Thursday, July 07, 2016

A prehistoric female shaman in the Galilee?

HEBREW UNIVERSITY PRESS RELEASE: 12,000-Year-Old Funeral Feast Brings Ancient Burial Rituals to Life. Yes, this is well outside PaleoJudaica's normal period of interest, but this is a slow news week and the story raises many interesting questions about using material culture to reconstruct ancient religious rituals and roles of religious practitioners.
One of the earliest funeral banquets ever to be discovered reveals a preplanned, carefully constructed event that reflects social changes at the beginning of the transition to agriculture in the Natufian period

The woman was laid on a bed of specially selected materials, including gazelle horn cores, fragments of chalk, fresh clay, limestone blocks and sediment. Tortoise shells were placed under and around her body, 86 in total. Sea shells, an eagle's wing, a leopard's pelvis, a forearm of a wild boar and even a human foot were placed on the body of the mysterious 1.5 meter-tall woman. Atop her body, a large stone was laid to seal the burial space.

It was not an ordinary funeral, said the Hebrew University archaeologist who discovered the grave in a cave site on the bank of the Hilazon river in the western Galilee region of northern Israel back in 2008 (LINK). Three other grave pits have been found at the site of Hilazon Tachtit since 1995, and most contained bones of several humans. Nevertheless, the unusual objects found inside the grave, measuring approximately 0.70 m x 1.00 m x 0.45 m, point to the uniqueness of the event and the woman at its center.

Eight years after the discovery, Prof. Leore Grosman from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Natalie Munro from the University of Connecticut, have identified the sequence of events of the mysterious funeral ritual that took place 12,000 years ago.

"We've assigned the event to stages based on field notes, digitized maps, stones, architecture and artifact frequency distributions and concentrations," said Prof. Grosman, adding that, "The high quality of preservation and recovery of a well-preserved grave of an unusual woman, probably a shaman, enabled the identification of six stages of a funerary ritual."

The research, published in the journal Current Anthropology (LINK), details the order of the six-step sequence and its ritual and ideological importance for the people who enacted it.

My first reaction to the press release was that all this sounds wildly speculative. After reading the whole article in Current Anthropology, I am persuaded by their reconstruction of the sequence of events for this funeral. I still think it's a stretch to say that the woman was "probably a shaman." Our knowledge of Natufian society and social roles is very limited and I don't think there is enough evidence at the grave site to locate her role that precisely, although she was clearly an important person. I see that the first commenter shares my skepticism.

Nevertheless, this is an extraordinarily important discovery and the excavators are to be commended for their thorough work on it.