An Early Epipalaeolithic Sitting Burial from the Azraq Oasis, Jordan

Article excerpt

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Introduction

The rarity of human remains from late Upper Palaeolithic and Early Epipalaeolithic contexts in south-west Asia has, to date, prevented a fuller examination and discussion of human burial practices during the Final Pleistocene in the region. This is in marked contrast to the evidence from the Late Epipalaeolithic (Natufian), which has enabled the reconstruction of social organisation, status, identity, pathology and demography (e.g. Wright 1978; Belfer-Cohen 1988, 1995; Byrd & Monahan 1995; Boyd 2001; Peterson 2002; Eshed et al. 2004b; Stock et al. 2005; Bocquentin 2007). Grosman et al. (2008), for example, have recently reported the remains of an individual buried with multiple tortoise carapaces and other animal parts from Hilazon Tachtit, which the authors interpreted as the burial of a shaman. This rich record of human burials in the Natufian has been widely seen as an indicator of the emergent social and cultural complexity of Natufian gatherer-hunters (e.g. Bar-Yosef & Meadow 1995; Valla 1995; Bar-Yosef 1998; Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 2000). Natufian burial practices have therefore been variously described as means to establish strong inter-group identities and territories to alleviate various ecological risks and create strong social ties (Belfer-Cohen 1995; Grosman 2003). The comparatively large number of Late Epipalaeolithic burials from the Levant has also enabled more detailed discussions of diet, demography, health and biological diversity (e.g. Hassan 1981 ; Belfer-Cohen et al. 1991; Peterson 2002; Eshed et al. 2004a & b, 2006; Bocquentin 2007). While these studies vary in material and focus, they collectively illustrate a long continuity in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene population history of the Levant, while emphasising regional and temporal cultural, biological and behavioural variation.

By comparison, Late Upper Palaeolithic, as well as Early and Middle Epipalaeolithic burials are much rarer (Nadel 1994, 1995) with only about 17 burials excavated to date across the region (some of which include more than one individual). Only recently has the Middle Epipalaeolithic skeletal record been greatly expanded, as a result of the discovery of 13 individuals at the Geometric Kebaran site of 'Uyyun al-Hamam in the northern Jordan Valley (Maher 2005, 2007a & b). A variety of arguments have been put forward why Late Upper Palaeolithic, Early and Middle Epipalaeolithic burials appear to be rarer than Late Epipalaeolithic (Natufian) human remains, including low population density, poor preservation, a lack of research, the nature of Late Pleistocene burial practices or a combination of these factors (Nadel 1994, 1995).

In this paper we present evidence from the Early Epipalaeolithic site of 'Ayn Qasiyya, situated in eastern Transjordan, where excavations in 2007 recovered an articulated human burial found in a highly unusual burial position. Here we provide a report of the burial, discuss its taphonomy and offer an interpretation of its original burial position. These provide some new insights into our understanding of the Late Pleistocene burial record in south-west Asia.

Background

The Early Epipalaeolithic site of 'Ayn Qasiyya is located in the Azraq Oasis, a formerly lush wet- and marshland setting within the Irano-Tuhranian steppe and Saharo-Arabian desert of south-west Asia, situated c. 100km east of the Jordanian capital Amman. The region has a rich local sequence of prehistoric settlement, in which sites dating to the Early, Middle and Late Epipalaeolithic are well represented (Garrard et al. 1988, 1994; Muheisen 1988a & b; Byrd & Garrard 1989; Betts 1991, 1998; Garrard 1991, 1998; Garrard & Byrd 1992; Rollefson et al. 1997, 1999, 2001; Maher et al. 2007).

Site

The site is located immediately north of the 'Ayn Qasiyya pool, which was formerly a small pond associated with a copious spring (Figure 1). …