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.
(See "Oldest Shaman Grave Found; Includes Foot, Animal Parts.")
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.
(See "Stonehenge Was Cemetery First and Foremost, Study Says.")
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."
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