They were among the first Stone Age humans to abandon the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of living in settled villages around 15,000 years ago. Now University of Haifa archaeologists have discovered the Natufian culture that lived in the Levant in modern-day Israel may also have pioneered the concept of church bells to summon the community together.
Researchers have discovered strangely shaped boulders they believe were used as ceremonial ‘gongs’ that were pounded during burial ceremonies. The giant stones were thought to have been used as mortars to pound food but scientists have found the action would also have produced a distinctive sound audible for miles around.
They argue the boulders, which are around three feet high and weigh more than 200 pounds, would have served as a way of increasing cohesion and identity within the community. They say pounding on the boulders would have informed members of adjacent communities that an important ceremony was taking place – much like modern church bells.
Dr Danny Rosenberg, an archaeologist from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, who was one of the team involved in the study, said: “The size and weight of the boulders shows that they were not intended to be mobile. The fact that some of them were buried suggests that they were supposed to remain in place as part of the ‘furniture’ of the burial site, or in the burial context itself. This point emphasizes that they were not created for everyday eating purposes, but formed an integral part of the ceremonies and occurrences in the areas in which the Natufians buried their dead.”
The Natufian culture is thought to be one of the first groups of people to live in fixed settlements before the introduction of agriculture. Several sites dated between 15,000 and 11,000 years old have been found in Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. They are credited with being one of the first cultures to have begun domesticating plants. They lived in buildings with stone foundations and are known to have held elaborate funeral ceremonies for their dead with large meals and decorating graves with flowers.
At many Natufian sites large mortar stones, all made from large pieces of limestone or basalt, have also been discovered and were initially thought to have been primarily involved in the preparation of food.
Dr Rosenberg, who conducted the work with his colleague Professor Dani Nadel at the University of Haifa, said: “These are the largest stone artifacts that were hewn during this period in the Middle East, and indeed they are much larger than most of the stone objects that were hewn here in much later periods. These boulders have been found at Natufian sites in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel, so that they clearly had a regional significance.”
‘We were intrigued by the common features shown by these unusual tools, such as the raw material from which they were made, their dimensions, the hewing techniques involved, and their usage. Above all, though, we were fascinated by the settings in which the boulders were found and their association to burial ceremonies.”
According to the researchers pounding on the boulders would have been heard from great distances away and could have played a central role in burial ceremonies. They claim it suggests the Natufian culture may even have been connected together through a single system of ceremonies and beliefs.
The researchers added: ‘The members of the Natufian culture lived during a period of change, and their communal burial and commemorative ceremonies played an important role in enhancing the sense of affiliation and cohesion among the members of the community.’