Flowers for Everyone!
Natufian homes constructed of wood and
animal hides, by Fernando G. Baptista.
No one knows exactly who was the first human to hold up a flower and say "Ooooo! Pretty!" but there is no doubt that people have been enjoying flowers for a very long time.
The Natufian culture existed 15,000 to 11,000 years ago in the Middle East, and appears to be the first culture to bury their dead with flowers. If they liked pretty flowers among their dead, we can assume that they probably appreciated the beauty of flowers during their lifetimes as well. They may have decorated their homes with flowers, celebrated important events with flowers, or worn flowers in their hair and on their clothes.
The Natufians are believed to be the first non-nomadic culture. They were still hunters and gatherers (no agriculture yet), but lived a sedentary life and built the first villages, including Jericho, the world's oldest city. These Natufian villages were small by modern standards, probably just a couple hundred of people. But unlike other prehistoric camps that moved to follow animal movements, the Natufians primarily lived in permanent, year-round villages.
How do we know they were mostly permanent? I mean, it's not like the Natufians left behind travel diaries! One clue is by studying the little prehistoric mouse skeletons left behind. Skeletons of both house mice (Mus musculus domesticus) and field mice (M. macedonicus) were found. The two species have differently shaped teeth, and the field mouse has a shorter tail (which makes it more difficult for a predator to catch!), so the archeologists could easily tell the two apart. The theory is that the house mouse would be more common in a more permanent settlement, since they have evolved to be better suited for mooching off us humans, and the field mouse would be more common in a nomadic camp. The abundance of house mice over field mice in Natufian villages tells us that they were mostly permanent homes.
Natufian graves, with a reconstruction
showing the bed of flowers below them.
Photo by E. Gernstein.
But back to the pretty flowers! The Natufians had clearly identified cemeteries, whereas earlier cultures had just buried their dead where ever - if they were buried at all. The Natufian dead were buried with beads, carved bones and stone artwork ... all of which are easy to identify by archeologists working many thousands of years later. But flowers? You know that flowers get mushy and gross two weeks after Valentine's Day, so how does an archeologist identify a 15,000 year old flower?
The flowers themselves were long gone, but archeologists found the impressions of flowers and other plants left in the sediment of Natufian graves - sort of like finding a footprint long after a person has walked by. The arrangement suggests that the graves were lined with flowers, and the deceased were laid down on top of the bed of flowers. Although there were beads, carvings and stone artwork with the burials, none of these left any impressions in the sediment. The beds of flowers and plants under all of the bodies were so thick that these heavy items didn't leave an impression. Not a bad way to spend eternity!
All of the graves had some flowers, but one in particular, a double grave with an adult (possibly around 30 years old) and teenager (around 12 - 15 years old) had over 30 flower impressions. Were they leaders, members of a royal family, or otherwise higher ranking people? Or was it just by chance that they died at the time of year when flowers were especially abundant? No one knows.
Laughter, by Jill Martin
But Wait . . . You thought that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers, 20,000 years before the Natufian Culture had begun? The thing about history is that it doesn't change, but our interpretation of it does. In the 1950s ten Neanderthal bodies were discovered at Shanidar Cave in Iraq and were dated to being 35,000 to 65,000 years old (that's much older than the Natufians). One of the bodies, named Shanidar 4, was found with piles of pollen around him and the theory is that he had been laid to rest with flowers. Much of the pollen was from flowers with medicinal properties, which gave even more credence to the idea that they had been put with the body intentionally.
It's an awesome theory! So if you were a student at any time between the 1950s and the early 2000s your social studies teachers all taught you that Neanderthals did bury their dead with flowers. Period! Unfortunately, they were probably wrong. More recently it has become more accepted that the pollen piles were left there by burrowing rodents, bees or even the wind. The Neanderthals, it seems, did not bury their dead with flowers. What a shame!
Wouldn't it be awesome if you could knit with flowers? Well, you can! The newest color in the Art Walk Series from Zen Yarn Garden is a tribute to "Laughter," Jill Martin's painting of a vibrant collection of wild flowers. Knitting with the red, purple, blue, yellow and green wool and cashmere blend is the perfect way to welcome spring!
Happy Knitting! ... Scout