Jewish families around the world will gather at sundown next Wednesday to share foods both appalling (gefilte fish) and sublime (my Aunt Rita's pot roast) as they celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Muslims will gather at the same moment for the last iftar, marking the end of the penultimate day of Ramadan. Next week will also bear witness to an untold number of birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and funerals, along with innumerable other communal gatherings, every one of them centered on a major meal.
It makes you wonder especially if your family feasts tend to end in fistfights and broken dishware how this nearly universal means of marking important events got started. It's not quite in the same league as the most crucial milestones of human evolution, such as walking upright, making tools or developing language. But it's at the very least a medium-size mystery: Who were the first feasters? And why?
Natalie Munro may have the answer. In a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Connecticut anthropologist reports on excavations at Hilazon Tachtit, a cave in Israel that served as a burial site for a Neolithic people called the Natufians about 12,000 years ago. Along with human remains, she and her co-authors found evidence of butchered tortoises and cattle in far greater numbers than you'd expect from casual snacking or even a good meal.
That alone doesn't prove that the Natufians were first. Indeed, says Munro, "there's no question that people ate communally long before this. If hunters killed a large animal, for example, they would have shared it to keep it from going to waste."
The Hilazon Tachtit site was different, however: the cattle remains alone, from a wild species known as aurochs, suggest enough food for 35 people or so. Moreover, aurochs remains are relatively rare in Natufian excavations; the bones here probably came from three animals, suggesting special effort to lug them to the cave. And because some of the leftovers were deliberately placed into graves along with the departed, it's clear that the eating and the burials were intimately related. "It was more formalized and larger in scale" than more ancient communal meals, says Munro.
The historical era in which the funeral banquet took place is a further clue. The feast dates back to about the same moment in human development when we stopped wandering around as hunter-gatherers. "Humans were settling down, intensively using grasses and legumes and ultimately starting to cultivate them," Munro explains. It was, in short, the beginning of both agriculture and civilization and a new kind of social order was required. With people now living together in large numbers, they had to find ways to limit friction. "Before," says Munro, "you could just move away. Now you needed a mechanism for community integration, figuring out ways to get along."
Communal feasts would have been a way to do that: they would have signaled the importance of major events and created a shared experience. But they would also have required a set of rules some sort of Stone Age etiquette to keep them moving along smoothly.
The evidence is admittedly still circumstantial; Munro hasn't shown definitively that feasting hadn't been going on for tens of thousands of years by the time the Natufians had their funeral party. But given the timing, it's at least a reasonable conclusion that some of next week's ritual meals including, quite plausibly, the ancestor of the pot roast had their start 120 centuries or so ago in what would someday be the modern Middle East.