National Geographic Daily News
Skeletons in a burial.

A double grave revealed the skeletons of an adult male and an adolescent who were buried with flowers some 12,000 years ago.

Photograph courtesy E. Gerstein

Salvia judaica.

Flowers used in the burial were likely chosen for their attractive scent, as well as their appearance. Photograph courtesy Gideon Pisanty, Wikimedia Commons.

Ker Than

for National Geographic

Published July 1, 2013

Imprints of stems and blossoms stamped into the dirt of ancient graves are the oldest definitive proof of flowers decorating graves—a common practice around the world today—a new study says.

Scented flowering plants, such as mint and sage, were imprinted in soft mud after they decomposed some 12,000 years ago in the graves, which are located in a cave on northern Israel's Mount Carmel.

Ancient mourners lined four graves with the flowers, most notably one that holds the bodies of two people. (Also see "Pagan Burial Altar Found in Israel.")

The pair—an adult male and an adolescent of undetermined sex—belonged to the primitive Natufian culture, which flourished between 15,000 and 11,600 years ago in an area that is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

The Natufian society was one of the first—possibly the first—to transition from a roaming hunter-gatherer lifestyle to permanent settlements, and was also the first to establish true graveyards, said study leader Daniel Nadel, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel.

"There are examples of groups living in a camp for a few years, but some of the [Natufian] sites we know about were used for thousands of years," Nadel said.

So what's new?

The new discovery indicates that the Natufians were also among the first to use flowers to honor their dead.

The only potentially older instance of funerary flowers is a dusting of pollen found at the site of an approximately 70,000-year-old grave of a Neanderthal dubbed Shanidar IV in Iraq. However, some scientists have argued that holes found at that site were made by burrowing rodents that stored seeds and flowers in the grave.

"From [the Neanderthal] example until the Natufians"—a period spanning some 50,000 years—"there is not one example [of flowers decorating graves]," said Nadel, whose study appears this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

He noted, however, that this doesn't necessarily mean that people weren't using flowers at graves during that entire time. More likely, the flowers decayed over time.

"Finding such flowers is very difficult," Nadel said. "Asking for such preservation is asking for a lot."

Why is it important?

The evidence suggests the pair's grave was prepared with great care. First, a pit was dug, and then a thin veneer of mud was used to cover the sides. The bottom of the grave was lined with the plants—which bloom in pink and lavender—before the bodies were placed inside. (See interesting pictures of flower patterns.)

The scented flowers were likely chosen as much for their aromas as their appearance.

"There are hundreds of flowers on Mount Carmel during the spring, but only a small group provide very strong fragrances. It's impossible that the Natufians didn't recognize the smell" when they chose them for the graves, Nadel said.

What does this mean?

Based on items found in other graves at the cave cemetery—such as animal bones—Nadel thinks the pair was buried with great pomp and circumstance.

"They didn't just place the bodies inside the graves and leave," he said. "We have to envision a colorful ceremony that maybe included dancing, singing, and eating. They may have hunted a few animals and had a big meal around the graves and then threw bones or meat inside."

If Natufian burial practices were anything like those of modern cultures, the grave flowers were intended not only for the dead, but also for the living, Nadel said.

"We create ceremonies and make a big fuss to show our respect for the dead," Nadel said.

What's next?

Nadel and his team are currently working to identify the age, gender, and relationship of the individuals in the flower-lined graves. (Read about Stone Age people found embracing in a grave in the Sahara.)

For example, in the case of the double burial, "are they relatives?" he said. "Are they parent and child? Are they brothers? Or friends? Did they die together? And how come they were buried together? We don't know."

Daniel Nadel's research was funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.

28 comments
Robert Peterson
Robert Peterson

They were in reality an older man and his young gay lover.  They were murdered by the man's wife so that she could then run off with her lesbian lover.  She killed them and buried them together with flowers so nobody would smell the rotting corpses in the garden.  While we are all making up total crap about these two dead people based on complete lack of evidence lets make up something really interesting. 

Mike Elliott
Mike Elliott

.. maybe a sacrificial killing of a parent and child from a prominent family. 

Michele Keggenhoff
Michele Keggenhoff

This is a report on an intriguing archeological find in a respected scientific journal -- nothing more or less. I'm completely dismayed at how so many comments are focussed on a perceived 'perversion' that isn't implied anywhere in this article. And how quickly comments devolve into bigotry, bias, and political B.S. No wonder so much of the world is in such a sorry state.

Douglas Gray
Douglas Gray

RE: Suzanne Hammond's post about great great grandparents:

There is nothing inherently disgusting or perverted about a 28 year old man marrying a girl going on fourteen, but one wonders, even if the guy was nice and they had a good marriage, how the girl really felt about it, whether she had reservations, but her mother forced her into it.

David Richards
David Richards

To much "imagining" and "its possible" for this to have any real meaning. As someone else posted good chance this is a husband and wife but no one wants to offend sensibilities of the modern era. Many cultures married girls at menarche.

Paul Thomas
Paul Thomas

Let's not romanticize this too much. It's entirely likely that one of them took their own life as a matter of custom to join the other one in death, or was killed or buried alive for the same reason.

