Some 12,000 years ago in a small sunlit cave in northern Israel, mourners finished the last of the roasted tortoise meat and gathered up dozens of the blackened shells. Kneeling down beside an open grave in the cave floor, they paid their last respects to the elderly dead woman curled within, preparing her for a spiritual journey.
They tucked tortoise shells under her head and hips and arranged dozens of the shells on top and around her. Then they left her many rare and magical things—the wing of a golden eagle, the pelvis of a leopard, and the severed foot of a human being.
Now called Hilazon Tachtit, the small cave chosen as this woman's resting place is the subject of an intense investigation led by Leore Grosman, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.
Already her research has revealed that the mystery woman—a member of the Natufian culture, which flourished between 15,000 and 11,600 years ago in what is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and possibly Syria—was the world's earliest known shaman. Considered a skilled sorcerer and healer, she was likely seen as a conduit to the spirit world, communicating with supernatural powers on behalf of her community, Grosman said.
A study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Grosman and Natalie Munro, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Connecticut, reveals that the shaman's burial feast was just one chapter in the intense ritual life of the Natufians, the first known people on Earth to give up nomadic living and settle in villages.
In the years that followed the burial, many people repeatedly climbed the steep, 492-foot-high (150-meter-high) escarpment to the cave, carrying up other members of the community for burial as well as hauling large amounts of food. Next to the graves, the living dined lavishly on the meat of aurochs, the wild ancestors of cattle, during feasts conducted perhaps to memorialize the dead.
New evidence from Hilazon Tachtit, in northern Israel's Galilee region, suggests that mortuary feasting began at least 12,000 years ago, near the end of the Paleolithic era. These events set the stage for later and much more elaborate ceremonies to commemorate the dead among Neolithic farming communities.
In Britain, for example, Neolithic farmers slaughtered succulent young pigs 5,100 years ago at the site of Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, for an annual midwinter feast. As part of the celebrations, participants are thought to have cast the ashes of compatriots who had died during the previous year into the nearby River Avon.
The Natufian findings give us our first clear look at the shadowy beginnings of such feasts, said Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist at Harvard University.
"The Natufians," Bar-Yosef said, "were like the founding fathers, and in this sense Hilazon Tachtit gives us some of the other roots of Neolithic society."
Study co-author Grosman agrees. "The Natufians," she said, "had one leg in the Paleolithic and one leg in the Neolithic."
Prehistoric Feast Focused on Disabled Shaman
Perched high above the Hilazon River in western Galilee, Hilazon Tachtit cave was long known only to local goatherds and their families. But in the early 1990s Harvard's Bar-Yosef spotted several Natufian flint artifacts scattered along the arid, shrubby slope below the cave and climbed up to investigate.
Impressed by the site's potential, the Harvard University archaeologist recruited Hebrew University's Grosman to take charge of the dig, and she and a small team began excavations there in 1995.
First Grosman and her team had to peel back an upper layer of goat dung, ash, and pottery sherds that had accumulated over the past 1,700 years. Below this layer they found five ancient pits filled with bones, distinctive Natufian stone tools, and pieces of charcoal that dated the pits to between 12,400 and 12,000 years ago.
At the bottom of one pit lay the 45-year-old shaman—quite elderly for Natufian times—buried with at least 70 tortoise shells [NM2] and parts of several rare animals.
Analyses showed that this woman had suffered from a deformed pelvis. She would have had a strikingly asymmetrical appearance and likely limped, dragging her foot.
Grosman examined historical accounts of shamans worldwide and found that in many cultures shamans often possessed physical handicaps or had suffered from some form of trauma.
According to Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, "It's not uncommon that people with disabilities, either mental or physical, are thought to have unusual supernatural powers."
Natufians Opened Graves for Display?
After burying their spiritual leader 12,000 years ago at Hilazon Tachtit, Natufians returned to the cave for other funerary rituals, eventually interring the bodies of at
least 27 men, women, and children in three communal burial pits, researchers say.
On some later visits, Natufians opened the communal graves and removed certain bones, including skulls, for possible display or burial elsewhere, according to Grosman.
Until now, removing bones from burials for use in rituals was thought to have begun during the Neolithic era at sites such as the West Bank's Jericho, dating to about 11,000 years ago. A similar practice has been found at the later Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey.
In both places mourners coated human heads with plaster and kept them for ceremonial purposes. (Related: "Ancient Human-Bone Sculptors Turned Relatives Into Tools.")
Prehistoric Cattle Ritually Devoured at Feast
"We think that there were scheduled visits to Hilazon Tachtit," said study co-author Grosman, who received partial funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration for her work at the Natufian site. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Natufians seem to have made the steep climb laden with joints of mountain gazelle and aurochs. In what might have been one sitting, the mourners devoured an estimated 661 pounds (300 kilograms)[NM3] of aurochs [NM4] meat, according to the study.
But they did not bring all this food for a picnic. In their daily lives Natufian families seldom dined on aurochs, for the wild oxen were relatively scarce at this time. And given the species' power and speed, hunting an aurochs likely required a communal effort.
The celebrants chose to feast on aurochs for reasons above and beyond their nutritional value.
"In later times we know that the aurochs become ritually important in the area," zooarchaeologist Natalie Munro said. Indeed, some later cultures seem to have regarded aurochs as sacred animals, even symbols of fertility.
For example, at the massive, 11,600-year-old Gobekli Tepe ritual site in Turkey—seen by some as the world's oldest temple—hunters and gatherers dined lavishly on aurochs.
Good Feasts Make Good Neighbors
Munro thinks that the grand ritual feasts at Hilazon Tachtit served an important purpose besides mourning lost loved ones.
Living for the first time in settled communities, Natufian families had to find a way to ease all the friction that would build up from continually rubbing shoulders with their neighbors, she says. Unlike other Paleolithic hunters and gathers, the Natufians could no longer split up and move on easily when trouble arose. They had become so populous that they could no longer find unoccupied territory in their region.
The Natufians devised another way of dealing with the strain—throwing big communal parties to celebrate important ritual events, the researchers say. "When people feel like they are part of the same group, they are more willing to share and to compromise to resolve conflict," Munro said.
The new finds suggest that the deep roots of communal feasting and the curation of human remains for ritual—found later at sites like Gobekli Tepe, Jericho, and Stonehenge—originated centuries before the advent of agricultural societies.
These rituals played an important role in smoothing the transition of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to a farming life, researchers say. (Related: "Egypt's Earliest Farming Village Found.")
"Hilazon Tachtit," archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef said, "gives us a good window into these kinds of special activities. And I think that's really important."