still raging about when exactly modern man diverged from its hominid ancestors and where exactly the first humans arose, but
archaeologists have made significant progress at the other end, filling in the
blanks about human settlements.
A significant discovery was made in the Middle East by an international team of
researchers, which included professors from Canada's University of Toronto
and England's University of Cambridge. The discovery was a burial site
that dates back to 16,500 years ago and marks the oldest example of ceremonial
burial, a hallmark of human behavior and culture that persists to this day.
The dig site is dubbed "Uyun al-Hammam" and is located in Northern
Jordan's Al Koura district. For those who don't have a map handy, Jordan
lies at the center of the Middle East, to the west of Iraq, to the north of
Saudia Arabia, to the east of Israel, and to the south of Syria.
It was discovered by University of Toronto professor
Edward (Ted) Banning [profile] and Lisa
Maher [profile], an assistant
professor of anthropology at U of T and research associate at the University of
Cambridge back in 2000. Previously, several gravesites had been found
dating back to the slightly more recent Natufian period, ca. 15,000-12,000
years ago. Those burials showed intriguing findings, including burials of
humans with dogs (presumably pets) and with tortoise shells.
The graves at the new, older site (from the period often referred to as Kebaran
-- ca. 21,000 to 12,000 years ago) reveal the placement of "grave
goods" -- symbolic items -- with the deceased. Among the items found
buried include stone tools, a bone spoon, animal parts, and red ochre (an
The researchers also found a fox skull and leg bone buried with one of the
humans. The bones had red ochre on them. As the rest of the fox was
found in the other grave, it was speculated that the body was moved after
burial and that part of the fox was transplanted to the new site.
Describes Professor Maher [press release], "What we appear to have
found is a case where a fox was killed and buried with its owner. Later, the
grave was reopened for some reason and the human's body was moved. But because
the link between the fox and the human had been significant, the fox was moved
The special attachment to the fox might mean that it was a
pet according to the researchers. Some have suggested that
there were efforts to domesticate foxes, and the researchers believe this could
be one of those attempts.
However, researchers aren't entirely sure if the fox was a pet hunter, or the
hunted. States Professor Banning, "[I]t is also noteworthy that the
graves contain other animal remains, so we can only take the fox-dog analogy so
far. "We should remember that some more recent hunter-gatherers consider
themselves to have social relationships with a wide range of wild animals,
including ones they hunt, and that this sometimes led to prescribed ways to
treat the remains of animals, as well as to represent relationships between
particular humans and particular animals."
A study on the findings was published [abstract] in the online, peer-reviewed
journal PLoS ONE. The dig was partially funded by Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and a National Geographic
Research Exploration Grant.