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
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
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.