Knives used to dismember the dead found in a Neolithic cave in Israel

Knives used to dismember the dead found in a Neolithic cave in Israel

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A new study by the CSIC reveals that the utensils were intentionally deposited in the Nahal Hemar cavity, present-day Israel, and were part of the ritual practices of dismemberment of bodies during the Preceramic Neolithic B, around 8,000 BC.

CavityNahal hemar, present-day Israel, was excavated in 1983 and, today, is a unique and one of the most enigmatic Neolithic site ofMiddle east. Inside, the cranial remains of 23 individuals were found, as well as a large number of exceptional objects, such as masks, necklaces, human figurines, sculptures and, thanks to the extreme aridity of the environment, well-preserved remains of tissues and wooden objects.

The presence of these unique artifacts led excavators to interpret the cave as a cavity for ritual use. More than 600 stone tools were also recovered at the site, including the largest concentration of Nahal Hemar knives (characterized by having two notches at the base) from the Middle East, although at the time it was not possible to determine the function for which they served.

Now, a CSIC team has participated in a new analysis of the collection. The work carried out by researchers from theMilà and Fontanals Institution for Research in Humanities of the CSIC, published in the magazineQuaternary International, has studied knives and other stone tools from the cave, the marks of which point to their use in the process of dismemberment of human bodies.

“We set out to carry out an updated study of the stone tools found in the cave, combining a techno-typological approach with the most advanced techniques for the study of traces of use, which would allow us to discover how they were produced and what function these tools had. ", ExplainFerran borrell, researcher at the Instituto Milà i Fontanals for Research in Humanities of the CSIC (IMF-CSIC).

Funerary practices in the Neolithic

More than 200 whole flint sheets have been recovered in the cave, almost half of them transformed into Nahal Hemar-type knives. The microscopic analysis of the edges of these blades and knives has allowed determining that a good part of them were used for dismemberment, including cutting meat and contact with bones and cartilage.

Juan José Ibáñez, from the IMF-CSIC and co-author of the study, points out that “taking into account the very special context in which the studied tools appear and the presence of the remains of 23 individuals and a large amount of ritual paraphernalia, we can interpret that the knives are related to human remains and that could be used for dismemberment activities ”.

In the Near East, during the Preceramic Neolithic B (Middle and Recent Neolithic, about 10,000 years ago), ritual practices were varied. In some areas and sites, the deceased were usually buried inside the houses, while in other regions the extraction, handling and relocation of skeletal remains was common.

It is known for example thepraxis to extract the skull and then cover it withmortar of lime reproducing human features (nose, ears, eyes and mouth). These practices ofhandlingdislocation Yfleshing they often left cut marks on the bones themselves, being increasingly identified in anthropological studies. However, never before had it been considered with what tools (necessarily knives) these tasks would have been carried out.

"It is the first time that it is considered with what tools such activities could be carried out and, as regards Nahal Hemar, it allows us to affirm that the tools found were not offerings or trousseau but objects that participated in the rituals carried out", indicates Ferran Borrell.

The unknowns that remain in Nahal Hemar

"Such a deposit provides a lot of information, while leaving many questions to be answered," he explains.Juan José Ibáñez. "What these rituals consisted of, who participated and what meaning they had are questions that remain to be resolved, although perhaps some of them will be answered when all of the objects that were recovered are re-studied", the archaeologist lists.

The CSIC team has also been able to determine who produced the lithic tools, since there was a doubt as to whether it was groups of hunter-gatherers to the south of Nahal Hemar or the farming communities that inhabited the north. "Based on technology, we consider that the materials had to be produced by agricultural villages and that, therefore, the cave was used by these communities," he addsFerran borrell.

The study sheds light on the richness and variety of burial practices and the ritual use of caves in the early days of agriculture in the Near East, always elusive aspects in archeology.


Ferran Borrell, Juan José Ibáñez and Ofer Bar-Yosef. “Cult paraphernalia or everyday items? Assessing the status and use of the flint artefacts from Nahal Hemar Cave (Middle PPNB, Judean Desert) ”.Quarternary International. DOI: 10.1016 / j.quaint.2020.05.007.


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