Wing Bone Indicates Swan Shamanism Could Be 420,000 Years Old!
The idea that the human soul might take the form of a swan to journey from this world to the next could be one of the oldest fundamental beliefs of human kind, or so suggests a new discovery from the 420,000-year-old cave site of Qesem near Tel Aviv in Israel.
In 2006 I wrote a book titled The Cygnus Mystery. It proposed that humanity’s belief in the soul transforming into a bird at death has since time immemorial been focused around key animistic forms and a certain area of the night sky. Key to these ideas was the swan, connected not just with shamanism and animism for at least 25,000 years, but also arguably with cosmological beliefs surrounding the stars of the Cygnus constellation, and the Milky Way in its role as a road or river to the afterlife.
Single Swan Bone
Now comes compelling evidence that the cult of the swan most likely goes back not 25,000, but a staggering 420,000 years! Archaeologists working in the Qesem cave site, 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) outside of Tel Aviv in Israel, have found a single swan wing bone (a carpometacarpal) that bears clear knife marks indicating that the bird's feathers were purposely removed for some kind of specialist usage, most obviously ritual in nature.
The cut marks found on the bone were considered to be from deliberate defeathering of the bone for some purpose. (Image: Ruth Blasco)
Curiously, this was the only swan bone found during excavations, even though the bones of many other birds were found to be present in greater quantities, suggesting that they were being eaten and their bones discarded. This hints strongly that the swan held some special place among the hominin occupants, whose identity remains unclear.
Qesem cave it near Tel Aviv, Israel, with occupation between 420,000-200,000 years ago. (CC BY SA 3.0)
The discovery of human-looking teeth at the Qesem site are similar to those found in association with hominin remains at other sites in the region, Qafzeh for instance, suggests the presence in the Levant 400,000 years ago of individuals with the clear features of anatomically modern humans. They predate by at least 100,000 years the earliest confirmed remains of anatomically modern humans, found recently at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco and thought to be around 312,000 years old. (fig. 3)
What can be said is that the occupants of Qesem were not Homo erectus, although a link with early Denisovan groups, who are now known to have had some modern human physiology and may have passed through the Levant en route to places like Siberia and Mongolia, remains a possibility.
It is now being proposed that Qesem could well be the earliest known site where our human predecessors meaningfully removed the feathers of birds, with the earliest known instance of feather removal after Qesem coming from Europe, this being among Neanderthals within the past 100,000 years. These facts are pointed out by Tel Aviv University’s Ran Barkai, who along with Ruth Blasco and Avi Gopher of the same university, have just written a paper on this extraordinary discovery and its possible implications for our understanding of the origins of bird-related animism. The paper is due for publication soon in the prestigious Journal of Human Evolution.
When asked why the occupants of the Qesem cave might have removed feathers from a swan wing bone, Barkai answered as reported in Haaretz, “It was apparently for cosmological or ritual purposes. Maybe they thought that with the help of the feathers, they could gain the swan’s characteristics.” It is a practice that Barkai and his colleagues think might well have persisted through the time of the earliest pre-sapiens hominin of the Levant through to the current day.
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Map showing the site of the Qesem cave near Tel Aviv. (Picture courtesy: Wikipedia Commons Agreement, 2019)
To prove their point, the authors of the new paper cite the fact that thousands of years ago, in Louisiana, one indigenous tribe adopted animistic beliefs associated with the owl. To the “Owl People” at Poverty Point, who thrived circa 1750-970 BCE, the bird became a key totem, most likely associated with both a death journey and the transmigration of the soul. The culture built huge earthworks that, it has been suggested, resemble the shape of the owl, while at the same time constructing an owl-shaped village. Owl figurines were also found in association with these people’s settlements.
The owl was also seen among Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Great Lakes-St Lawrence River region, as well as some First Peoples of the Plains, as a psychopomp, a soul carrier or soul accompanier, encountered by the human soul on the path leading to the next world.
Referring to the use of swan feathers and swan bones at Qesem, Barkai suggests that: “Using swan feathers could have transformed them [the inhabitants of the cave] into swans.”
This is a very striking statement, and one that strongly implies that swan animism is arguably one of the oldest forms of shamanism anywhere in the world. What’s more, and as Barkai admits, it probably related both to cosmological ideas and to the transformation of the soul into a bird at death, something that must have been common to early human groups from a very early stage. (fig. 5)
Seventeenth century illustration of indigenous peoples of Brazil wearing coats of feathers during a ceremony. (Public domain).
