A new study published in the journal PLOS One presents the excavation of a site where the earliest-known human cremation took place, revealing that ancient people in the Near East had begun burning their dead around 7000 BC. The dig exposed the remains of a young adult whose bones had damage consistent with the purposeful burning of a body.
Led by Fanny Bocquentin of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and colleagues, excavations took place at the Neolithic site of Beisamoun in Northern Israel. Their efforts uncovered an ancient cremation pit that appeared to contain the remains of a complete corpse that had been intentionally burnt as a funerary practice. Though sections of the skeleton had shifted, the researchers note that the body had remained mostly in order, indicating it went in as a whole and not in pieces.
Investigation of the bones revealed it was a young adult from around 7013-6700 BC, making it the oldest example of cremation known to science in the Near East. Contained within an open-top pit with insulated walls, the bones showed signs of distortion, shrinkage, splitting, and longitudinal cracking, which indicates they were heated to around 500°C (932°F).
The researchers are assured the event was the cremation of a fresh corpse and not the remains of an accidental fire due to an analysis of the plant remains in the pit. You might think that after burning something to such a great temperature there would be little evidence left to work with, but the researchers employed a multidisciplinary approach integrating practices in archaeothanatology, spatial analysis, the study of human and non-human remains, and even soil analysis to build a timeline of the stages and techniques involved in the funerary ritual. Quite a feat for a pit of bone and ash.
This cremation took place during a significant time period for funerary practices in the Near East as traditional practices such as removing the head of the dead or burying people within a settlement were falling away. The switch toward new approaches to the disposal of bodies likely signifies a shift in the significance of the deceased within society. Bocquentin and her team now want to find further evidence of such early cremations to try and better understand their early practices and what it says about the transition of early humans' attitudes towards their dead.