8 of the Oldest Known Human Graves in the World

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The oldest known graves represent not only the cultures they left behind but our progression as a people. These sites, sometimes collected into cemeteries and other times scattered with mysterious significance in the caves and mountains of the old world, at times provide our only window into the spiritual habits of our ancestors.

Here are the 8 oldest known graves in the world.

8. Mount of Olives

Age: 3,000 years
Country: Israel
Graves: 70,000+

Mount of Olivesphoto source: Pixabay

In Israel, the Mount of Olives is the holiest cemetery and contains some of the region’s oldest graves. More than 70,000 identified graves populate the slopes of the mount, including famous historical figures such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi Yehuda Hehasid, and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

The cemetery has two sections, one new and one old, divided by the highway to Jericho. Under Jordan’s rule, many of the graves were removed, excavated, or defiled for then-current military purposes. However, the cemetery remains a holy site, near the old Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.

DID YOU KNOW?

The gravesite at the Mount of Olives is so holy that Jewish pilgrims used to carry its dirt with them to scatter on the graves of their loved ones buried around the world. They believed that those buried at the Mount of Olives would be the first to rise on the Day of the Resurrection of the Dead and that those buried in soil mixed from the holy ground would be included.


7. Odigram

Age: 3,000 years
Country: Pakistan
Graves: 32

Odigramphoto source: David Vennela

Now, we’re traveling to Pakistan, another seat of ancient culture where a cemetery in Odigram waited 3,000 years to be discovered. The gorgeous Swat Valley contains these 32 sealed graves, belonging to the Dardic peoples, Indo-Aryan settlers whose descendants still flourish in Pakistan today.

Archeologists discovered that the graves had been dug out and reburied many times, suggesting that they had belonged to families for many generations. Most of the graves contain two skeletons, one male and one female, buried facing each other.

Posts, spindles, bronze, and some of the oldest pieces of iron in the Middle East can also be found in this new treasure trove of history.

DID YOU KNOW?

Odigram is a famous site in European history as well, as scholars have long debated whether Alexander the Great fought one of his famous conquests here. According to Arrian, there was indeed a garrison in Odigram.


6. Kerameikos

Age: 5,000 years
Country: Greece
Graves: Unknown

Kerameikosphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

This ancient Athenian burial ground from 3,000 BCE, even being actively used later by the Romans, is not a well-trafficked tourist attraction. But it’s no less breathtaking for it.

The Kerameikos region used to be divided by Athens’ city walls, with the population in the inner walls and the cemetery in the outer. Many festivals and important rites surrounded the Kerameikos grounds, which houses countless graves. The site was first excavated in 1870. Since then, we have found the ruins of many funeral offerings, buildings, and thousands of tombs.

DID YOU KNOW?

Kerameikos gets its name from the Greek word “keramos,” which means pottery. This is because the area was well-populated with craftsmen, who supplied many of the artifacts now associated with the Panathenaic Festival, the region’s most important celebration. To honor the goddess Athena, a big deal for a place called Athens, they sacrificed 100 cows to thank their goddess-protector.


5. Gross Fredenwalde

Age: 8,500 years
Country: Germany
Graves: 9+

Gross Fredenwaldephoto source: Realm of History

At 8,500 years old, this cemetery near the town of Gross Fredenwalde in Germany dates back to a time when humanity was still a species of hunter-gatherers. This period, called the Mesolithic, is not unknown to us. However, finding multiple graves together in what we would now call a “graveyard” is unheard of from this time!

Included in the group of nine skeletons is one infant, which is incredibly rare. This one is the oldest in Germany and one of the oldest in the world. It’s perfectly preserved at 6 months old, still with its tiny arms intact.

Even stranger, a man buried nearby nearly a millennium later was buried standing up. He still had his rudimentary work tools with him. Due to the similarities of this burial with others from Russian cultures at the time, researchers are now reaffirming theories of ancient cultural migration based on these graves.

DID YOU KNOW?

The reason multi-body cemeteries from the Mesolithic are rare is that humans were nomads in this time, not remaining in one place for very long. Back then, bodies were often buried next to the encampments, not in a designated place. The Gross Fredenwalde cemetery is high on a hill, in tough, rocky soil that wouldn’t have been convenient to dig. The people chose this place for a reason. We may never know what it was.


