A Bioarchaeological Approach to Understanding Near Eastern Neolithic Mortuary Practices
Stanford Archaeology Center, Stanford University
The adoption of agriculture and animal husbandry 11,000 years ago altered not only economic activities, but also the social and ritual practices that governed human interactions. These changes are best reflected in mortuary practices. At Neolithic Çatalhöyük, human remains, including tightly flexed complete skeletons, partial skeletons and loose bones, are typically found under house floors. This variation reflects the wide range of mortuary treatments practiced at the site and in the wider Near Eastern Neolithic, yet there is little agreement among scholars as to the social significance of these patterns.
Along with these observations, there is now increasing evidence for a period of delay between death and burial for some individuals. During this interval, some bodies appear to have been desiccated or stripped of their flesh. The manner in which this took place is currently unclear, although hypotheses include defleshing of the corpse with tools, exposure of bodies to vultures, and desiccation.
These hypotheses were explored by bringing together specialists in prehistoric archaeology, human osteology and forensic science. The project transformed our understanding of Near Eastern Neolithic mortuary practices and how such practices reflect the ways in which social relations were structured and maintained within early agricultural societies.