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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.

The artifacts found in the woman's grave shed light on some of the specifics of Natufian rituals from this period, said Grosman, whose study was published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For example, the turtles appear to have been eaten as part of the burial ceremony. Their shells were then placed around the deceased woman. Pig bones were cracked open and their marrow was removed before the bones were placed beneath the woman's hand. The grave was closed with the slab perhaps to prevent damage caused by animals.

"Like Finding Napolean's Grave"

Harvard University anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef said the shaman grave is a rare find. For every 50 Natufian hunter-gatherers, only one would have been a shaman, he said.

"Finding a shaman's burial is like finding Napolean's grave," said Bar-Yosef, who was not involved in the study but who served with a group of fellow scientists who reviewed the report for inclusion in the journal.

"I've spent many years digging other Natufian sites, and I've found a bunch of graves, but I've never found anything like this."

The shaman's grave and its contents "finally give another view into a society that didn't leave behind a written record. … It's almost equivalent to a textual record."

Grosman's findings can assist researchers investigating shamanistic societies in other parts of the world, Bar-Yosef said. Though burial rituals differ from culture to culture, the graves of shamanic or religious leaders generally stand out from those of the general public, he added.
 

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