4. Tanana River House

Age: 11,500 years
Country: America (Alaska)
Graves: 1

Tanana River Housephoto source: CBC

While not technically a grave in the traditional sense, the remains of a house near the Tanana River in Alaska yielded a fascinating discovery: the nearly 12,000-year-old ashes of a young child.

The cremated skeleton was found in a fire pit where the house once stood. The reason this counts as a grave and not merely an accident is the significance of the situation. The house and fire were buried and abandoned after the child was cremated in the center of the ancient home. This reveals to researchers that the child was a significant member of this society and an important loss to the community.

This child is now the oldest human remains ever found in Subarctic or Arctic North America.

DID YOU KNOW?

The Paleoindians living in this region at the last part of the last Ice Age left almost no structures behind. Instead, they lived in temporary, nomadic camps with outdoor hearths and other scattered work sites. The house that we are calling a grave for this mysteriously important child is also the very first house ever found from this period, in this region.


3. Raqefet Cave

Age: 11,700-13,700 years
Country: Israel
Graves: 20+

Raqefet Cavephoto source: Wikimedia Commons

At least 450 skeletons have been excavated from Natufian burial sites, dating back more than 11,000 years. These have been found in Israel in many caves and terraces, including Hayonim Cave, Hilazon Tachtit Cave, and this site at Raqefet Cave on Mt. Carmel.

These graves are complexly decorated with flowers, implying a spring burial. The caves had been chiseled to make room for the graves, implying not only sophistication but spiritual meaningfulness. At the end of the Pleistocene era, these people in Israel were reflective of the advancements in preagricultural society that were driving humanity’s spirit forward.

We were leaving the realm of the “inevitable” and journeying to a sense of the meaningful.

DID YOU KNOW?

The graves in Raqefet Cave are not only some of the oldest in the world, but those floral linings represent the oldest burial flowers ever uncovered.


2. Panga ya Saidi Site

Age: 78,000 years
Country: Kenya
Graves: 1

Panga ya Saidi Sitephoto source: Smithsonian

This cave in Kenya, Africa dates to the Stone Age and was only excavated in 2013. The grave contained a child whose remains were so old that even normal archeological precautions reduced some fragments to dust when they were attempted to be handled.

To recover Mtoto, the child named after the Swahili word for “child,” the team dug around the entire burial site and encased it in plaster to hold it together. It has now been transported to museums and research centers for further study.

This three-year-old child’s resting place is now among the oldest known graves in the world, and certainly one of the rarest in terms of preservation.

DID YOU KNOW?

A unique aspect of the Panga ya Saidi Site is that the body was laid in a purposely funereal position, which is rare for the Stone Age. Researchers suggest that humanity’s changing attitudes towards death began to include concessions for unique circumstances, such as the death of a child or a death by accident. While most deaths would have been seen by these nomadic people as natural and even unavoidable, the death of such a young child seemed to have more significance to them.


1. The Levant Caves

Age: 55,000-120,000 years
Country: The Levant
Graves: Unknown

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The oldest known graves in the world are in Levant Caves. The Mediterranean Levant is not a country but an approximate historical area ranging from Northeast Africa into the Middle East where Syria and Israel reside now. Various burial sites have been excavated in caves in these regions, all dating to the Middle Paleolithic, some as old as 120,000 years ago.

These sites in Skhul, Tabun, Amud, Qafzeh, and Kebara represent the oldest known graves. The bodies are buried flexed, surrounded by parts of animals, and limited to only a few bodies per site. Excavation in the Levant continues to this day, where new ancient remains can be found in these Mediterranean caves, tucked away from the world.

DID YOU KNOW?

The bodies in these caves and terraces were buried intermittently. Therefore, these graves are not “cemeteries,” where families or regions use a site for burials over a long period. They were simply graves, in the oldest sense, used for significant burials but out of necessity rather than tradition.


The Takeaway

The oldest graves in the world hide secrets we have only begun to discover. Improvements in archaeological methods have made it possible to continue finding and preserving ancient burial sites for posterity. The 8 oldest graves listed here are not only valuable historical treasures – they are, hopefully, only the beginning of our understanding of where we came from.


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