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Discovery in northern Israel of graves dating back twelve thousand years

Twelve thousand years is a long time – more than four million sunrises and four million sunsets. Human life has changed a lot in that time, but one thing has stayed constant: the importance of funerals. In fact, if funerals weren’t so important to us, we’d know far less about our own past. The resting-places of the dead have taught archaeologists a huge amount about life in those ancient days.

That has just been proved again by the discovery in northern Israel of graves dating back twelve thousand years. That’s long before the invention of writing, so there are no inscriptions to tell archaeologists whose graves they are. But the shape and size of bones can tell us about age and sex. Objects buried with the skeletons can tell us about what the departed person did in life.

That’s how the archaeologists, led by Prof. Leore Grosman of Jerusalem University and Prof. Natalie Munro of Connecticut University, know that one of the graves is that of a female shaman, or a kind of tribal priest who could contact the spirits and give guidance to the living. At least, that’s what shamans do in tribal societies today and it’s reasonable to think that they did the same twelve thousand years ago. The objects in the woman’s grave are certainly like those of more recent shamans: a leopard’s bone and an eagle’s wing.

In tribal societies, objects like those are seen as having great spiritual and magical power. Think of how frightening and powerful a leopard must have seemed in ancient times. It was a fast, cunning predator that could see in the dark. We know from other archaeological discoveries that human beings regularly fell prey to leopards – the marks of their teeth have been found in ancient skulls – so a leopard’s bone must have been a powerful object.

So must an eagle’s wing. It would have symbolized flight, far-sightedness and speed. Perhaps it was used for blessings, being dipped in water or blood so that drops could be sprinkled on babies or a newly married couple or someone who was sick with fever. Disease must have been a very frightening thing in those ancient times. The female shaman suffered from it badly, because it left marks on her bones and during life she would have been disfigured.

But that is often the case with a shaman: they are blind or crippled or suffer from epilepsy. They’re physical outsiders, which makes it easier to believe that they are spiritual outsiders too: people with the ability to speak with the dead and enter magical realms where ordinary members of the tribe can’t go. And the female shaman would have had another claim to be special and favoured by the spirits: despite her disfigurement and diseases, she seemed to have died at the age of about forty-five, which would have made her very long-lived in those days.

When she finally passed away, she was buried with care and respect in a cave, which may have been seen as an entrance to the underworld. Her funeral seems to have had several stages, accompanied by complex rituals. Sound isn’t preserved like bones, but we can guess that there was music and chanting in the cave, whose confined spaces would have amplified and echoed the words and notes in an eerie and frightening way. We don’t know the name of the female shaman or what language her tribe spoke, but we do know that her tribe had one big thing in common with us: they thought the dead should be laid to rest with dignity and honour. That’s why they gave their shaman a careful burial in a sheltered place, where her bones would survive for twelve thousand years, carrying the story of her life right into the twenty-first century.

So you could say that the shaman out-flew her own age with her eagle’s wing and her leopard’s bone.