08 November 2008


No, I am not not pointing a Grimm-like Hansel & Gretel finger at the Israeli archaeologist, Leore Grosman of Hebrew University of Jerusalem (shown left, setting out her wares). Although she is responsible for finding the uppity Israeli witch.

Her team recently discovered in a small Israeli cave a woman’s skeleton pinned down in an unusual position by large stones and accompanied by a rare collection of grave offerings -- including 50 complete tortoise shells , the pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, the tail of a wild cow, two marten skulls (a member of the weasel family), the forearm of a wild boar, and a large human foot belonging to another person entirely.

Of course, 'witch' is only the newspaper term applied to the woman (as in Tomb Raider Digs Up Witch). She's not a witch at all ... but a shaman. A Natufian (Middle Stone Age) shaman -- one of the earliest known from the archaeological record.

The Natufians were a people who lived 11,500 to 15,000 years ago in what is now Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Most archaeologists see Natufian culture as a transition between hunting and gathering and the sedentary lifestyles of early farmers. Finding an early shaman grave during this transition makes sense. These people are starting to live in more permanent communities; they're in more contact with one another from day to day. We start to see evidence for new ritualized behaviours at this point in time.

The Shaman

The word shaman is derived from the Vedic śram , meaning 'to heat oneself' or to practice austerities. But the type is much more archaic, being part of the prehistoric cultures of Siberian hunters and proto-historical peoples in almost all parts of the world, and shamanism continues to this day wherever hunter-gatherer bands still survive . The shaman is everywhere a mystical, priestly figure -- a healer, seer and visionary.
I am she who puts together, she who speaks, she who searches. I am she who looks for the spirit of the day. I search where there is fright and terror. I am she who fixes, she who cures the person that is sick.
Shamans have mastered death. In visions and dreams, they entered the realm of the dead. Their intense suffering in this other world and their subsequent recovery establishes the shaman as one who has met death and been reborn. The spirit of light is now within: ''something that gleams like fire, that gives the power to see with closed eyes into the darkness, into the hidden things'. The shaman can communicate with the world of gods and spirits:
Slowly I perceived that a voice was trying to tell me something. It was a bird cry, but I tell you, I began to understand some of it. That happens sometimes. I know a lady who had a butterfuly sitting on her shoulder. That butterfly told her things. This made her become a great medicine woman.
The shaman's spirit ascends into the sky. The soul is transformed into a bird, the wings and body of the spirit-bird.
I heard a human voice, strange and high-pitched, which could not come from an ordinary living being. All at once I was way up there with the birds. I could look down even on the stars, and the moon was close to my left side. It seemed as though the earth and the stars were moving below me. A voice said, 'You are sacrificing yourself here to be a medicine man. In time you will be one. You will teach other medicine men . We are the bird people, the winged ones, the eagles and the owls.'

Inside Hilazon Tachtit Cave

The she-shaman's remains were discovered in a cave at Hilazon Tachtit, west of the Sea of Galilee. The cave functioned as a burial site for at least 28 other individuals. But only the shaman was treated differently. Her skeleton was separated from the other bodies by a circular wall of stones. In addition, at least 10 large stones had been placed on the head, pelvis and arms of the body, which the researchers suggest helped to protect the corpse and keep it in a specific position, or possibly to hold the body in its grave. She was also buried in an unusual position, lain on her side against the curved wall of the oval-shaped grave. Her legs were spread apart and folded inward at the knees.

Grosman said the elaborate nature of the burial rituals and the method used to construct and seal the grave suggest the woman had a very high standing within her community.

Analysis of the bones shows that the shaman was about 45 years old. The wearing of her teeth and other ageing signs on the bones suggested the woman was old for her time. She was 1.5 m in height [4' 9"] and had an unnatural, asymmetrical appearance due to a spinal disability -- a fusing of the coccyx and sacrum along with deformations of the pelvis and lower vertebrae -- that would have affected her gait, causing her to limp or drag her foot.

The Natufians went to great lengths to construct a unique grave at the top of a 150-meter (450') slope in order to bury a relatively old and disabled woman.

Many descriptions of shamanism have noted that healing and spiritual powers have often been attributed to physically disabled individuals. In 2006, researchers re-examined a 9,000-year–old woman’s skeleton and grave offerings from a German site and concluded that she had been a shaman. Skull abnormalities would have caused the woman to experience altered states of consciousness that were seen by others as signs of spiritual powers. The researchers based this idea on reports of similar skeletal deformities in modern people that cause numbness, itching, tingling and other unusual sensations.

"Clearly a great amount of time and energy was invested in the preparation, arrangement and sealing of the grave," Grosman said, adding that the burial site was unlike any other found in the Natufian or the preceding prehistoric periods. Hundreds of Natufian graves have been excavated in the Near East but, the she-shaman was not buried like others with everyday items and tools, as hunters, warriors, or political leaders were. Ancient community members must have perceived the woman as having a close relationship with the spirits of the animals buried with her -- hence, the arranged turtle shells and parts of wild pigs, eagles, cows, leopards, martens, not to mention that gory human foot.

