Ancient people in the Near East had begun the practice of intentionally cremating their dead by as far back as 7,000 BC, new research suggests.
The remains of a corpse that appears to have been intentionally incinerated have been uncovered in an ancient cremation pit during excavations at the Neolithic site of Beisamoun in Northern Israel.
These remains were directly dated to between 7013-6700 BC, making them the oldest known example of cremation in the Near East, researchers say.
The excavation revealed most of one skeleton of a young adult, with the bones showing evidence of having been heated to temperatures of more than 500C shortly after death.
According to the study published in the PLOS ONE journal, they were sitting inside a pit that appears to have been constructed with an open top and strong insulating walls.
Microscopic plant remains found inside the pyre-pit are likely to be left over from the fuel for the fire.
The authors say this evidence suggests this was an intentional cremation of a fresh corpse, as opposed to the burning of dry remains or a tragic fire accident.
Fanny Bocquentin of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said: “The funerary treatment involved in situ cremation within a pyre-pit of a young adult individual who previously survived from a flint projectile injury – the inventory of bones and their relative position strongly supports the deposit of an articulated corpse and not dislocated bones.
“This is a redefinition of the place of the dead in the village and in society.”
Researchers indicate the early cremation came at a period of transition in funerary practices in this region of the world.
Practices such as the removal of the cranium of the dead and the burial of the dead within the settlement, were on the way out, while practices like cremation were new.
This change in funeral procedure might also signify a transition in rituals surrounding death and the significance of the deceased within society.