The Caves of Es-Skhul

In the early 20th century, in a cave near the town of Haifa in modern Israel, one of the earliest examples of a planned human burial was discovered. This may seem an unexciting finding for such a lived-in part of the world if not for the vast gulf of time that separates the burial from the exhumation; a distance of over one hundred and thirty thousand years. What makes this burial all the more intriguing is that they were deliberately buried with “grave goods” — the jawbone of a wild boar.

The deliberate inclusion of this artefact might indicate a number of things, perhaps as the earliest flickering of our sense of our own mortality and an afterlife and the dim awakenings of mystical and religious thinking. Also on this site were discovered remnants of heat-treated ochre production, in other words using a basic form of chemistry to create colours of a desired shade. Such processes are still used in tribal societies as form of early information technology and can be seen as evidence of complex, process based forethought of these remote people. Imbuing of objects with symbolic meaning, such as a jawbone, is something so fundamental to human cognition that we take it for granted. 
 
The inclusion of this artefact in this primordial burial is intriguing on a mythic level. According to western traditions, it was with the jawbone of an ass that Cain slew his brother Abel, committing the first murder. It was with a jawbone that Judaeo-Christian superhero Samson killed a thousand Philistines during a period of inter-tribal warfare. While it is the jawbone of a different beast (an ass and not a boar) the importance of the mandible is to my mind not a coincidence.

Samson beats a philistine to death with the jawbone of an ass (V&A Museum).

What is the symbolic importance of the jawbone in these myths? Some contemporary Christian theologians see the jawbone as some kind of convoluted foreshadowing of Christ, but this is surely a retcon. They also however acknowledge the jawbone symbolises speaking and communication, or “the Word” of God. Could this be the meaning that was important to the people of Es-Skhul? If it was not a weapon, could it have been a totem of religious authority at some point in our deep history, associated with our capacity for or mastery of verbal communication? Perhaps it was imbued with other numinous symbolism now lost to us, recognisable only in its echo in the deepest strata of Abrahamic faiths.

If these myths are the afterglow of these earliest shimmering of the modern mind it is sad — but perhaps unsurprising — then that they are stories of of murder and genocidal inter-tribal warfare.

About 150 kilometres from the caves of Es-Skhul, is another burial ground whose origins are shrouded in mystery. Dating from the Bronze age but perhaps a site of religious practice for considerably longer, it was conquered by a migrant population fleeing slavery in around 1200 BCE in the aftermath of the Bronze Age Collapse. After defeating a people known as the Jebusites who inhabited the land of Canaan at that time, they built the Temple of Solomon on the site around 700 BCE, and the site revered as the place in Jewish myth that Abraham had his fateful meeting with God.

Destroyed once by the Babylonians in around 422 BCE and a second time by the Romans during the Jewish Revolts of 70 CE, the site was then replaced with the Temple of Jupiter under the Emperor Hadrian. After a period of disrepair following the collapse of Rome, it was then converted into the Dome of the Rock after the Arab conquests; the place the Prophet Mohammed was said to have ascended to heaven, and today the third holiest site in Islam. It is the site on which the ultra-orthodox Jews today — somewhat controversially — want to build the “Third Temple”.

The tribal thinking and territorialism that must have consumed the mind of the people of Es-Skhul — whoever they were — has stubbornly stuck around to the present day. And what the jawbone meant to them, either a symbol of warfare, tribal leadership, verbal prowess or all three, we will never know.