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Historic Significance of the World's Oldest Cemetery

Outside of a village called Grotte des Pigeons in eastern Morocco sits The Cave of Taforalt, also known as the Grotte des Pigeons. This cave in the province of Berkane, Aït Iznasen region, is possibly one of the oldest cemeteries in the world. The site, discovered in 1908, contained at least 34 Iberomaurusian skeletons dated to the Later Stone Age, approximately 15,000 calendar years ago. 

Iberomaurusian is a backed bladelet  Lithic industry civilization found near the coasts of Morocco. The Ilberomaurusian seems to have appeared around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, the last ice age, somewhere between 25,000 and 23,000 cal (radiocarbon dating) BP. 

Archaeological evidence has revealed that not only did the Iberomaurusians live in the cave around 23,000 years ago but that the earliest Aterian (Middle Stone Age or Middle Palaeolithic) occupation in this area may date as far back as 85,000 years. Thanks to the cave's dryness, the humans buried there, and artifacts that were preserved in excellent condition. 

Immense Significance

The cave of Taforalt is one of the world's richest sites for detailed information on early Homo sapiens' lives, shedding light on human evolution during the Ice Age outside of Europe. Excavations have been ongoing within the cave since its discovery. Dr. Louise Humphrey, Research in Human Origins at the Museum, who excavated the cave in 2008, stated the cave is "a crucial site in understanding the human history of northwestern Africa." 

Examined DNA of the human bones from Taforalt revealed that the people within shared genetic ancestry with populations from both the Near East and sub-Saharan Afraid, but not from Europe. 

This discovery is immensely significant, as tracing how humans spread across the ancient world encounters many challenges. Populations migrated and brought their culture with them. Other times they exchanged new ideas and technologies with one another without migrating. Because ancient people who lived both on the African continent and part of the Mediterranean region encountered many barriers: the Saraha Desert to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. 

Science knows that present-day North Africans share most of their ancestry with present-day Near Easterners, less so with sub-Saharan Africans. However, science seeks to discover how their connection first happened. Many of the African environments are detrimental to preserving ancient DNA. So far, few ancient genomes have been recovered, and none predated the introduction of agriculture in North Africa. 

The Grotte des Pigeons, however, is a rich resource for archaeologists, providing the distinctive evidence of finely made stone tools from about 22,000 years ago, representing a culture change that could indicate a new population migrating to this region. 

Evidence suggests that around 15,000 years ago, the inhabitants changed their lifestyle by increasingly using the cave to build fires and cook an expanded diet, even though they were still hunter-gatherers rather than farmers. They also began using the back of the cave as a burial site, making this cave the oldest grave in Africa and, possibly, the world. 
Thanks to the DNA of seven individuals buried in the cave, researchers have found two major components to their genetic heritage: two-thirds were related to populations that lived simultaneously in the Near East, and the other third is most similar to the sub-Saharan Africans, specifically West Africans. 

What does that mean? That means the results show a connection between North and Near East Africa that began much earlier than archaeologists and scientists thought. The Sahara was not as impassible as initially assumed. 

Inside the Cave

You cannot wander through the Taforalt caves freely. Like other crucial ancient burial sites, it is considered an active archaeological site still being excavated—and many of the bodies that were discovered have been removed to be studied in carefully controlled environments.

Taforalt has a lot of rock art depicting extinct wild donkeys, equids—a family of horses, and ostriches they may have hunted and found in other areas they inhabited during this period. 

Talfort also continued to give archaeologists and scientists surprising discoveries, such as several new Nassarius shell ornaments—which scientists believe mark the emergence of modern social behavior in Homo. These shells were dated by luminescence and uranium-series techniques approximately 82,000 years ago. 

This finding implies that the early distribution of bead-making in Africa and southwest Asia began at least 40 millennia before a similar cultural manifestation appeared in Europe. 

While cemeteries can be a solemn and heartbreaking place, they are also a fantastic source of information on humanity, our lives, how we lived, and the legacy we leave behind. They are so much more than a place. They are filled with memories, family trees, and in some cases, like Taforalt, discoveries of where we began and evolved. 

We hope you enjoyed learning about the Grotte des Pigeons with us at Legacy Headstones.

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