12,000-Year-Old Shaman Unearthed in Israel

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Gideon Hartman / AFP / Getty Images

A picture released by Israel's Antiquity Authority shows some of the 50 tortoise shells alongside a 12,000-year-old skeleton of a female shaman during excavations in the Galilee area of northern Israel

A new figure in humanity's history emerged last week when archaeologists announced the discovery of what could be one of the world's oldest known spiritual figures. After years of meticulous excavation just miles from Israel's Mediterranean coast, scientists from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem unearthed a 12,000-year-old grave that held the remains of a diminutive "shaman" woman. Buried alongside the woman's small, huddled corpse were selected pieces of animal bone, a cowtail, an eagle wing, the foot of another human, and, most curiously, some fifty tortoise shells deliberately arranged around the woman's body — all tell-tale signs, experts say, of her lofty social status at the time. "This is something very special; it stands apart," says Leore Grosman, the project's lead archaeologist.

How mankind emerged from Paleolithic prehistory into a world of alphabets and cities is still a story riddled with questions. Even the first settled agriculturalist communities from which our records begin seem far removed from the cave-dwelling, fur-clad hunter-gatherers whom we imagine to be mankind's ancestors. The discovery of a shaman this ancient offers a startling glimpse into this little-known past, a portrait of prehistoric ritual belief and of clear lines of social hierarchy taking shape.

The grave is thought to belong to the Natufian culture, a nomadic society which existed along the eastern Mediterranean roughly between 11,500 and 15,000 years ago. Located near other burial sites, the woman's body was distinctly encased in a limestone enclosure, a tomb sealed by a rock slab that Grosman's team managed to lift in 2006. The following two years were spent painstakingly analyzing the remains found within. Pieces of jewelry, ornamental seashells, or the odd tool have been found in other Natufian graves, but the careful arrangement of the woman's body — her back rested against a wall, legs spread and bent inward from the knee — as well as the surrounding ring of tortoise shells piqued the archaeologists' interest. "This kind of assemblage is different from everything you find elsewhere," says Ofer Bar-Yosef, a Harvard anthropologist who has worked on previous Natufian excavations. "It's the sign of a sort of elite emerging among hunter-gatherers."

Shamans are mystics whose common function in traditional cultures was that of a healer. Analysis of the woman's remains date her as being 45-years-old, a significant age at a time when life was nasty, brutish and short. She was under five feet tall and deformities in her spinal and pelvic bones give the impression that she may have walked with a limp, or dragged her feet. The presence of the hollowed-out tortoise shells, combined with intact bone pieces of leopards and other creatures — the complete forearm of a wild boar, for example, was placed under the woman's own arm — suggest that those living around her believed she had some sort of animist power.

The common narrative of mankind's development generally starts with humans planting crops and settling down in one place to reap what they sow, founding villages that would form the building blocks of human civilization. But further study of the Natufian culture and other parallel societies, such as those living by China's Yellow River, is complicating that belief. Agriculture was not established in the Levant when the Natufians lived there, but they still erected rudimentary structures to inhabit. Traces in the soil of the remains of mice and sparrows — animals that exist most commonly in places of human settlement — point to a significant population boom in the Natufian period. They may not have had seasonal harvests, but the people of this time lived in a complex and perhaps even flourishing society. "What we see [with the Natufian burial rites] is the beginning of a tribal system," says Bar-Yosef. The shaman, buried with her mysteries, looms mercurially over this moment.

Grosman speculates that the elaborate ritual behind the shaman's burial probably helped bind people together at a time of great social transformation. The Natufian culture, she says, was "transitional," moving from the era of the nomadic life of hunter-gatherers into a more stable, sedentary mode. Their descendants were likely the inhabitants of West Asia's great kingdoms of antiquity. Somewhere beneath our vision of sceptered monarchs in their pillared palaces, it can be surmised, rests a hobbled woman upon a bed of tortoise shells.

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