Qafzeh Cave, Israel: Evidence for Middle Paleolithic Burials

3D Reconstruction, Cranial Trauma of Qazfeh 11 Juvenile
Coqueugniot et al. 2014

Qafzeh Cave is an important multicomponent rock shelter with early modern human remains dated to the Middle Paleolithic period. It is located in the Yizrael valley of the Lower Galilee region of Israel, on the slope of Har Qedumim at an elevation of 250 meters (820 feet) above sea level. In addition to the important Middle Paleolithic occupations, Qafzeh has later Upper Paleolithic and Holocene occupations.

The oldest levels are dated to the Mousterian Middle Paleolithic period, about 80,000-100,000 years ago (thermoluminescence dates of 92,000 +/- 5,000; electron spin resonance dates 82,400-109,000 +/- 10,000). In addition to human remains, the site is characterized by a series of hearths; and stone tools from the Middle Paleolithic levels are dominated by artifacts made using the radial or centripetal Levallois technique. Qafzeh cave contains some of the earliest evidence for burials in the world. 

Animal and Human Remains

Animals represented in the Mousterian levels are woodland-adapted red deer, fallow deer, and aurochs, as well as microvertebrates. The Upper Paleolithic levels include land snails and freshwater bivalves as food sources.

Human remains from Qafzeh cave include bones and bone fragments from a minimum of 27 individuals, including eight partial skeletons. Qafzeh 9 and 10 are almost completely intact. Most of the human remains appear to have been purposefully buried: if so, these are very early examples of modern behavior indeed, with the burials direct-dated to ~92,000 years ago (BP). The remains are from anatomically modern humans, with some archaic features; they are directly associated with Levallois-Mousterian assemblage.

Cranial Trauma

Modern behaviors indicated at the cave include the purposeful burials; the use of ochre for body painting; the presence of marine shells, used as ornamentation and, most interestingly, the survival and eventual ritual interment of a severely brain-damaged child. The image on this page is of this individual's healed head trauma.

According to Coqueugniot and colleagues' analysis, Qafzeh 11, a juvenile aged between 12-13, suffered a traumatic brain injury about eight years before his or her death. The injury would likely have impacted Qafzeh 11's cognitive and social skills, and it appears as if the juvenile was given a deliberate, ceremonial burial with deer antlers as grave goods. The burial and the survival of the child reflect an elaborate social behavior for the Middle Paleolithic inhabitants of Qafzeh cave.

Marine Shells at Qafzeh Cave

Unlike the deer antler for Qafzeh 11, the marine shells do not seem to be associated with burials, but rather are scattered more or less randomly throughout the deposit. Species identified include ten Glycymeris insubrica or G. nummaria.

Some of the shells are stained with red, yellow, and black pigments of ochre and manganese. Each shell was perforated, with the perforations either natural and enlarged by percussion or completely created by percussion. At the time of the Mousterian occupation of the cave, the sea coast was about 45-50 kilometers (28-30 miles) away; ochre deposits are known to be located between 6-8 km (3.7-5 mi) from the cave entrance. No other marine resources were found within the cave site's Middle Paleolithic deposits.

Qafzeh cave was first excavated by R. Neuville and M. Stekelis in the 1930s, and again between 1965 and 1979 Ofer Bar-Yosef and Bernard Vandermeersch.


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Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "Qafzeh Cave, Israel: Evidence for Middle Paleolithic Burials." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Qafzeh Cave, Israel: Evidence for Middle Paleolithic Burials. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Qafzeh Cave, Israel: Evidence for Middle Paleolithic Burials." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).