A 12,000 year old shaman burial?

Today on Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, I report on a spectacular archaeological find in Israel. A team led by Leore Grosman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found the grave of a 45 year old woman from the Natufian era, a pivotal period in human prehistory when hunter-gatherers were beginning to settle down and getting ready to start farming. Some tidbits from my story, which is free for 4 weeks from today before it goes behind the paying wall:

Before there were priests or doctors, people seeking solace or treatment for an illness often called in a shaman, an intermediary between the human and spirit worlds. Archaeologists working in Israel now claim that a 12,000-year-old grave of a woman buried with various animal and human body parts is that of an early shaman. If true, it could mean that shamanism arose during a critical period in human cultural evolution.

By the way, some shamans claim the ability to predict the future. Last month, for example, a group of 11 shamans from a faith-healing organization in Peru predicted how the U.S. presidential election was going to go: 11 picked Obama as the winner, and 2 picked McCain.

Here's more:

...recent excavations at Hilazon Tachtit, a cave west of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, may provide new support for prehistoric shamanism. Hilazon Tachtit was occupied by the Natufians, a people who inhabited the Near East between about 15,000 and 11,500 years ago. Most archaeologists see Natufian culture as a transition between hunting and gathering and the sedentary lifestyles of early farmers. At Hilazon Tachtit, a team led by archaeologist Leore Grosman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found the remains of at least 25 people, most in collective burials. But one was treated differently. A woman, about 45 years old when she died and whose pelvis and spine were deformed, was buried separately, accompanied by a menagerie of animal remains. Among her grave goods were tail bones from wild cattle, a wing bone from a golden eagle, the shells of 50 tortoises, and a large foot from another person.

The team, which reports its findings online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, notes that tortoises, cow tails, and eagle wings play a role in the ritualistic practices of many shamans today and that many societies ascribe special powers to physically disabled people. "It seems that the woman in the Natufian burial was perceived as being in a close relationship with these animal spirits," the authors write. They suggest that shamanism either sparked, or was the result of, the cultural upheavals that accompanied the agricultural revolution in the Near East.

I quote some Natufian experts who are generally enthusiastic about the discovery. For example:

"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.

But one archaeologist suggests caution, commenting that "it ain't necessarily so." Be sure to read the whole story at the link.

Credit: P. Groszman (illustration drawn to scale)

Post a Comment


Richard Parker said…
'Agriculture' started long before the Natufians. So did 'shamanism' see:http://donsmaps.com/clickphotos/sorcerer.jpg

Israel's attempts to prove itself a nation, with a history, are not worth your time.
Richard Parker said…




- which do you prefer?
Michael Balter said…
Thanks for your comments, Richard. As Science's resident expert on the origins of agriculture, and author of a book on the same subject, I will have to pull rank on you and say that agriculture as usually defined--the domestication of plants-- began in the Neolithic, ie after the Natufians, although incipient cultivation of wild plants was a long process leading up to domestication. You can read about this at this link:


Also, the cave art image you reproduce, while suggestive (and this subject is referred to in my online story), is not necessarily evidence of shamanism.

Finally, this has nothing to do with Israel's nationhood or history. Israeli archaeologists working in the Natufian or Neolithic periods do not claim any continuity between those societies and the Israelites, and they have done excellent and important work on the prehistory of the Near East as a whole.
Robert Magill said…
We Ain't Hirsute No More, No More, No More

The folks way back when were very, very hairy. Life had been going along as usual for eons and eons with everybody just learning to walk upright and throw rocks until one day someone discovered fire.

Everybody was thrilled and excited but soon learned (upon bursting into flame) that this was dangerous stuff for extremely furry people to handle.

So nothing much happened with the new discovery until one day somebody started using an old gnu hide (skin side out of course) as a sort of apron for protection. Viola! The first clothing was invented. It was not used for modesty or for warmth but as a barbeque bib.

So the hunt was on. Everything that could be caught and tasted nice went onto the grill. Life was good.
One day much later on, the strangest little baby boy was born. Cute little guy, no doubt, but almost hairless.

Nobody knew what to do with him. One bunch said ," Leave him for the hyenas", but his mother was frantic so they said," ok ,but if the kid is a problem ,he goes."
Years passed and the little hairless boy grew into a big hairless man.

One day he astounded the gang by handling fire quite easily without even wearing an apron! This was a really big deal and he grew rapidly in status and prestige. So much so that this naked young firebug became the very first shaman.

Apparently he was hugely popular with the ladies because he left a great, long legacy...the rest of us.