"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


First “clear evidence” of feasting

Aug. 30, 2010
Courtesy of the University of Connecticut
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists are re­port­ing what they call the ear­li­est clear ev­i­dence of or­gan­ized feast­ing—events that ar­chae­o­lo­gists con­sid­er one of hu­mans’ most uni­ver­sal and im­por­tant so­cial be­hav­iors.

The ev­i­dence, from a roughly 12,000-year-old bur­i­al site, is the first ar­chae­o­log­i­cal verifica­t­ion that feast­ing be­gan be­fore ag­ri­cul­ture, the re­search­ers say.

The ex­ca­va­tion area at Hi­la­zon Tach­tit Cave, Is­rael (im­age cour­tesy Naf­ta­li Hil­ger)

“Sci­en­tists have spec­u­lat­ed that feast­ing be­gan be­fore the Ne­o­lith­ic pe­ri­od, which starts about 11.5 thou­sand years ago,” said Nat­a­lie Mun­ro of the Uni­vers­ity of Con­nect­i­cut, au­thor of a pa­per on the find­ing.

“This is the first sol­id ev­i­dence that sup­ports the idea that com­mu­nal feasts were al­ready oc­cur­ring – per­haps with some fre­quen­cy – at the be­gin­nings of the tran­si­tion to ag­ri­cul­ture,” added Mun­ro, whose pa­per ap­pears in this week’s early on­line is­sue of the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences

At a bur­i­al cave in the Gal­i­lee re­gion of north­ern Is­ra­el, Mun­ro and col­league Leore Gros­man of He­brew Uni­vers­ity in Je­ru­sa­lem said they un­cov­ered re­mains of at least 71 tor­toises and three wild cat­tle in two spe­cif­ic­ally crafted hol­lows. The tor­toise shells and cat­tle bones showed ev­i­dence of be­ing cooked and torn apart, in­di­cat­ing that the an­i­mals had been butchered for eat­ing, they added.

Each of the two hol­lows, said Mun­ro, was made for a rit­u­al hu­man bur­i­al and re­lat­ed feast­ing. The tor­toise shells lay un­der, around and on top of the re­mains of a rit­u­ally-buried sham­an, which sug­gests that the feast oc­curred con­cur­rently with the rit­u­al bur­i­al, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors added.

The meat from the dis­carded tor­toise shells alone could probably have fed about 35 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to Mun­ro, but many more may have at­tended. “We don’t know ex­actly how many peo­ple at­tended this par­tic­u­lar feast, or what the av­er­age at­tend­ance was at si­m­i­lar events, since we don’t know how much meat was ac­tu­ally avail­a­ble in the ca­ve,” said Mun­ro. “The best we can do is give a min­i­mum es­ti­mate based on the bones” pre­s­ent.

A ma­jor rea­son why hu­mans be­gan feast­ing – and lat­er be­gan to cul­ti­vate their own foods – is be­cause faster hu­man popula­t­ion growth had be­gun to crowd their land­scape, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers. In ear­li­er pe­ri­ods of the Stone Age, said Mun­ro, small family groups were of­ten on the move to find new sources of food. But around the time of this feast, she went on, that lifestyle had be­come much harder.

“Peo­ple were com­ing in­to con­tact with each oth­er a lot, and that can cre­ate fric­tion,” she said. “Be­fore, they could get up and leave when they had prob­lems with the neigh­bors. Now, these pub­lic events served as com­mun­ity-building op­por­tun­i­ties, which helped to re­lieve ten­sions and sol­idify so­cial rela­t­ion­ships.”

But when a once-nomadic group set­tles down, that can put huge pres­sure on lo­cal re­sources. Mun­ro notes that hu­mans around the time of this feast were in­ten­sively us­ing the plants and an­i­mals that their de­scen­dants lat­er do­mes­ti­cat­ed. “The ap­pear­ance of these feasts at the be­gin­nings of ag­ri­cul­ture is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing be­cause peo­ple are start­ing to ex­pe­ri­ment with do­mes­tica­t­ion and cul­tiva­t­ion,” she said.

This com­bina­t­ion of in­creased so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and changes in re­sources, added Mun­ro, is what even­tu­ally led to the be­gin­nings of ag­ri­cul­ture. “Taken to­geth­er, this com­mun­ity in­tegra­t­ion and the changes in eco­nom­ics were hap­pen­ing at the very be­gin­ning when in­cip­i­ent cul­tiva­t­ion was get­ting go­ing,” she said. “These kinds of so­cial changes are the be­gin­nings of sig­nif­i­cant changes in hu­man so­cial com­plex­ity that lead in­to the be­gin­ning of the ag­ri­cul­tur­al tran­si­tion.”

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Scientists are reporting what they call the earliest clear evidence of organized feasting—events that archaeologists consider one of humans’ most universal and important social behaviors. The evidence, from a roughly 12,000-year-old burial site, is the first archaeological verification that feasting began before agriculture, the researchers say. “Scientists have speculated that feasting began before the Neolithic period, which starts about 11.5 thousand years ago,” said Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut, author of a paper on the finding. “This is the first solid evidence that supports the idea that communal feasts were already occurring – perhaps with some frequency – at the beginnings of the transition to agriculture,” added Munro, whose paper appears in this week’s early online issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. At a burial cave in the Galilee region of northern Israel, Munro and colleague Leore Grosman of Hebrew University in Jerusalem said they uncovered remains of at least 71 tortoises and three wild cattle in two specifically crafted hollows. The tortoise shells and cattle bones showed evidence of being cooked and torn apart, indicating that the animals had been butchered for eating, they added. Each of the two hollows, said Munro, was made for a ritual human burial and related feasting. The tortoise shells lay under, around and on top of the remains of a ritually-buried shaman, which suggests that the feast occurred concurrently with the ritual burial, the investigators added. The meat from the discarded tortoise shells alone could probably have fed about 35 people, according to Munro, but many more may have attended. “We don’t know exactly how many people attended this particular feast, or what the average attendance was at similar events, since we don’t know how much meat was actually available in the cave,” said Munro. “The best we can do is give a minimum estimate based on the bones” present. A major reason why humans began feasting – and later began to cultivate their own foods – is because faster human population growth had begun to crowd their landscape, according to the researchers. In earlier periods of the Stone Age, said Munro, small family groups were often on the move to find new sources of food. But around the time of this feast, she said, that lifestyle had become much harder. “People were coming into contact with each other a lot, and that can create friction,” she said. “Before, they could get up and leave when they had problems with the neighbors. Now, these public events served as community-building opportunities, which helped to relieve tensions and solidify social relationships.” But when a once-nomadic group of humans settles down, that can put huge pressure on local resources. Munro notes that humans around the time of this feast were intensively using the plants and animals that their descendants later domesticated. “The appearance of these feasts at the beginnings of agriculture is particularly interesting because people are starting to experiment with domestication and cultivation,” she said. This combination of increased social interaction and changes in resources, added Munro, is what eventually led to the beginnings of agriculture. “Taken together, this community integration and the changes in economics were happening at the very beginning when incipient cultivation was getting going,” she said. “These kinds of social changes are the beginnings of significant changes in human social complexity that lead into the beginning of the agricultural transition.”