All this sheds some light on Natufian rituals, says Grosman in this month's journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For example, the tortoise shells were scattered around and beneath the body. Before arranging the shells inside the grave, humans cracked open the tortoise shells along the reptiles' bellies (so as not to crack the back part of the shell) and sucked out the meat, either as food or for an offering to the dead. They carefully took out the insides by breaking the belly, but left the back intact. The empty shells were then placed around the deceased woman. Pig bones were cracked open and their marrow removed before the bones were placed beneath the woman's hand.

Burials of shamans often reflected their role in life, incorporating healing kits and animals whose spirits were considered to have a special connection with the shaman. "Tortoises, cow tails, eagle wings, and fur-bearing animals continue to play important symbolic and shamanistic roles in the spiritual arena of human cultures worldwide today," Grosman writes.


Did shamanism help set off the cultural upheavals that accompanied the agricultural revolution in the Near East?

Or was it (as we know of it today), rather, the result of the very same changes?

Such a profound transition from a nomadic, hunting-gathering culture to a sedentary, agriculture-based lifestyle was surely accompanied by new rules, rituals, and belief systems. That's only natural. When things change dramatically, people tend to try to re-establish the legitimate order of things by using ritual and religion to deal with change.

A little like Sarah Palin, really.

Perhaps in a strange way, too -- and a world away -- this Papua New Guinea shaman could be one of the last spiritual descendants of that Uppity Natufian witch of 12,000 years ago.

Credit for the artist's drawing of the burial: P. Groszman

Shamanic quotations from Joan Halifax, Shamanic Voices, New York, 1979.


  1. Not back to Zenobia, but I'm not complaining. How fascinating.

  2. I had hoped no one would notice :-) but I couldn't help writing about a new uppity witch.

    The Zenobia new coin post is coming. I promise.

  3. It's funny how interpretations differ between fields. If a medieval European site was dug and they found a body pinned down with stones, the archaeologists digging would almost certainly consider that she'd been pinned down in case she got up and went walking. That would also tend to indicate that she was associated with spirituality and strange powers but in a much less positive way... I also wonder about the emptied bones; is that a symbolic gift of food, or a symbolic spoiling of food so that she had nothing to make the next journey with?

  4. True, tenthmedieval. While some ancient societies didn't like witches, the real 100% negative view comes, I think, with Christianity. Otherwise, their powers depend on how they are used, i.e. white or black witchery. And the same with shamans, too.

    It occurred to me (indeed as a prehistorian) that the emptied tortoise shells and bones meant that the 'mourners' had taken the trouble to feed her. I would think that both tortoise flesh and bone marrow were great delicacies. If you just wanted to spoil the food, a few shells and a handful of cracked bones would make the point. Needless to say, no trace is left of my imagined organic offerings, so we are both free to interpret the residue according to our own fields :-)

  5. judith weingarten wrote: "Such a profound transition from a nomadic, hunting-gathering culture to a sedentary, agriculture-based lifestyle was surely accompanied by new rules, rituals, and belief systems. That's only natural. When things change dramatically, people tend to try to re-establish the legitimate order of things by using ritual and religion to deal with change.
    >A little like Sarah Palin, really."

    Not really. Palin's Pentacostal and Evangelical Churches were/are anti-ritual. No crossing or candles or repetitive prayers(no 'Lord's Prayer')....not only a break from the obvious Roman Catholicism but from Mainline Protestantism.

    Actually what you're describing is more in line with Barack Hussein Obama's 20 Pastor/Mentor(of 20 years) Jeremiah Wright and his Black Liberation Theology which is cultish, racist and sexist.

    ~ Susan

  6. Hi Susan. Thanks for commenting.

    Somehow, I rather doubt that the she-shaman was cultish or racist, and certainly wasn't likely to be sexist, so I don't see that she resembles Jeremiah Wright other than both believing in mumbo-jumbo.

    Pentecostal clapping, arm-raising, singing hymns (to name just a few activities) are also examples of ritual behaviour, which look to an outsider -- or an anthropologist -- very much the same as the audience activity in Dr Wright's church.

    My point, really, was that religious innovation is often a response to the stresses associated with social changes. I think it's a fair point and I'll stand by it.

  7. I'm intrigued by the idea of Sarah Palin being a nomadic hunter-gatherer brought into agricultural society and reacting with an an ativistic religiosity: it fits her screen persona so beautifully.

    I'm tempted to wonder just what kind of past the conservative movement hoped to evoke through her.

  8. Richard, I hadn't meant the Sarah Palin parallel quite so literally, but now that you mention it ... she is the great white Moose Hunter, isn't she? And it strikes me now that oil-hunting ("drill, baby, drill") is a neat metaphor for seal-hunting: in both cases, you make a hole in the ice/tundra, then wait for something to come to the surface ... and grab it.

    More seriously, I think she evokes for the paleo-cons the good-old-days of (white) real Americans. And underlines their deep antipathy to learning and modern knowledge.

    I hope a polar bear catches her before 2012.


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