Excavation at the 12,000-year-old Hilazon Tachtit cave site, located in what is now Israel, led to an astonishing discovery. At the cave site, twenty-nine Natufian individuals are buried. Twenty-eight of those burials took place in a collective pit, but one burial was special. A woman, believed to be a shaman, was buried separately, with evidence that a pre-burial feast took place in her honor, providing the earliest known evidence of a feast in honor of a woman’s burial.
Natufian archaeological excavation site in Hilazon Tachtit, in the Galilee area of northern Israel, where archeologists found the 12,000-year-old skeleton of a female shaman. Image source: Hebrew University
The Natufians were an Epipaleolithic culture, dating back to between 13,000 and 9,800 BC. Found around the Eastern Mediterranean, the Natufians were a sedentary hunter-gatherer culture who lived in gathered communities. Some evidence indicates that they cultivated barley and wheat, and that they created tools specifically for the harvesting of crops. This indicates a key transition in human civilization, from hunter-gatherer to a farming society.
The separate burial of the shaman woman raised many questions about the functioning of the Natufian culture. The woman was estimated to be 45 years old. Her spine and pelvis were deformed, indicating that she walked with a limp. Within the burial pit, the woman was surrounded by 71 tortoise shells, cattle bones, a wing bone from a golden eagle, two marten skulls, a leopard’s pelvis, and a human foot. To highlight the woman’s status, the shells and other items were placed strategically throughout the burial. A tortoise shell was placed under the woman’s head, with the remaining shells arranged under her pelvis and around her body.
An image depicting the features of the woman’s burial at Hilazon Tachtit. Image source: Science20.com
Experts contend that the presence of these items within the burial pit indicates more than just a ritualistic use of animal parts, and that the evidence strongly suggests that a feast took place in the woman’s honor prior to her burial. The breaking of the tortoise shells would have made the meat easily accessible, and burn marks indicated that the meat had been roasted. The cattle bones, coming from the head, neck, limbs, and feet, showed clear signs of being cut or butchered.
Some argue, however, that this evidence does not indicate a feast or any significance to the burial, but that it may have been merely a communal meal. Based on the animal remains within the burial site, it is estimated that there had been at least 17 kilograms of cattle and tortoise meat, or enough to feed at least 35 people. Nevertheless, the presence of a large meal does not necessarily indicate a feast of importance.
The possibility that feasting took place during this burial, nearly 12,000 years ago, indicates important cultural changes that had been taking place. During this transitional time in human civilization, the presence of a shaman indicates organized religion. The great time and effort that went into the burial show that the woman was of great importance to the society, and the animal remains are evidence of her spiritual connection with healing objects. It has been said that the presence of the eagle wing within the burial is strong evidence that the woman was a shaman. The eagle wing represents flight to the ‘Other World’.
Whether this petite woman was a shaman or not, it is clear that her burial held a special significance to the Natufian people. Feast or no feast, her burial within a pit separate from the communal grave, and the presence of a great number of well-arranged animal parts show that whatever role she played within the community was considered an important one. Further study of this ancient grave may unlock additional secrets about this unique burial.