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8 November 2008
12,000 year old grave may have belonged to shaman

The skeleton of a 12,000 year-old Natufian woman has been discovered in northern Israel by archaeologists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The burial is described as being accompanied by 'exceptional' grave offerings and is thought to be one of the earliest known from the archaeological record and the only shaman grave in the whole region. If true, it could mean that shamanism arose during a critical period in human cultural evolution.
     Dr. Leore Grosman of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, who is heading the excavation at the Natufian site of Hilazon Tachtit in the western Galilee, says that the elaborate and invested interment rituals and method used to construct and seal the grave suggest that this woman had a very high standing within the community. Details of the discovery were published in the PNAS journal on November 3, 2008.
     The grave contained body parts of several animals that rarely occur in Natufian assemblages. These include fifty tortoises, the near-compete pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, tail of a cow, two marten skulls and the forearm of a wild boar which was directly aligned with the woman's left humerus. A human foot belonging to an adult individual who was substantially larger than the interred woman was also found in the grave. Dr. Grosman believes this burial is consistent with expectations for a shaman's grave. Burials of shamans often reflect their role in life (i.e., remains of particular animals and contents of healing kits).
     The body was buried in an unusual position. It was laid on its side with the spinal column, pelvis and right femur resting against the curved southern wall of the oval-shaped grave. The legs were spread apart and folded inward at the knees. According to Dr. Grosman, ten large stones were placed directly on the head, pelvis and arms of the buried individual at the time of burial. Following decomposition of the body, the weight of the stones caused disarticulation of some parts of the skeleton. Speculating why the body was held in place in such a way and covered with rocks, Dr. Grosman suggests it could have been to protect the body from being eaten by wild animals or because the community was trying to keep the shaman and her spirit inside the grave.
     Analysis of the bones show that the shaman was 45 years old, petite and had an unnatural, asymmetrical appearance due to a spinal disability that would have affected the woman's gait, causing her to limp or drag her foot. Most remarkably, the woman was buried with 50 complete tortoise shells. The inside of the tortoises were likely eaten as part of a feast surrounding the interment of the deceased. The Natufians went to great lengths to construct a unique grave at the top of a 150-meter slope in order to bury a relatively old and disabled woman, Grosman says.
     "This is an extremely important report on a rare find at a critical time of cultural evolution," says Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. Ian Kuijt, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, adds that the "authors have done an excellent job of supporting their argument" for prehistoric shamanism. Archaeologist Donald Henry of the University of Tulsa suspects that Hershman is right but notes that the Natufian woman may instead have been someone who achieved exceptional status in a culture that was just beginning to develop levels of social prestige and political power.
     Researchers have found only a handful of possible shaman graves at prehistoric sites. Much skepticism surrounds the claim that a roughly 60,000-year–old Neandertal, unearthed in Iraq's Shanidar cave in 1960 and nestled among clumps of pollen from various flowers, was a shaman. Several central European sites have also yielded evidence of shamanism, including a 25,000-year–old hut containing artifacts thought to have belonged to a shaman. In 2006, researchers re-examined a 9,000-year–old woman's skeleton and grave offerings from a German site and concluded that she had been a shaman.
     The Natufians existed in the Mediterranean region of the Levant 15,000 to 11,500 years ago. Dr. Grosman suggests this grave could point to ideological shifts that took place due to the transition to agriculture in the region at that time.

Sources: Science Now, Science News (3 November 2008), Reuters, Yahoo! News (4 November 2008), AlphaGalileo (5 November 2008)

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