Washington, Nov 5 : Archaeologists have unearthed what is believed to be the world's oldest known grave of a shaman in northern Israel, which includes an elderly female of the mysterious Natufian culture, animal parts, and a human foot.
According to a report in National Geographic News, the grave dates back to 12,000 years, and is unique in its construction, contents and arrangement.
"From the standpoint of the status of the grave and its contents, no Natufian burial like this one has ever been found," lead archaeologist Leore Grosman said. "This indicates the woman had a distinct societal position," he added.
The Hilazon Tachtit site-9 miles (14 kilometers) inland from Israel's Mediterranean coastline-is associated with the Natufian culture, which flourished in the eastern Mediterranean between 11,500 and 15,000 years ago.
Though hundreds of Natufian graves have been excavated in Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, only the one uncovered by Grosman contains a woman believed to have been a shaman.
The term "shaman" originated in Siberia, but these magic-invoking priest-doctors are common in cultures around the globe.
The 1.5-meter-tall (nearly 5-foot-tall), 45-year-old woman was relatively old for her time. After her death, she was placed in a mud-plastered and rock-lined pit in a cave and was buried beneath a large stone slab.
She was not buried with everyday items and tools, as hunters, warriors, or political leaders were.
Instead, her grave contained 50 arranged turtle shells and parts of wild pigs, eagles, cows, leopards, martens, and a human foot, among other artifacts.
According to Grosman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, during this period, Natufian culture changed from a nomadic, hunting-and-gathering culture to a sedentary, agriculture-based lifestyle.
"The artifacts found in the woman's grave shed light on some of the specifics of Natufian rituals from this period," said Grosman.
For example, the turtles appear to have been eaten as part of the burial ceremony. Their shells were then placed around the deceased woman.
Pig bones were cracked open and their marrow was removed before the bones were placed beneath the woman's hand.
The grave was closed with the slab perhaps to prevent damage caused by animals.
According to Harvard University anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, the shaman grave is a rare find.
"Finding a shaman's burial is like finding Napolean's grave," he said. "I've spent many years digging other Natufian sites, and I've found a bunch of graves, but I've never found anything like this," he said.
"The shaman's grave and its contents finally give another view into a society that didn't leave behind a written record. It's almost equivalent to a textual record," he added.