The First Feast?

30 August 2010 3:00 pm

Naftali Hilger

Death and dinner. Archaeologists claim that a great feast, including the consumption of 71 tortoises (inset), accompanied the burial of a woman at Israel's Hilazon Tachtit cave.

PARIS—If you live in the United States, there's a good chance that on 25 November you'll celebrate Thanksgiving by getting together with your family and feasting on a big turkey. Indeed, holidays around the world are typically an excuse for a big group meal. Archaeologists working at a prehistoric site in Israel now claim to have found the earliest signs of a communal feast, apparently to commemorate the death of an elder 12,000 years ago. Although other researchers agree that this is the best early evidence for collective dining, one expert questions whether it was a true feast.

Archaeologists consider feasting to be more than just sitting down to eat a lot of food. Feasts are imbued with symbolic significance, such as when we celebrate someone's birthday or a religious holiday. There are tantalizing hints of feasting among Paleolithic hunter-gatherers perhaps as early as 20,000 years ago, but the practice became common only during the Neolithic (early farming) period beginning about 10,000 years ago. At Neolithic sites such as Çatalhöyük in Turkey, for example, archaeologists have found evidence that wild cattle bones were deposited in the foundations of mud-brick houses; the bones may be the remains of neighborhood feasts to celebrate the building of new dwellings.

For the past several years, a team led by archaeologists Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and Leore Grosman of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem have been excavating at Hilazon Tachtit, a cave west of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Hilazon Tachtit was occupied by the Natufians, hunter-gatherers who began to build permanent dwellings during the transition between the prefarming Paleolithic and the agricultural Neolithic periods. Two years ago, the team reported finding the burial of a woman, estimated to be 45 years old when she died (a ripe old age in those times), whose spine and pelvis were deformed. Her skeleton was surrounded by animal remains, leading the researchers to conclude that she was a shaman—an interpretation that received a mixed reaction from archaeologists.

Munro and Grosman now think that the burial of the woman—whom they still believe was a shaman—was commemorated with a great prehistoric banquet. At a just-concluded archaeology meeting in Paris, and in a paper published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they draw upon further studies at the site to argue that the animal remains—which include the shells of 71 tortoises and the bones of at least three wild cattle—were consumed during a feast to commemorate the death and burial of the woman.

The evidence that these remains represent a real feast and not just ritual placement of animal parts into the burial is considerable, the authors contend. The wild cattle bones come from all parts of the skeleton (including the head, the neck, all limbs, and the feet), and the bones show clear signs of cut marks, indicating that the animals were butchered. The tortoise shells were broken in such a way to make the meat easily accessible, and some of them showed signs of burning, suggesting that they were roasted. Moreover, underscoring the woman's apparent special status, her head was placed on top of one tortoise shell, and the other shells were arrayed above, below, and around her body. The researchers estimate that the total yield of cattle and tortoise meat, at least 17 kilograms, could have fed 35 or more people.

Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, says that the new evidence is "very convincing" and represents the "best documented case" of early feasting to date. Hayden, who has argued that feasting was key to the social transition between hunter-gatherer and farming societies, suggests that the revelers at Tachtit Hilazon might have been part of a secret shamanistic society.

Ian Kuijt, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, agrees that the team has carried out "excellent research." But he argues that Munro and Grosman have not fully proved that this was an actual feast rather than the remains of a communal meal without much symbolic significance. "Do all communal meals serve as feasts? No," Kuijt says, adding that the size and scale of the event are not reliable indicators of feasting. He says that a large neighborhood barbecue might not commemorate anything in particular, whereas a small Thanksgiving dinner might have great symbolic meaning.