Archaeologists at an ancient burial site in Jordan thought one of their team might have sunstroke when he suggested some rough flints he'd found could represent people. But now his discovery could change how scientists think about the Neolithic Near East.
More than 100 of the unusual flint artifacts dating back to about 7500 B.C. have been discovered at Kharaysin, an archaeological site a few miles northeast of Amman in Jordan.
The archaeologists who found them now think the artifacts may be early depictions of real people and may have been used for ancestor worship. They also think the figurines could shed light on why portrayals of humans became widespread in the Near East from about 1,000 years earlier. However, experts contacted by Live Science were not entirely convinced that the lumpy stone artifacts were used in ancestor worship rituals, though they don't think it's out of the question.
After one of the team digging at Kharaysin unearthed several of the flint artifacts, each about 2 inches (5 centimeters) long, he proposed they showed rough human figures — with a projecting head flanked by two notches on each side that could represent the tops of shoulders and hips.
His idea was first met with skeptical smiles, said archaeologist Juan Ibáñez of Barcelona's Milà y Fontanals Institution of the Spanish National Research Council.
"The team reacted … with jokes about how much sun he had received on his head," Ibáñez said.
But as the team found more of the strangely shaped flints, they started to take the idea seriously.
"We acknowledged that they were something consistent and previously unknown," Ibáñez told Live Science in an email.
In a paper published July 6 in the journal Antiquity, Ibáñez and his team describe how they came to see the flints as individual portrayals of specific people, despite their rough appearance.
Research shows the distinctive "violin" shape of the strange artifacts is similar to the shapes of Neolithic Near East sculptures that unmistakably portray people.
The team statistically compared the dimensions of the Kharaysin flints to those of human sculptures unearthed at 'Ain Ghazal, a Neolithic archaeological site a few miles away, and found they had a similar violin shape.
"The more skeptical archaeologists in our team had to accept that, most probably, they were [human] figurines," Ibáñez said.
The Neolithic community at Kharaysin used flint extensively for making stone tools, including cutting blades and scrapers. The two notches the archaeologists have interpreted as shoulders and hips could arguably have been notches used to bind the flints onto a haft. In that scenario, the flints could have been used as a weapon or tool. However, the flint artifacts had no edges that could be used for cutting, and there were no signs of wear, suggesting they were never used as tools.
In addition, the archaeologists found the strange flints mostly in the funerary area of the site where human burials took place, Ibáñez said.
Excavations show many of the tombs were opened after a burial, and some parts were removed — often the heads and the long bones from limbs. People then used the bones in rituals, before depositing them in pits at the cemetery, he said. Offerings such as stone bowls, knives and other tools were also deposited at the same time.
"We think that the figurines were part of this ritual paraphernalia," Ibáñez said. "They were probably made and used during rituals of remembering the deceased."
Although portrayals of animals were common until the early Neolithic period, Ibáñez said, portrayals of people only became widespread after about 8500 B.C. — and the Kharaysin figurines might explain why.
If the figurines were evidence of ancestor worship rituals, a rise in ancestor worship throughout the region might explain the increasing frequency of human portrayals, he said.
Paleolithic hunter-gatherers created some earlier human portrayals — the so-called "Venus" figurines, for example, from up to 40,000 years ago — but they were fertility symbols that did not represent real people, he said. "Our Neolithic figurines are related to a cult of the deceased."
The relationship between living people and their ancestors would have been important in the first farming communities of the Neolithic period, where social groups were rooted in specific territories, he said.
Some other archaeologists who were not involved in the Kharaysin research, however, are cautious.
Karina Croucher of the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, who has studied Neolithic burials elsewhere in Jordan, said she accepted the flint artifacts were meant to be human figurines. But she said the funerary practices might represent an attempt to "keep the dead close," rather than being a form of ancestor worship.
Alan Simmons of the University of Nevada, who led the excavations of many of the Neolithic sculptures at 'Ain Ghazal, said the interpretation of the flints as human figurines was "not unreasonable."
However, "the suggestion that these 'figurines' may have been used to remember deceased individuals is open to other interpretations," Simmons told Live Science.
"Perhaps, these were tokens, gaming pieces or even 'fetishes' as seen in North American Zuni contexts," he said. But "there is no doubt that this discovery adds more depth to the complexity of Neolithic life."
Originally published on Live Science.
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Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.