Ancient shaman part of peace through partying and the first Feast for the Dead

Evidence found in the resting place of an ancient shaman indicates that perhaps the world’s first villagers fostered peace via partying.

Some 12,000 years ago in a small sunlit cave in northern Israel, mourners finished the last of the roasted tortoise meat and gathered up dozens of the blackened shells. Kneeling down beside an open grave in the cave floor, they paid their last respects to the elderly dead woman curled within, preparing her for a spiritual journey.

Tortoise shells surround the shaman’s body.

They tucked tortoise shells under her head and hips and arranged dozens of the shells on top and around her. Then they left her many rare and magical things—the wing of a golden eagle, the pelvis of a leopard, and the severed foot of a human being.

A Spiritual Site

Now called Hilazon Tachtit, the small cave chosen as this woman’s resting place is the subject of an intense investigation led by Leore Grosman, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

Already her research has revealed that the mystery woman—a member of the Natufian culture, which flourished between 15,000 and 11,600 years ago in what is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and possibly Syria—was the world’s earliest known shaman. Considered a skilled sorcerer and healer, she was likely seen as a conduit to the spirit world, communicating with supernatural powers on behalf of her community Grosman said.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Grosman and Natalie Munro, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Connecticut, reveals that the shaman’s burial feast was just one chapter in the intense ritual life of the Natufians, the first known people on Earth to give up nomadic living and settle in villages.

First Feasts for the Dead

In the years that followed the burial, many people repeatedly climbed the steep, 492-foot-high (150-meter-high) escarpment to the cave, carrying up other members of the community for burial as well as hauling large amounts of food. Next to the graves, the living dined lavishly on the meat of aurochs, the wild ancestors of cattle, during feasts conducted perhaps to memorialize the dead.

New evidence from Hilazon Tachtit, in northern Israel’s Galilee region, suggests that mortuary feasting began at least 12,000 years ago, near the end of the Paleolithic era. These events set the stage for later and much more elaborate ceremonies to commemorate the dead among Neolithic farming communities.

In Britain, for example, Neolithic farmers slaughtered succulent young pigs 5,100 years ago at the site of Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, for an annual midwinter feast. As part of the celebrations, participants are thought to have cast the ashes of compatriots who had died during the previous year into the nearby River Avon.

The Natufian findings give us our first clear look at the shadowy beginnings of such feasts, said Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist at Harvard University. “The Natufians,” Bar-Yosef said, “were like the founding fathers, and in this sense, Hilazon Tachtit gives us some of the other roots of Neolithic society.” Study co-author Grosman agrees. “The Natufians,” she said, “had one leg in the Paleolithic and one leg in the Neolithic.”

Just This Once …

For the burial wake of the shaman, the Natufian people feasted on aurochs and wild tortoise, but their day-to-day diet was less extravagant. As a result of transitioning from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer culture to a sedentary, agriculture-based lifestyle, the food they ate reflected both ways of life and included wild cereals, legumes, almonds, acorns, gazelle, deer, beef, wild boar, ibex, duck, and fish, depending on the area of settlement.

Opened Graves

After burying their spiritual leader 12,000 years ago at Hilazon Tachtit, Natufians returned to the cave for other funerary rituals, eventually interring the bodies of at least 27 men, women, and children in three communal burial pits, researchers say.

On some later visits, Natufians opened the communal graves and removed certain bones, including skulls, for possible display or burial elsewhere, according to Grosman.

Until now, removing bones from burials for use in rituals was thought to have begun during the Neolithic era at sites such as the West Bank’s Jericho, dating to about 11,000 years ago. A similar practice has been found at the later Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. In both places mourners coated human heads with plaster and kept them for ceremonial purposes.

On the Menu

“We think that there were scheduled visits to Hilazon Tachtit,” said study co-author Grosman, who received partial funding from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration for her work at the Natufian site.

Natufians seem to have made the steep climb laden with joints of mountain gazelle and aurochs. In what might have been one sitting, the mourners devoured an estimated 661 pounds (300 kilograms) of aurochs meat, according to the study.

But they did not bring all this food for a picnic. In their daily lives, Natufian families seldom dined on aurochs, for the wild oxen were relatively scarce at this time. And given the species’ power and speed, hunting an aurochs likely required a communal effort.

The celebrants chose to feast on aurochs for reasons above and beyond their nutritional value. “In later times we know that the aurochs become ritually important in the area,” zooarchaeologist Natalie Munro said. Indeed, some later cultures seem to have regarded aurochs as sacred animals, even symbols of fertility.

For example, at the massive, 11,600-year-old Gobekli Tepe ritual site in Turkey—seen by some as the world’s oldest temple—hunters and gatherers dined lavishly on aurochs.

 

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