12,000-year-old shaman grave site found in Israel

By chillinwill · Nov 5, 2008 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    LONDON - An ancient grave unearthed in modern-day Israel containing 50 tortoise shells, a human foot and body parts from numerous animals is likely one of the earliest known shaman burial sites, researchers said on Monday.

    The 12,000-year-old grave dates back to the Natufian people who were the first society to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, Hebrew University of Jerusalem researcher Leore Grosman and colleagues said.

    "The interment rituals and the method used to construct and seal the grave suggest this is the burial of an ancient shaman, one of the earliest known from the archaeological record," they wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Shamans play an important role in many cultures, mediating between the human and spiritual worlds and acting as messengers, healers, magicians to serve the community, the researchers said.

    The Israeli team found the bones in a small cave in the lower Galilee region of present-day Israel that was a Natufian burial ground for a least 28 people.

    At the time of burial, more than 10 large stones were placed directly on the head, pelvis, and arms of the elderly woman whose body was laid on its side. The legs were spread apart and folded inward at the knee.

    The special treatment of the body and use of stones to keep it in a certain position suggests the woman held a unique position in the community, likely some sort of a shaman, the researchers said.

    "The burial of the woman...is unlike any burial found in the Natufian or the preceding Palaeolithic periods," Grosman's team wrote. "We argue that this burial is consistent with expectations for a shaman's grave."

    The woman was also interred with some unusual grave goods, including the complete tortoise shells and select body-parts of a wild boar, an eagle, a cow, a leopard, and two martens, as well as a complete human foot.

    The grave portrays several hallmarks that later become central in the spiritual arena of cultures worldwide, the researchers added.

    "Tortoises, cow tails, eagle wings, and fur-bearing animals continue to play important symbolic and shamanistic roles in the spiritual arena of human cultures worldwide today," they wrote.

    "It seems that the woman in the Natufian burial was perceived as being in a close relationship with these animal spirits."

    By Michael Kahn
    updated 2:04 p.m. ET, Mon., Nov. 3, 2008
    Copyright 2008 Reuters

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  1. robin_himself
    A 12,000-Year-Old Shaman From Hilazon Tachtit, Israel & The Emergence Of Religion

    A new paper in PNAS reports on an interesting find from a 12,000-year-old Natufian burial complex in the Hilazon Tachtit cave site in Israel — a shaman, which is unlike any other Natufian burial known to date. Before I get into the details of the paper, let me first introduce the Natufian culture and the ecological context members of this culture lived in.

    Map of the Hilazon Tachtit Cave Site, Israel
    The Natufian culture existed in the Levant from 14,500 to 11,500 years before the present. They were hunter gatherers at first and had a microlithic industry, perfecting short blades and bladelets. Two different human burials at the Ein Mallaha and Hayonim sites include dogs, suggesting they domesticated dogs around 12,000 years ago. The spread of the culture can be estimated by the presence of Anatolian obsidian and shellfish from the Nile-valley being found at Ein Mallaha.

    Around 12,800 to 11,500 years ago a climate shift occurred. There are many names for this climate change, I’ll call it the Younger Dryas event. During this period, there was a rapid return to glacial conditions caused by a significant reduction of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation. And by rapid I mean it happened within 10 years. The cold and dry Younger Dryas climate lowered the biological carrying capacity of the Levant. This ecological change from the Younger Dryas forced cultures into planting seeds obtained from elsewhere, and practicing agriculture.

    Illustration of the Shaman Grave from Hilazon, Tachtit, Israel
    Okay going back to the paper, archaeologists have recently excavated the Hilazon Tachtit cave site. Hilazon Tachtit is located about 15 km west of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. The site is dated to be 12,400 – 12,000 years old, right at this ecological and cultural transitional period. The site is primarily a burial ground of at least 28 Natufian individuals. Most of the remains are buried in one collective pit, but one burial was special. The remains of a 45 year old woman was separate and accompanied by lots of animal remains. She had bone spurs on her pelvis and spine, indicating she suffered physical ailments. Accompanying her burial are the remains of the tail bones from a cow, a wing bone from a golden eagle, a forearm of a boar, 50 tortoise carapace pieces, two marten skulls and a large foot from another person. She’s intricately buried in a certain position with a stones arranged in a certain fashion and unlike the other individuals.

    Some Animal Remains From the Shaman Burial in Hilazon Tachtit, Israel
    The authors argue that she was a shaman. Although the term shaman originally comes from the Tungisic speaking people from Siberia, many gatherer groups and small-scale agricultural cultures have had a shamanistic role — a member of the community who functioned as an intermediate between the human and spirit world. They were healer-magician hybrids. The elaborate burial of this physically disabled woman accompanied with tortoises, cow tails, eagle wings, and fur-bearing animals fall in line with our observation of other shaman burials found throughout the world.

    The presence of a shaman in this critical transitional period of human cultural evolution suggest that the seeds of organized religion were already planted. Now, there are controversial depictions of shamans in cave art from 15,000 years ago, but this 12,000 year old burial is the first physical evidence of the ideological and socioeconomic changes that accompanied the forager-to-farmer Neolithic transformation. The development of spiritual ideas and religion are a big part of human cultural evolution. We don’t know exactly when human ancestors developed such thoughts, it could certainly be earlier than 12,000 years ago, but at least we now know that early Neolithic peoples, like the Natufians had at least one shaman.

    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 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806030105
  2. Euphoric
    Interesting, but these articles don't seem to have anything to do with drugs. I realize that SOME shamans would use drugs, but there is no mention of evidence for this in these articles.
  3. chillinwill
    LOL that's a good point....my bad on that one and if a mod feels like it needs to be deleted, then by all means do it. I just saw this on another forum and thought that it would be a cool topic to share but didn't even think about it not having anything really related to drugs
  4. savingJenniB
    No drugs?
    Guess we really can't prove that one way or the other.
    Perhaps nowadays we can ~ would be a good one to track
    ~ seen if further testing reveals drugs - plant residuals
    in her DNA or among her possessions.

    Very interesting article ~ keep wondering about the foot!
    The story behind that is no doubt stranger than we could even imagine.

  5. Euthanatos93420
    Hmm...can anyone find a reference for their dating methods and/or references?
  6. Scrubbs
    Well actually, alot of people would agree that the basic principles of genuine shamanism involve the sacrilegious use of psychoactive plants. Of course there are some "would be" shamans that divinate without the aid of psychoactives but that's just faking it.

    In my opinion of course.
  7. Euphoric
    There are many methods that shamans use (effectively) for healing and to achieve altered states. Outside of drugs some popular methods include fasting, sweat lodges, dancing, drumming, sensory deprivation and self-harm.
  8. RoboCodeine7610
    Interesting, nice find.Swim is now getting interested in shamanism and enjoys reading about their history.
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