Archaeologists Unearth Unique 12,000-year-old Galilee Grave of Female Shaman

Well-preserved findings in burial cave from Natufian era 12,000 years ago shed light on surprisingly complex funereal rituals.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The bones of a 1.5 meter-tall woman lying in situ at her burial site, surrounded by tortoise shells and myriad other bones and objects, at Hilazon Cave, the Galilee. The burial has been dated back some 12,000 years, to the time humans were transiting from hunting and gathering to agriculture.
The bones of a 1.5 meter-tall woman lying in situ at her burial site, surrounded by tortoise shells and myriad other bones and objects, at Hilazon Cave.Credit: Naftali Hilger
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A human foot and 86 tortoise shells were just some of the extraordinary finds discovered in the prehistoric grave of a female shaman in the Galilee, in northern Israel, dating back some 12,000 years.

Also found in what archaeologists suspect was the burial site of a female shaman, who was living in a hunter-gatherer society, were an eagle’s wing, a leopard’s pelvic bone, the leg of a pig, and tailbone from a cow, and much more.

The unique features of the woman’s interment have shed new light on human society during the late Natufian era (10,800-9,500 B.C.E.), and on how the ancients treated the dead, according to the archaeological team led by Prof. Leore Grosman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Natalie Munro of Connecticut University. The revelations have allowed the team to speculatively reenact the woman’s funerary ceremony.

As for the shaman herself – if that is indeed what she was – in reaching age 45, she had lived a relatively long life for people of that era. She was very short, practically a dwarf, and also suffered from a variety of diseases and distortions that must have made her look quite unusual.

Recovery of the well-preserved grave of this unusual woman, and the generally high quality of preservation in the cave unearthed at this Galilee site, called Hilazon Tachtit (Lower Hilazon River), enable identification of the multiple stages of a funereal ceremony. They constitute evidence of a number of activities related to ritual performances, as well as leading to broader generalizations about Natufian practices during a dynamic era preceding the transition to agricultural society.

At least 28 people were interred in the cave found at Hilazon Tachtit.

The excavation at Hilazon Tachtit. Next to the remains of a female shaman unearthed there were a number of different animal bones, tools and shells.Credit: Naftali Hilger

The Natufian culture existed beginning some 15,000 years ago in the Levant. Its people are believed to be among the first humans to abandon foraging and to settle in permanent locations. They continued to hunt for meat and gather fruit – but they also began to produce food, and even to bake bread, evidence of which includes giant grinding stones used to make flour from barley.

When it was exactly that man transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming is hotly debated – as is the possibility that he went back and forth between those cultures.

Say it with dead deer

Of the many burial sites found from the Natufian period in general and in this cave in particular, that of the shaman seems to be the most intriguing. It is also the oldest – apparently, the prehistoric cemetery arose around her, the archaeologists say. They spent no less than three years meticulously digging that grave alone, reaching a depth of just 50 centimeters – and making those extraordinary finds.

Just as remarkable, the quality of the preservation of the remains at the site has enabled the scientists to identify multiple stages in funerary rites observed 12,000 years ago.

“Ritual practice plays crucial social roles in human societies by communicating information about social status, calming tensions, and integrating communities,” Grosman and Munro wrote in their paper, “A Natufian Ritual Event,” published in the journal Current Anthropology. It is incredibly rare for the archaeological record to be detailed enough for scientists to be able identify individual ritualistic activities, they add.

The elaborate rituals revealed by the excavation at Hilazon Tachtit were unexpected in such a presumably primitive culture.

One of the 86 tortoise shells found in the burial of a woman, possibly a shaman, dating to 12,000 years ago and found in Hilazon Cave, the Galilee, Israel.Credit: Leore Grosman

The first stage involved digging a symmetrical oval hole in the cave. The hole was then walled with mud plaster and stone slabs.

The second stage involved laying down large stones, between which the inhabitants placed tortoise shells, seashells, blocks of ochre, the body of a deer, and a broken basalt bowl that had probably been in use, but was broken for the purposes of the burial.

In the third stage, they filled the grave site with bones of animals that had already been consumed, and processed flint tools.

In the fourth phase, the woman’s body was buried with more animal bones or parts of them – including the leopard’s pelvis. The pig’s leg was placed next to the woman’s right hand with two skulls of martens (small predators rather like ferrets), the cow’s tailbone and the human foot – from a person who had been much bigger than the shaman herself.

The fifth stage was characterized by the addition of more deer bones and tortoise shells to the grave. Grosman thinks the large number of bones from young deer demonstrate that the burial took place in the spring.

Finally, a large triangular rock was laid over the grave – and that was that.

“A vast effort was made to bring materials to the grave. There was a complex ritual based on protocol, which is not a trivial matter,” speculates Grosman.

In such a ritual lie the seeds of the future agricultural culture, she says – and the seeds of ideology and of technology, as well.

The excavation site of Hilazon CaveCredit: Naftali Hilger

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