Zaidi Ademeit
Zaidi Ademeit

They were buried with much love, and sorrow.

Zaidi Ademeit
Zaidi Ademeit

Whom ever they were, they were buried with much love, and sorrow.

Suzanne Hammond
Suzanne Hammond

I'm surprised "man and wife" hasn't been mentioned. My great-great grandparents, Oregon Trail pioneers, were age 28 (male) and 13.5 (female) at their wedding, which was the first non Hudsons Bay Co. wedding at Fort Vancouver, WA.


Of their 14 children, 13 were successfully raised to adulthood, and there is evidence they loved each other to the last. He was the best available match in her (widowed) mother's eyes. This has only become an unusual age difference very recently in human society. A male had to be "successful" and a female had to be in vibrant health and hopefully with a long life in front of her. What better than a man past his roaming stage and a woman just old enough to bear children? She was not forced into anything, nor was he.

Shawn Bushway
Shawn Bushway

@Douglas Gray Actually there is something inherently disgusting and perverted about a 28-year old man marrying a child. Add to that the fact that we know that many of these young teens felt obligated to marry for financial reasons or forced into it by their own parents. That being said, when a 28 year old anything looks down to a child for support, love and sexual gratification it tells me he/she has issues with control and with partners their own age. That by itself is inherently disgusting.

Jack Rice
Jack Rice

I suggest that before pontificating, you learn how to spell.

Anyway, nobody is afraid of offending "modern sensibilities". If they could identify the sex of the adolescent, then they would. Otherwise, being scientists, they won't speculate, which is the reason you're not a scientist but just someone with an uninformed opinion.

Samuel Dinkels
Samuel Dinkels

@Ibrahim Daas It was called the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisroel) thousands of years before the Romans called it "Palestine". 

Paul Thomas
Paul Thomas

@Ibrahim Daas It WAS Palestine. It's not anymore. It's Israel, and unless you have the means to displace over five million of the most heavily armed and well trained people in the world, I suggest you get over it and stay on topic.

Paul Thomas
Paul Thomas

@Suzanne Hammond Yup, lets go back to the good old days, when perverts could marry girls once they had their first period.

Meredith Heffernan
Meredith Heffernan

@Shawn Bushway @Douglas Gray As the others have stated, our definition of "adult" is very different today. I think a lot of it has to do with education. We are expected to be in school until we are about 17 or 18 years old and therefore we cannot get a job and enter into the "real world" as an adult until after that. In those days, even if the men had education, there just wasn't the technology to provide the time for women to learn. Someone had to gather food and prepare it (that took almost all day), and take care of children. Obviously it'd have to be the women, because they can't very well take nursing babies out on a hunt or anything. But if that's all that she has to do, it would make sense for her to be considered an adult at a younger age. Its very nice to not have to do that now, but that's just the way things worked then.

Chad Leigh
Chad Leigh

@Shawn Bushway @Douglas Gray 

Someone is totally missing the boat here.   In past times, when girls married young, it had nothing to do with "look[ing] down to a child for support, love and sexual gratification."   It had everything to do with mutual economic support, and the fact that people on average did not live as long as they do today and "adulthood" started much earlier.  They needed as many kids as possible to work on the farm and to help the family survive.  Looking at older cultures (including US and European cultures 150+ years ago) through the modern lens only leads you to false conclusions.  It is only in the last 100 years or less that we have created enough food for most people in the Western world and people/society could look to other activities in addition to earning your daily bread.  In older societies, most of your waking life was geared to finding/hunting/growing your next meal.   Especially when you look at societies 10K+ years ago, but even 150 years ago or even less.

Vera C.
Vera C.

@Shawn Bushway @Douglas Gray Girls as young as eight or nine were often married in the USA until the beginning of the 20th century. Nothing disgusting or perverted about it. Furthermore, standing Jewish law deems that girls of 13 and boys of 14 are adults and can marry.

A J
A J

@Shawn Bushway @Douglas Gray The definition of "child" has changed through the ages. Just a few generations ago 14 and 28 would not have been considered unacceptable, almost any place in the world. It was surely normal 12,000 years ago.

Theodore Alford
Theodore Alford

@Paul Thomas @Ibrahim Daas  Well those people better learn to make some friends and really soon because America is not what she used to be. Arms will not keep you safe indefinitely and you know it. " The man who is unable to sheath his sword is a mad man" Sun Tzu Art of War

Jack Rice
Jack Rice

He'll never get over it. Like all so-called Palestinians, without his hatred and resentments he wouldn't exist.

A J
A J

@Paul Thomas @Suzanne Hammond Your use of the word pervert suggest a complete lack of cultural relativism. I'm surprised you bother reading or posting on the website of National Geographic with such a level of ignorance.

Chad Leigh
Chad Leigh

@Paul Thomas @A J @Suzanne Hammond 

Some things are wrong, such as ignorance, regardless of the cultural setting.  150 years ago a 14 year old was not considered a child.  Anywhere.  Your modern viewpoint cannot be used to judge historical facts.

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