific coast, Peru. PLoS ONE 15(1): e0226244. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226244

Funding: This work was support by the National Research Agency under the program Future Investments bearing the reference ANR-11-IDEX-0004-02 (programs INCA and ARCIC of Sorbonne Universités)(MS,PW). We thank the financial support from the Ile-de-France region (DIM Analytics, project IMAPAT) for the building of new instruments for a mobile laboratory for art studies (PW), and the NASA PICASSO program for funding the MapX instrument development (PS,PW). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Press release from the Public Library of Science

The colors of the Pachacamac idol, an Inca god, finally revealed

Pachacamac Idol
In the last picture, the red arrows mark the presence of red pigments containing mercury. © Marcela Sepulveda/Rommel Angeles/Museo de sitio Pachacamac

The legend of Pachacamac will not soon die. Since the 16th century, Spanish chroniclers have said that Hernando Pizarro had destroyed the idol of the deity when he conquered the Inca Empire in the Andes. But a carved wooden post representing Pachacamac was discovered on the archaeological site of the same name in 1938, so it was considered that the Spaniards may have been wrong in thinking that the idol had been completely destroyed. Now we have a new mystery! What is the nature of the red colour observed on the object? Is it blood residue, the remnants of sacrificial practices?

Thanks to close collaboration with the museum at the Pachacamac archaeological site in Peru, an international research team* has been able to conduct never-before-seen analysis -- non-invasive and non-destructive analysis -- of the idol's polychromy. They first revealed that red was not the only colour present on the piece of wood: we see white on the teeth of a personage and yellow on some headdresses.

What is even more interesting is that the researchers were able to determine the chemical composition of the pigments and show that red is not blood but mercury, no doubt from cinnabar, a mercury mineral known in that region for over 2000 years. Cinnabar sources in the Andes are 400 km from Pachacamac, at high altitude. So the idol was painted intentionally, no doubt to show economic and political power by carrying a pigment from a faraway region even though others were available on site.

Finally, the Pachacamac idol was carbon-14 dated for the first time. The object was made around 731 AD, probably by the Waris, i.e. about 700 years before the height of the Incan empire. This confirms that the Pachacamac site already had local ritual importance before the Incas arrived. They then made it one of their main pilgrimage centres, to the point that it housed an oracle that advised the emperor himself.

These results are part of a broad study of painted objects and walls at the Pachacamac archaeological site that aims to better understand the materials, practices and knowledge related to colour in the Andes during the pre-Hispanic period.

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*- French participants were from the Laboratoire d'Archéologie Moléculaire et Structurale (Lams - CNRS/Sorbonne Université), the Laboratoire Archéologie des Amériques (Archam - CNRS/Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne), the Laboratoire Histoire Naturelle de l'Homme Préhistorique" (CNRS/Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle/Université de Perpignan - Via Domitia) and the Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac.

Press release from CNRS / FR