ancient shaman’s burial site

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research This one’s really hot off the press – & even then lots of people have beaten me to it! Oh well. In the latest issue of PNAS, Leore Grosman & her colleagues describe the ornate & unusual burial of an elderly woman who lived 12,000 years ago in what is now Israel.

Grosman & her colleagues were excavating in the Natufian cave, a living site dating back 12,000 years. It’s an interesting site because it spans the period when the local people were changing from a nomadic, foraging lifestyle to a more settled farming community. Scientists have found several hundred Natufian burials from cemeteries around the Levant, and the cave site itself contains three mass burial pits and three other individual sites. One of those really stood out, both in the way that it was prepared and in the burial goods that accompanied its occupant.

The grave comprises a specially-prepared pit – its walls had been plastered with mud before it was used – and a large slab of stone used to close it. In addition the walls and floor were lined with limestone slabs. This unusual preparation does rather suggest that the occupant could be someone special.

Buried in the grave was a short (1.5m), slender elderly woman – well, she was 45 at the time she died, which for the time was old indeed. Her pelvis & lower spine were malformed, which would have made her look lopsided & caused her to walk with a limp. And buried with her was a most unusual assemblage of grave goods: a large, complete adult foot, bone & stone tools, >50 tortoise shells (plus many tortoise bones), 2 stone marten skulls (martens are related to ferrets & stoats), a golden eagle’s wingtip, part of an auroch’s tail, a leopard pelvis, boar foreleg, and the horn core of a male gazelle. (The authors suggest that the very large number of tortoise shells & bones indicates that these animals might have formed part of a funeral feast.)

Picture of burial

Illustration by P. Groszman, from Grosman et al. (2008) doi/10.1073/pnas.080606105

Because both the grave structure & the burial goods are so unusual, Grosman & her colleagues suggest that the woman buried there occupied an important position in Natufian society. They comment that the grave goods are typical of what’s found in the burials of shamans, & that this & the fact the woman was physically disabled are strong indications that she filled a shaman’s role in her society.  (I see in other comments that not everyone’s convinced of this interpretation & indeed, it’s always going to be difficult to draw firm conclusions about the development of abstractions such as spirituality. But an extremely interesting find, nonetheless.)

L. Grosman, N.D. Munro & A. Belfer-Cohen (2008) A 12,000-year-old shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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