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A reconstruction of the shaman woman’s burial at  the Hilazon Tachtit cave

First Feast? The Burial at the Hilazon Tachtit Cave Site

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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

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

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.

Featured image: A reconstruction of the shaman woman’s burial at  the Hilazon Tachtit cave site in Israel. Image source .

Sources:

A 12,000-Year-Old Shaman From Hilazon Tachtit, Israel & The Emergence Of Religion – Anthropology.net

The First Feast? – Sciencemag.org

Hilazon Tachtit (Israel): Natufian Shamanism and Feasting – Archaeology.about.com

Natufian Period: Guide to the Hunter-Gatherers of the Levant – Archaeology.about.com

12,000 Year Old Shaman Burial Site Discovered in Northern Israel – And it was a Woman – Science 2.0

The Shamaness - Bensozia

By M R Reese

Comments

I find it quite macabre, a violation and disrespectful that we dig up these ancient graves and then stand around and try to come up with the meaning of the burial style and the artifacts that are buried with them. We simply do not have the knowledge of their culture. All of that which the above article contains, is pure speculation and is therefore probably incorrect as it is based upon our cultural paradigm, not theirs.

We are like children having discovered where Mum hides the sweets we surreptitiously steal them. Please would you kindly put back that which you have handled and recover the grave and walk away.  

Look but don't touch. What have you actually learnt by the exhumation? Nothing!

The child merely wants the sweets and not understanding the reason Mum hid them.

I concur with the person above, it's disrespectful to ancestors not just those who are buried but those who took the time to bury them in respect and honour. Guess work can lead to misinterpretation and that can confuse some people, please not plunder the graves as it causes many problems.

I couldn't disagree more. Respect for the dead is clear here. The painstaking attention to detail communicates great reverence towards what was probably a remarkable woman. These wonderful archaeologists honor her memory, and extend her influence now across ages by their find. Not only was her life clearly one of honor, but her memory even across the millennia is a blessing, as it deepens our understanding of ancient peoples coming to terms with one of humanities' basic challenges, death. Job well done!

If you truly believe that we have not learned anything through exhumation; I don't understand why you are here. Obviously, you find some value in it or you wouldn't come here in search of answers. Studying these burials is the only way to learn about these cultures; especially of the ones who left no writings. We must seek to understand the past because it is what will define our future. History repeats itself so an understanding of the past is one of the most important things that we can do for humanity. I could perhaps agree that it would be honorable to rebury them after the data has been collected. We could do more to respect the religious traditions of the deceased, but to say we have not learned anything is a bit reductionist.

Also, I just want to remind people that this an info-tainment site. We are not supposed to take everything on here as fact although it may be presented as such. We should keep our critical thinking skills sharp and if something interests us it is our job to continue to research it ourselves. Guilleme is right about one thing; the article is speculatory and rich with editorial content and opinion. It is a blog for goodness sake! It is always necessary to sort the 30% fact from the 70% op-ed stuff. That goes with mainstream science sources too. There will always be a political angle to everything - on both sides of the fence. Read between the lines. Study logical fallacies, study syntax and propaganda, study, study, STUDY! (-;

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