|The view from the cave|
The Natufian culture flourished in the southern Levant between 15,000 and 11,600 years ago. One of the places that Natufian dead were buried is a small cave named Hilazon Tachtit, located on a steep cliff about 500 feet above the Hilazon River, with a sweeping view of the river and the Mediterranean shoreline, in which twenty-eight burials have been excavated. These burials can be dated to between 12,400 and 12,000 years ago, during the time that Natufian culture was in transition from foraging to farming.
All of this would normally be of interest primarily to professional archeologists, but one of the burials, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has received considerable attention, including an article in Time Magazine. The person buried was a small woman, probably about five feet tall, and perhaps 45 years old, based primarily on heavy erosion of her teeth. The burial had two striking features. First, the woman herself had congenital deformities of the pelvis and the lumbar and sacral vertebrae, as well as fusion of the coccyx and sacrum. These pathologies would have given her a limping or foot-dragging gait and an abnormally asymmetrical appearance.
Second, the woman was buried with a number of very unusual grave goods — more than fifty complete tortoise shells, two stone marten skulls, the feathered wing tip of a golden eagle, part of an aurochs tail, the pelvis of a leopard, the forearm of a wild boar, a male gazelle horn core, and a complete articulated human foot.
|The burial site|
The grave itself was also unusual. The walls had been intentionally plastered with mud, the floor lined with limestone slabs, and the body itself pinned down with more than ten large stones. The burial, the authors state, is unlike any other found in this area during the Natufian period or the preceding Paleolithic. In addition, this burial was apparently the first use of this cave, which is located more than six miles away from the nearest Natufian domestic site, so it presumably took some effort to carry the body to be buried.
Clearly this was a special person.But just what kind of special person was she? The authors conclude that the burial is, specifically, that of a shaman — and, if so, one of the earliest shaman burials known from the archeological evidence. “There is no doubt that this woman had a special social position,” says lead author Leore Grosman of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “and the most viable interpretation of this burial is that it was for a shaman.” Other scholars agree. “The most parsimonious explanation of this unique grave treatment for a Natufian person is that this woman was a shaman,” says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef. Grosman believes that the grave thus offers some of the earliest physical evidence of religious and spiritual belief. “Several attributes of this burial,” the article states, “later become central in the spiritual arena of human culture worldwide.”
|Some of the tortoise shells found in the grave|
Now the authors are making a large claim here, and it is worth following their reasoning. The conclusion is based on just two facts. The woman was physically disabled; and she was buried with animal parts. But then how does this make her a shaman? In some cultures, the authors state, there are accounts of physically disabled individuals being ascribed healing and spiritual powers. And, because of the presence of animal remains in the grave, the woman “was perceived as being in close relationship with these animal spirits.”
I am not persuaded that these two facts support the conclusion that this woman was a shaman. Apart from the grave itself, of course, we have no way of knowing whether the Natufian culture even had shamans, at least in any form recognizably similar to the indigenous practices we know of since the sixteenth century, when they were first recorded. There is no evidence from the grave that the woman had anything to do with healing — no herb bundles, for example. In some cultures, it is true, some shamans with physical deformities have been held to be healers, but the inference does not run in the other direction; the fact that a person has a deformity does not make that person into a shaman, if we even knew what the Natufian culture believed about the relationship between deformity and healing, which we do not.
|The skeleton and grave goods|
I am also not convinced that the presence of buried animal remains, no matter how unusual, are persuasive evidence that the grave contains a shaman. It is true, of course, that some shamans in some cultures are buried with animal parts, but again the inference does not run in the other direction. Since we have absolutely no evidence of Natufian spiritual beliefs, we are free to speculate at will. If the woman had a congenital limp, and was about forty-five years old, perhaps each turtle shell stood for a year of her life during which she walked slowly and awkwardly, like a turtle, and the eagle, gazelle, and leopard parts are meant to give her, in the next life, the speed and grace she lacked in this one. Perhaps the human foot was meant to be hers in the hereafter.
This speculation is not offered to be taken with any great seriousness. The point is that it accounts for the evidence just about as well as the speculation that the woman was a shaman — that, to use Bar-Yosef’s term, it is just as parsimonious.
There is no question that the grave is unusual and fascinating. It is apparently also true that the burial took place during the presumably profound social and economic changes associated with the transition to agriculture. In this specialized burial, we may be seeing the emergence of social rather than spiritual stratification, or some other cultural phenomenon entirely.