An eagle’s wing. The pelvic bone of a leopard. A human foot. The shells from 86 tortoises. These are only a few of the extraordinary objects that archaeologists found buried along with the remains of a female shaman in a cave near the Hilazon River in Galilee, northern Israel. Buried in an elaborate six-stage process some 12,000 years ago, the diminutive, elderly woman belonged to a hunter-gatherer society during the Late Natufian period, around 12,000 years ago.

Back in 2005, a team of archaeologists discovered a shallow grave containing the prehistoric remains of a woman inside the cave known as Hilazon Tachtit in the northern Israeli region of Galilee. After years of painstaking analysis, they have been able to reconstruct the woman’s elaborate six-stage funeral, including a ritual feast of some 86 tortoises. From the complexity of the burial process, and the unique artifacts found inside the grave, they believe the woman was most likely a shaman, or some other highly important figure, during the Late Natufian period (10,800 B.C.-9,500 B.C.).

Inside the grave—the oldest in a prehistoric burial ground containing the remains of at least 28 individuals—the woman had been laid on a bed of specially selected materials, including sediment, seashells, tortoise shells, chalk and the bony cores of gazelle horns. The grave also contained an array of animal bones (pig’s leg, eagle’s wing, cow’s tailbone, the pelvic bone of a leopard) and even the bone of a human foot.

The entrance to the Hilazon cave site. (Credit: Naftali Hilger)
The entrance to the Hilazon cave site. (Credit: Naftali Hilger)

According to the archaeological team, led by Natalie Munro of Connecticut University and Leore Grosman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the remains and artifacts they recovered from the cave site were extremely well preserved, allowing the researchers to reconstruct the woman’s funerary rites in detail and trace them to a specific time period. They recently published the findings from their analysis in the journal Current Anthropology.

According to the new study, the first of six stages in the process consisted of the funeral attendants preparing the grave pit by marking a symmetrical oval shape in the cave floor and using some type of drill to break up the bedrock. After covering the walls and floor of the pit with mud, limestone and other sediments, they proceeded to the second and third stages, lining the pit with limestone, tortoise shells, gazelle horns and other materials and covering the lining with ash and debris from chipped stone tools.

In the fourth stage of the burial, the attendants placed the body of the dead woman—who stood only 4 feet 9 inches tall—in the grave in a squatting position, inserting tortoise shells between her head and pelvis and the walls of the pit. They placed more shells and animal bones on top of and around the body, and weighted it down with more limestone blocks.

At that point, the archaeological evidence indicates, the attendants piled garbage from their funerary feast into the grave. The researchers believe many of the tortoise shells placed in the grave were the remnants of this ritual meal, in which the attendants consumed as much as 55 pounds of meat. In the sixth and final stage of the burial process, they positioned a large triangular block of limestone at the top of the grave.

One of the 86 tortoise shells found at the site. (Credit: Leore Grosman)
One of the 86 tortoise shells found at the site. (Credit: Leore Grosman)

It’s clear this was no ordinary funeral: The array of animal bones surrounding the woman’s body, and the elaborate nature of her burial, convinced the researchers that she was likely a shaman or other important figure in the community. At the time, shamans were believed to commune with animal spirits. In addition to being extremely short and elderly (she was around 45 years old when she died, an advanced age for the time period), the woman also apparently suffered from a number of diseases, all of which would have made her stand out in her community for her unusual appearance.

Natufian people, native to the Levant region from around 15,000 years ago, are thought to be among the first modern humans to form permanent settlements. The evidence recovered from the Hilazon Tachtit grave site is lending researchers important insight into the Late Natufian era, including the transition of Natufian society from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled agrarian one.

Previous archaeological evidence has shown that while Natufian people continued to gather fruit and hunt for meat, they also began growing their own food and possibly making their own bread. In particular, the analysis of the female shaman’s burial clearly demonstrates that funerary rites were becoming an important cultural practice during the Late Natufian period, and hints at the rituals, organization and complexity of this ancient society.