20,000-Year-Old Woman Burned In Fiery Death Ritual

20,000-Year-Old Woman Burned In Fiery Death Ritual

The burnt remains of a woman discovered in an ancient Jordanian hunters’ camp have been dated to almost 20,000 years ago. And having been partially incinerated an obscure death ritual, this discovery demonstrates beliefs towards death shifted much earlier than currently believed.

20,000-Year-Old Woman Burned In Fiery Death Ritual

A New Kind Of Death Ritual And Much Earlier Than We Thought

Until now, in the  Middle East , the burial of people and  cremated remains  within living structures is thought to have originated no earlier than about 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic period.

However, the discovery of the woman’s charred remains, in a  seasonal campsite  hut, informed scientists that Middle Eastern  hunter-gatherers had adopted new views on death nearly 20,000 years ago.

The woman’s remains were discovered in 2016 at Kharaneh IV, one of the largest  Epipalaeolithic sites in western Asia, located in the eastern  Jordanian steppe . The woman’s burned body was discovered inside a 20,000-years-old hut. This discovery indicates an early connection between the dead and human-built structures: perhaps as a way to symbolically bring the dead and living closer together.

The remains of the woman burned in the death ritual cremation about 20,000 years ago in the Jordanian steppes. ( Epipalaeolithic Foragers in Azraq Project (EFAP) )

Death Rituals That Brought The Dead And The Living Together

The team of archaeologists was led by Lisa Maher of the University of California, Berkeley, and Danielle Macdonald of the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In their new paper, published in the  Journal of Anthropological Archaeology the researchers concluded that their research into the burnt woman suggests treatments of the dead “appear to have had roots in long-standing practices of hunter-gatherers when they camped for part of each year at a hunting and trading sites across eastern Jordan.”

After being lit on fire the woman’s body was set on its side with her knees bent. She was then carefully placed inside the hut just before the brushwood structure was set ablaze and its walls eventually collapsed inward.

According to  Science News  these new findings suggest people started to associate the dead with particular structures much earlier than commonly believed. And what this practice reflects, according to the new paper, “is a belief that by doing so the dead would remain close to the living.”

Two Early Epipalaeolithic structures at Kharaneh IV, showing close-ups of features associated with the structures, including (A) a cache of burned gazelle and aurochsen horn cores at the edge of Structure 2; (B) a large stone associated with three caches of red ochre and pierced marine shells; and (C) articulated Bos primigenius lumbar vertebrae and ground stone fragments in the hut foundations. ( PLOS)

A Fiery Death Ritual That Included Planned Permanence

The remains of at least three other huts have been found at Kharaneh IV, but this particular one was dated to 19,400 years ago. Furthermore, it is the only structure that, according to the researchers, “links the death of a person and the destruction or death of a building as part of a funerary rite.”

The new findings suggest that maybe the hut was where the woman lived, possibly with her family. However, because it seems that a carefully executed burial ritual occurred it is perhaps the case that the hut was specifically built for her death ritual.

Either way, the new paper suggests that the community in which the woman lived had gone to extreme efforts to establishing a permanent place for her remains. This meant that the early hunter-gatherers had connected death with the specific location of the hut. Kharaneh IV was occupied up to 18,600 years ago, several generations after her death, so the location was chosen for planned permanence.

The hunter-gatherer society that cremated the woman in a death ritual were known for hunting gazelles like these and processing them as well. (מינוזיג – MinoZig /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Revealing The Ancient Origins Cremation Death Rituals

Since 2015 several well preserved skeletal animal remains from  gazelles have provided evidence of intensive animal hunting and processing at this ancient seasonal hunting location.

It might never be known what meaning and significance the hinters of Kharaneh IV gave to the ritual of the burning woman in the hut. The beliefs associated with that specific moment in time will no doubt remain a tightly locked mystery.

Gazelle horns found at the Kharaneh IV site in 2015. ( kharaneh.com)

Speaking with Science News, archaeologist Peter Akkermans of  Leiden University , who did not participate in the new study, said, “this evidence of the use of fire might have signified some type of transformation, rebirth, cleansing or life-and-death cycle.”

It is known that from the earliest times ancient people regarded fire as the catalytic element that brought one from this world to other worlds.

And what is perhaps most inspiring is to learn that almost 20,000 years ago folk saw off their loved ones, much like today, with cremation rituals.

Top image: The Kharaneh IV dig site in Jordan where the death ritual cremation was recently discovered. Source: Epipalaeolithic Foragers in Azraq Project (EFAP)