Burial Site Sheds Light on ‘Outstanding’ Neolithic Person

Reconstructed virtual E-W-cut through the burial Loc. C10:408, facing south. (Benz et al., 2018)

(CN) – The bones have degraded so much researchers are not quite sure if they belonged to a man or a woman, but they can tell from the rare mother-of-pearl band left at the person’s side and the careful way the body was positioned in the northwest corner of the chamber that the community considered this individual of grave importance.

Research published in the open-access scientific journal PLOS One Wednesday describes an intricate pre-pottery Neolithic grave offering insight into ancient pathways to power and the prestige of the human buried within.

The unnamed human remains were discovered in 2016, buried 50 cm deep at the Ba’ja settlement in southern Jordan. Few other graves in the pre-pottery site were as decorated as this one, which was covered with three red and white Ordovician sandstone slabs and adorned with tools: a stone vessel, a lint dagger, a bone spatula and a pestle.

“Covering the dead with such a tight sealing has generally been considered an effort to contain ‘the power of extraordinary individuals,’” the researchers explained in their paper. “Despite general similarities to other sites, the elaborate sealing of graves is unique at Ba‘ja so far.”

Since these items were made from materials not found close to Ba’ja, researchers consider them as exotic and possibly an indication of a “a person who achieved individual prestige by access to trade networks.”

The body’s bone collagen had degraded too much to provide a reliable DNA analysis, but it was carbon dated between 7071 and 6684 BCE, an age in which early farming communities were setting down roots and formal hierarchies began to grow.

Researchers determined the person was likely male, based on a large jawbone and teeth, which were likely worn down by a ground cereal diet, chipped by hard nuts, and cleaned often enough with a bone or stick to leave behind groove marks.

All the items of power and authority buried by the person’s side were destroyed, apparently on purpose. The igneous rock macehead “was smashed in situ by a single high-energy blow,” and his flint dagger split in half.

“With the burial of that person, his power should be terminated too,” researchers postulated. “Prestige or status symbols were deliberately destroyed and not transferred to a successor.”

Maceheads would come to signify status in later civilizations, but there is little evidence that this symbolism was recognized by pre-pottery Neolithic humans, as well.

While the elaborate burial indicates that the individual was considered important by those who buried him, there is a lack of other artifacts that might spell out a specific leadership or authoritative role, so researchers have decided to refer to individual simply as “an outstanding person.”

“According to socio-anthropological research, two types of leaders thus seem to be at opposite ends of the scale: leaders who gain power by informal modes of acclamation and others who conjure fear and apply coercion,” the researchers said, observing that their individual did not clearly fall into either category. 

The former type of leader, the primus inter pares-type leader, may be associated with medicine or art and has no need for symbols of power, whereas the later authoritative aggrandizer leader typically required symbols of power and an accumulation of goods.

“Empirical data for the character of the outstanding person tend to speak in favor of a possibly local, corporate prototypical leader, who was clearly displayed after death as a member of the local community following the structure of common collective burials,” the researchers concluded.

The Free University of Berlin and the Department of Antiquities of Jordan worked with archaeologists, anthropologists and neuroscientists from around the world to piece together this 9,000-year old puzzle. More questions remain than answers, but the elaborate grave has succeeded in giving this ancient outstanding person a second life in the spotlight.

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