Hilazon Tachtit (Israel) - Evidence of Natufian Shamanism

Was the 12,000 Year Old Woman Buried at Hilazon Tachtit a Shaman?

A View of Hilazon Tachtit cave in northern Israel.
A View of Hilazon Tachtit cave in northern Israel. Leore Grosman

Hilazon Tachtit is a small cave site located on the right bank of the Hilazon river in the western Galilee region of northern Israel, where at least 28 burials were placed during the Natufian period. One of these burials has been interpreted as a shaman; adjacent to her burial is a pit which scholars believe represents the remainder of a feast, the earliest evidence to date of such activities.

The cave is located about 14 kilometers (~8.5 miles) from the Mediterranean Sea and 200 meters (650 feet) above current sea levels.

Hilazon Tachtit is 10 km (6 mi) from Hayonim and 45 km (28 mi) from Kebara Cave. Within the cave are four tightly clustered, dome-shaped chambers which were formed by karstic activity dissolving hard limestone laid down between the Eocene and Miocene epochs. The cave includes an area of about 100 sq m (~1,000 sq ft).

Radiocarbon dates for the use of the cave were obtained from charcoal samples within the site, and they range from 10,500-10,700 RCYBP (12,520-12,610 cal BP).

Site Features

Structure A (not a building but an alternate term for a patterned "feature") consisted of an oval pit, 1.2 m (4 ft) in diameter, constructed by removing the bedrock to create an oval basin, which was then plastered with clay and lined with flat limestone slabs. This structure held the interment of an elderly woman interpreted as a shaman (described in more detail below).

Structure B was a circular pit hollowed out of the original bedrock surface of the cave to the same level as Structure A, reinforced with a wall of limestone cobbles and sealed with a limestone slab placed atop a human burial.

Beneath this burial and slab were found nearly 1,000 animal remains, including at least three aurochs and numerous tortoises. These bones hold evidence of butchering, leading scholars to interpret them as the remains of a feast, likely associated with the burial in Structure A. If true, this is the earliest evidence of feasting known to date.

Other features in the cave include a third complete interment of a young adult, found between Structure A and B, and three additional burial pits placed within an area of approximately 5 m2 (~50 ft2). Each of these pits contained partial human remains, totaling at least 25 individuals of different ages, ranging from adults to infants. These bones are jumbled, and many skeletal parts are missing, particularly skulls and long bones. This pit is interpreted as a primary burial site, where bodies were first interred and then later removed for secondary burial elsewhere.

Other Artifacts

Stone tools from Hilazon Tachtit were typical of Late Natufian sites. Most were retouched flakes and microliths, although scrapers and backed burins (generally considered engraving tools) were not uncommon.

Over 3,000 animal bones were recovered from Hilazon Tachtit. By far the most commonly represented were mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella, accounting for 30% of the assemblage) and tortoise (Testudo graeca, 45%).

Shamanism?

The individual interred in Structure A was an elderly gracile female, ~45 years old and approximately 1.5 m (just under 5 ft) tall. Her bones show evidence of aging, and congenital pathologies such that she would have limped or dragged one foot.

She was interred with a worn basalt ball, red ochre, a pointed bone tool, a human foot from another individual, and about 50 complete tortoises. Body parts of other animals were also interred, including two stone marten skulls, the wing tip of a golden eagle, the tail of an auroch, the pelvis of a leopard, the front leg of a boar, and the horn core of a male gazelle.

The construction method of the grave pit was reported in 2016. The oval grave pit was deliberately bored into the bedrock, a comparatively soft dolomite limestone. Next the floor and walls were completely plastered with a layer of mud 2-3 cm (.75-1 in) in thickness. The walls and floors were paved with limestone slabs, and the body carefully placed above those slabs in a semi-seated position. The artifacts listed above were placed around the body.

A midden of animal bone and stone tools--what the archaeologists are calling the remains of a burial feast--was placed over the body; and the whole grave was covered with a very large triangular limestone block.

The elaborate nature of the grave has led researchers to argue that it represents a funerary event which included the burial of a high status individual, and likely a shaman, because of the collection of odd animal and human body parts included with her, and the fact that she was lame during her life. She was obviously someone special.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Natufian, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Dubreuil L, and Grosman L. 2009. Ochre and hide-working at a Natufian burial place. Antiquity 83(322):935-954.

Grosman L, and Munro ND. 2016. A Natufian Ritual Event. Current Anthropology 57(3):311-331.

Grosman L, and Munro ND. 2007. The sacred and the mundane: Domestic activities at a Late Natufian burial site in the Levant. Before Farming 4(4):1-14.

Grosman L, Munro ND, and Belfer-Cohen A. 2008. A 12,000-year-old burial from the southern Levant (Israel) – A case for early Shamanism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(46):17665–17669.

Munro ND, and Grosman L. 2010. Early evidence (ca. 12,000 B.P.) for feasting at a burial cave in Israel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(35):15362-15366.

Winter-Livneh R, Svoray T, and Gilead I. 2012. Secondary burial cemeteries, visibility and land tenure: A view from the southern Levant Chalcolithic period. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 31(4):423-438.