12,000-Year-Old Discovery Reveals Ancient Burial Rites
When did people first begin to express their feelings with flowers? According to scientists at the Weizmann Institute, in prehistoric times, residents in what today is northern Israel buried their dead on a literal bed of fragrant wild flowers, such as Judean sage, as well as blooming plants of the mint and figwort families. The scientists reached the conclusion by analyzing graves in the Mount Carmel region.
Assuming they had the same positive associations with flowers that we do today, these ancient humans must have sought to ensure for the deceased a pleasant passage from the world of the living, the Institute explained in a press statement.
The discovery is the oldest known use of flowers in grave lining. According to radiocarbon dating performed by Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto at the Weizmann Institute of Science, the graves are 11,700 to 13,700 years old. Boaretto was part of an international team, headed by archaeologist Prof. Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa, who performed excavations in the Raqefet Cave overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
It had been inhabited by the Natufians, prehistoric hunter-gatherers who were widespread in the Near East. The findings were reported recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.
Boaretto and her group at the Weizmann Institute are using advanced equipment – the first of its kind in the entire Middle East – set up recently in the building that previously housed a particle accelerator. The newly-installed technology – the Dangoor-Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometer, or D-REAMS – is used to determine the age of archaeological samples by measuring the concentration of the radioactive carbon, Carbon-14.
In the past, radiocarbon dating required relatively large amounts of material, at least several grams, because it relied on measuring the Carbon-14 indirectly, by observing its decay. In contrast, an accelerator mass spectrometer like D-REAMS, which accelerates atoms to high energies before analysis, directly counts the radiocarbon atoms. As a result, dating can be performed on a sample as small as a few milligrams.