Imprints of stems and blossoms stamped into the dirt of ancient graves are the oldest definitive proof of flowers decorating graves—a common practice around the world today—a new study says.
Scented flowering plants, such as mint and sage, were imprinted in soft mud after they decomposed some 12,000 years ago in the graves, which are located in a cave on Mount Carmel, Israel.
Ancient mourners lined four graves with the flowers, most notably one that holds the bodies of two people.
The pair—an adult male and an adolescent of undetermined sex—belonged to the primitive Natufian culture, which flourished between 15,000 and 11,600 years ago in an area that is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
The Natufian culture was one of the first—possibly the first—to transition from a roaming hunter-gatherer lifestyle to permanent settlements, and was also the first to establish true graveyards, said study leader Daniel Nadel , an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel.
“There are examples of groups living in a camp for a few years, but some of the Natufian sites we know about were used for thousands of years,” Nadel said.
The new discovery indicates that the Natufians were also among the first to use flowers to honor their dead.
The only potentially older instance of funerary flowers is a dusting of pollen found at the site of an approximately 70,000-year-old grave of a Neanderthal dubbed Shanidar IV in Iraq. However, some scientists have argued that holes found at that site were made by burrowing rodents that stored seeds and flowers in the grave.
“From the Neanderthal example until the Natufians”—a period spanning some 50,000 years—”there is not one example of flowers decorating graves,” said Nadel, whose study appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
He noted, however, that this doesn’t necessarily mean that people weren’t using flowers at graves during that entire time. More likely, the flowers decayed over time.
“Finding such flowers is very difficult,” Nadel said. “Asking for such preservation is asking for a lot.”
The evidence suggests the pair’s grave was prepared with great care. First, a pit was dug, and then a thin veneer of mud was used to cover the sides. The bottom of the grave was lined with the plants—which bloom in pink and lavender—before the bodies were placed inside.
The scented flowers were likely chosen as much for their aromas as their appearance.
“There are hundreds of flowers on Mount Carmel during the spring, but only a small group provide very strong fragrances. It’s impossible that the Natufians didn’t recognize the smell” when they chose them for the graves, Nadel said.
Based on items found in other graves at the cave cemetery—such as animal bones—Nadel thinks the pair was buried with great pomp and circumstance.
“They didn’t just place the bodies inside the graves and leave,” he said. “We have to envision a colorful ceremony that maybe included dancing, singing, and eating. They may have hunted a few animals and had a big meal around the graves and then threw bones or meat inside.”
If Natufian burial practices were anything like those of modern cultures, the grave flowers were intended not only for the dead, but also for the living, Nadel said.
“We create ceremonies and make a big fuss to show our respect for the dead,” Nadel said.
Nadel and his team are currently working to identify the age, gender, and relationship of the individuals in the flower-lined graves. (Read about Stone Age people found embracing in a grave in the Sahara.)
For example, in the case of the double burial, “are they relatives?” he said. “Are they parent and child? Are they brothers? Or friends? Did they die together? And how come they were buried together? We don’t know.”
Daniel Nadel’s research was funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.