Ice Age Cave Reveals Rituals to Say Goodbye to Our Dead 12,000 Years Ago

Broken stones buried 12,000 years ago have been found at Arene Candide, a cave that was used as a graveyard during the last Ice Age.

In the Paleolithic era, Arene Candide was a sort of early necropolis. It is a cave in Liguria, Italy, in which 19 burial pits have been found. Most of the bodies there were buried over a span of 500 years, when early humans used the cave to put their loved ones to rest.

The cave has been a recognized archaeological site since the 1940s, but up until now, the broken pebbles in the burial sites have been overlooked and ignored. A new theory suggests that these might be more than just stones. They might be a glimpse into a prehistoric ritual that reveals how we once carried the memories of those we’d lost.

Arene Candide: An Ice Age Graveyard

The cave itself is hardly a new discovery. For more than a hundred years, archaeologists have been studying the ancient bodies buried inside. Safe from the eroding effects of the outside air, they’ve been almost perfectly preserved, giving us a glimpse into the bodies themselves as well as clothing and jewelry worn by people who died thousands of years ago.

The oldest body found inside belongs to a 15-year-old boy dubbed “ The Young Prince ”, buried 23,500 years ago. After all those years, his cap still rests on his head and his shellfish jewelry still lies by his side.

He is an extreme case. The bulk of the twenty bodies buried there were buried over a 500 year period around 10,000 BC, at the tail end of the last Ice Age. And, like The Young Prince, their bones are still incredibly well-preserved.

Evidence of a 12,000-Year-Old Ritual

For twenty generations, a tribe of early humans brought their dead to Arene Candide. They were hunter-gatherers who used Stone Age tools , but they already had a complex ritual they used to say goodbye to their dead.

Not all of it is understood. We know, though, that the cave must have seemed extremely significant to them. At that time, it would have been a massive, imposing sight that stood next to a 300-foot ( meter) tall sand dune. Clearly, it impressed them; they would carry their loved ones across miles of wild land just to bury them at Arene Candide.

Those who died similar deaths, it seems, were buried together. For example, one burial ground is shared by different people who died hundreds of years apart, but were united by a common cause of death: rickets. The tribe, it seems, remembered how these people died, and they designated a burial plot to a common killer.

Beyond that, though, not much is understood. These people lived thousands of years before the written word and much of how they saw the world is a mystery to us. That’s what makes the broken stones so fascinating. For the first time, an international team of archaeologists has found a familiar ritual that connects us to an incredibly distant past.

The Broken Stones

The broken stones found in Arene Candide are smooth, oblong pebbles taken from the Mediterranean Sea. Each one seems to have been deliberately smashed directly in the center to break them into even halves. And they are all smeared with traces of red ochre, a type of clay that was used in the burial.

This prehistoric tribe would use the pebbles to paint their dead . In some cases, they would cover up the wounds that killed them with ochre, much like we dress up our dead for funerals today. In others, they would just decorate their bodies in a paste of clay.

When it was done, they would smash the stones and leave half with the dead. That was what the archaeologists found: nine long stones, all smashed in half. And in every case, the other half of the stone had been taken out of the cave.

A loved one, it seems, had taken the other half of the stone with them. Likely, they carried it with them everywhere they went: a memento that permanently linked them with the ones they’d lost.

The Earliest Ritual

According to the study’s lead author, Claudine Gravel-Miguel of Arizona State University, this may be the oldest example of such a complex human ritual:

“If our interpretation is correct, we’ve pushed back the earliest evidence of intentional fragmentation of objects in a ritual context by up to 5,000 years.”

She and her co-authors believe that breaking the stones was a symbolic act. Because the stones were used in the burial, they believe, the tribe saw them as taking on a deep connection to the deceased.

Her co-author Julian Riel-Salvatore says that breaking the stones was a way of “discharging them of their symbolic power”, and taking them with them was a way to keep their connection to those they’d lost:

“They might have signified a link to the deceased, in the same way that people today might share pieces of a friendship trinket, or place an object in the grave of a loved one. It’s the same kind of emotional connection.”

Without a doubt, though, they reveal a profound humanity in our distant past. They show that thousands of years before history began, we weren’t so different from today. We were human beings who loved, who grieved, and who clung on to the memories of those we’d lost.

Top Image: Artist’s reconstruction of the Young Prince found in Arene Candide cave, Liguria, Italy. Source: Public Domain

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