Today, we bury our dead with flowers – but a recently discovered gravesite on Israel's Mount Carmel suggests we've been doing so for at least 12,000 years.
The bygone burial site contains impressions from what appear to be intentionally placed stems and blossoms of plants like mint and sage, which may have been chosen for their scent and appearance. The imprints were found lining a total of four graves, but the largest number of preserved plant impressions were discovered lining a double-burial of an adult male and an adolescent of indeterminate sex.
Impressions of flowering stems lining the double burial, marked by dashed lines | Photo by E. Gernstein, reproduced by Nadel et al.
The pair... 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 society 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.
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 Neanderthaldubbed 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.
Nadel's team also reports evidence of cave floor chiseling, "to accommodate the desired grave location and depth."
"Thus," the researchers conclude in the latest issue of PNAS, "grave preparation was a sophisticated planned process, embedded with social and spiritual meanings reﬂecting a complex preagricultural society undergoing profound changes at the end of the Pleistocene."