“These are universal things. It’s primordial,” he goes on to explain. “Shamanism exists in all groups too. So does rock art. Altered states of consciousness exist in all groups and always relate to their relationship with the world.”
Very clearly Barkai is suggesting that swan transformations among hominin groups was not just universal in the past, but almost certainly involved individuals achieving altered state of consciousness, the most obvious explanation why a shaman might adorn himself or herself in swan feathers to become a swan.
A Cygnus Link
The question of the cosmological element to this very earliest form of swan shamanism can only but remain speculation. We have no idea how these pre-sapiens communities living in the Levant 420,000 years ago might have perceived their relationship to the night sky. The constellation of Cygnus has been identified as a swan both on the Eurasian continent and in North America. So we can be pretty sure that these beliefs predate the submergence of the Beringia land bridge, which linked the American continent with Asia through till around 10,500 years ago. (fig. 6)
John Flamsteed's illustration of Cygnus as the celestial swan with the Milky Way behind. (Public domain)
Thus the belief in a celestial swan associated with an area of the sky marked also by the presence of a distinctive fork in the Milky Way, seen since time immemorial as a road or river linking the physical world with the afterlife, almost certain goes back to the Upper Paleolithic age, circa 45,000-11,600 years ago.
If correct then these beliefs, as well as the practices associated with them, are probably linked with important cultural artifacts found at a site in southern-central Siberia named Mal’ta, which thrived on the Belaya River, a branch of the Angara River, west of Lake Baikal, approximately 24,000 years ago. Here archaeologists have unearthed fourteen mammoth ivory bird pendants of straight-necked swans, some with eyeholes at one end. They show swans in flight, although the birds’ outstretched wings having been severely truncated.
24,000-year-old swan pendants found at the site of Mal'ta in southern-central Siberia. (Picture courtesy: Andrew Collins)
Significantly, four of these swan pendants, when uncovered, were found to be aligned north-south, as if this had some relevance to their placement.
After due consideration, noted Russian paleoarchaeologist Antoliy Derevianko wrote that this deliberate north-south directionality of the swan pendants, along with the special attention paid to them by the Mal’ta community (one was found alongside a child burial), suggests a connection not only with the north-south migration of birds, but also with the universal idea that in death the human soul took the form of a bird.
Derevianko also saw the existence of these swan pendants as a “significant first appearance of animism” in Siberia. In other words, here at Mal’ta was profound evidence of our most distant ancestors’ belief that the human soul could transform itself into a bird to achieve transmigration from this world to the next.
Now we know that these same beliefs in the transformation of the human soul into a swan almost certainly predate Mal'ta's Upper Paleolithic community by as much as 400,000 years! Whether or not there is a link between the activities in the Qesem Cave and those at the Siberian site of Mal'ta around 24,000 years ago might never be established. It is, however, possible that these ideas were indeed carried eastwards either by pre-sapiens groups such as Denisovans or Neanderthals, or by our very earliest ancestors. All we can say with any certainly right now is that the idea of the human soul adopting the guise of a bird, the swan in particular, to journey from this world to the next could be one of the oldest fundamental beliefs of human kind.
Top image: Swan shamanism could go back hundreds of thousands of years. Source: abiwarner / Adobe Stock
Andrew Collins latest book Denisovan Origins, co-authored with Greg L. Little, is available from Amazon.
Derev’anko, Anatoliy, Demitri B. Shimkin, and W. Roger Powers (eds.). The Paleolithic of Siberia: New Discoveries and Interpretations. English trans. Inna P. Laricheva. Urbana and Chicago, Ill.: 1998. University of Illinois Press.
Hublin , Jen Jacques et al. New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens. 2018. Nature Magazine
Schuster, Ruth.. "Why Archaic Humans in Israel Collected Feathers 420,000 Years Ago" Haaretz (September 23, 2019), Available online: https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium.MAGAZINE-why-archaic-humans-in-israel-collected-feathers-420-000-years-ago-1.7883700?fbclid=IwAR0kPNc94o9cMd5iyGx1pEKcyVtXZlnnOVhi-I8bgUMmfoE7rDFv6OP2gCs