Scientists have located the oldest known human grave site, located in the Middle East.  (Source: PLoS One/University of Toronto)

Multiple human remains were found at the site, dating back 16,500 years ago.  (Source: PLoS One/University of Toronto)

Some of the graves also contained tools, likely used in hunting or starting fires.  (Source: PLoS One/University of Toronto)

A fox was also buried with one of the humans. Researchers speculate it might have been a pet, killed and buried when its master died.  (Source: PLoS One/University of Toronto)
Discovery marks the oldest discovered cemetery yet

Debate is 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 iron mineral).

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 as well."

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.

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