Posted on 20 August 2016
The intriguing and exceptionally well-preserved organic coating present on 10,000 year-old Neolithic skulls (see image) from the Nahal Hemar cave was shown to be a complex mixture of collagen and a fragrant resin.
The way humans treat their dead reflects cultural, cognitive and technological innovations. Excavated in the 1980s, an intriguing set of skulls from Nahal Hemar cave in Israel had been covered 10,000 years ago with a thin layer of a brown-black substance, and subsequently adorned with a similar material applied in a net pattern (Fig. 1). Studies in the 1990s suggested that this could represent an early use of collagen ‘glue’ as a binder, remarkable when the earliest previous evidence of this in the area was much later, during the 3rd millennium BC in Egypt.
A new suite of analyses (involving protein analysis using liquid chromatography with soft-ionisation mass spectrometry and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) were able to identify within the skull coatings and associated basketry material the unique combination of a fragrant styrax resin with animal collagen to form this decorative ‘glue’. The complexity and originality of these coatings, in particular the addition of an odoriferous resin only on the skulls, is the earliest known evidence of the use of these animal and plant products in the Near East.
The research, "Identification of the earliest collagen- and plant-based coatings from Neolithic artefacts (Nahal Hemar cave, Israel)" was published on August 9th in Scientific Reports (http://www.nature.com/articles/srep31053). The amino acid analyses at York were funded with the support of the Leverhulme Trust. This collaborative study was led by Caroline Solazzo from the Smithsonian Institution and Mike Buckley at the University of Manchester, and included researchers from the University of Strasbourg, University of York, Weizmann Institute of Science and Harvard University.
Image: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Neolithic human skull from Nahal Hemar, with a net pattern decoration from which the chemical analyses were undertaken.
Fig. 1: Neolithic human skull from Nahal Hemar, with a net pattern decoration from which the chemical analyses were undertaken. Photo: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority