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A body burned inside a hut 20,000 years ago signaled a changing view of death

Middle Eastern hunter-gatherers changed their relationship with the dead almost 20,000 years ago. The clues to that spiritual change come from the discovery of a fire burial of an ancient woman in a hut at a seasonal campsite.

Burials of people in houses or other structures, as well as cremations, are thought to have originated in Neolithic-period agricultural villages in and around the Middle East no more than 10,000 years ago. But those treatments for the dead appear to have roots in long-standing hunter-gatherer practices, says a team led by archaeologists Lisa Maher of the University of California, Berkeley and Danielle Macdonald of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

The new discovery suggests that people began associating the dead with concrete structures at a time when hunter-gatherer groups were camping part of each year at a hunting and trading site in eastern Jordan. An incipient desire to relate the dead to man-made structures possibly reflected the belief that by doing so, the dead would remain close to the living, scientists report in the March Journal of Anthropological Archeology.

Excavations at the old site, now called Kharaneh IV, in 2016 revealed the partial, charred skeleton of a woman on the floor of a burning hut. Her body had been placed sideways with her knees bent. Analyzes of carbonization patterns in her bones and burned sediments surrounding her remains suggest that the woman’s body was placed inside the hut just before the brush structure was intentionally burned. Sediments rich in charcoal and ash line the site of the hut, a sign that the fire was confined to the structure. The walls of the hut apparently fell inward after catching fire.

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Radiocarbon-dated samples from the ground near the woman's remains date from her burial about 19,200 years ago.

Several Neolithic sites contain examples of dead placed in or under burned houses, as well as cases of bodies that were intentionally burned after death, says archaeologist Peter Akkermans of Leiden University, who did not participate in the new research. "Work on Kharaneh IV now dates these practices to more than 10,000 years earlier, in totally different cultural settings from hunter-gatherer communities versus Neolithic agricultural villages."

Other social developments traditionally attributed to Neolithic farmers, including year-round settlements (SN: 30/08/10) and pottery manufacturing (SN: 28/06/12), first appeared among hunter-gatherers.

In Kharaneh IV remains of at least three other huts were found, including one with tombs under the ground containing two human skeletons (SN: 22/02/12). That approximately 19,400-year-old tent was also burned, possibly when the site’s occupants stopped using it but not as part of a human burial event.

The new discovery in Kharaneh IV “links the death of a person and the destruction or death of a building as part of a funeral rite,” says Maher. Maybe the hut was where the woman or her family lived, or maybe she died there and the structure was considered out of bounds, he suggests. Either way, Kharaneh IV was occupied for several generations after the woman’s death, until about 18,600 years ago, so it may have been considered important to establish a permanent place for her.

The meanings and beliefs that Kharaneh IV residents attributed to the burning of a hut in which the body of a dead woman had been placed are still a mystery, Maher says. He suggests that the use of fire in that event could mean some kind of transformation, rebirth, cleansing, or life-or-death cycle.

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