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Archaeologists excavating a small cave near Carmiel have discovered the skeleton of a woman shaman or priestess-healer who lived some 12,000 years ago, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced yesterday.

The Natufian or Middle Stone Age burial site at Hilazon Tachtit also contained rare grave offerings, including 50 complete tortoise shells, the pelvis of a leopard and a human foot, it said.

The Natufians lived 11,500 to 15,000 years ago in what is now Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

Hebrew University archaeologist Leore Grosman, who headed the dig, said the elaborate nature of the burial rituals and the method used to construct and seal the grave suggest the woman had a very high standing within her community.

"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," the university said in a statement.

It said that burials of shamans often reflected their role in life, incorporating healing kits and animals whose spirits were considered to have a special connection with the shaman.

"Clearly a great amount of time and energy was invested in the preparation, arrangement and sealing of the grave," Grosman said in the university's statement, adding that the burial site was unlike any other found in the Natufian or the preceding prehistoric periods.

The grave contained body parts of several animals rarely seen in burials of the period, including the remains of tortoises apparently brought to the site and eaten during a feast, the near-complete pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, the tail of a cow, two marten skulls and the forearm of a wild boar, which was directly aligned with a bone of the woman's left arm. An adult human foot, which had come from a person substantially larger than the woman, was also found in the grave, the university said.

It noted that the body was also buried in an unusual position, lain on its side against the curved wall of the oval-shaped grave.

Speculating why the body was held in place in such a way and covered with rocks, Dr. Grosman suggested 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.