Oldest Shaman Grave Found; Includes Foot, Animal Parts

Mati Milstein in Galilee, Israel
for National Geographic News
November 4, 2008

Archaeologists in northern Israel say they have discovered the world's oldest known grave of a shaman. The 12,000-year-old grave holds an elderly female of the mysterious Natufian culture, animal parts, and a human foot.

The immediate area contains several burials, but the shaman's grave is unique in its construction, contents, and arrangement.

"From the standpoint of the status of the grave and its contents, no Natufian burial like this one has ever been found," lead archaeologist Leore Grosman said.

"This indicates the woman had a distinct societal position."

The Hilazon Tachtit site—9 miles (14 kilometers) inland from Israel's Mediterranean coastline—is associated with the Natufian culture, which flourished in the eastern Mediterranean between 11,500 and 15,000 years ago.

Hundreds of Natufian graves have been excavated in Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. But only the one uncovered by Grosman contains a woman believed to have been a shaman.

The term "shaman" originated in Siberia, but these magic-invoking priest-doctors are common in cultures around the globe.

The 1.5-meter-tall (nearly 5-foot-tall), 45-year-old woman was relatively old for her time. After her death, she was placed in a mud-plastered and rock-lined pit in a cave and was buried beneath a large stone slab.

She was not buried with everyday items and tools, as hunters, warriors, or political leaders were. Instead, her grave contained 50 arranged turtle shells and parts of wild pigs, eagles, cows, leopards, martens, and a human foot, among other artifacts.

Shedding Light on Strange Rites

During this period Natufian culture changed from a nomadic, hunting-and-gathering culture to a sedentary, agriculture-based lifestyle, according to Grosman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Grosman received partial funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration for her work on the Natufian site. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

This transition was likely accompanied by an evolution of the culture's social structure as well as new rules, rituals, and belief systems.

Continued on Next Page >>


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