…Or perhaps just another theory blown out of proportion by the media. Today’s big news in the archaeological world was the finding of a 12,000 year old feast in commemoration of the death of a shaman woman from a cave in Israel. The interpretation of the grave itself has come under fire since it was first announced as belonging to a mystic a couple years ago (see Grosman et al. 2008).
The grave belongs to an elderly woman who suffered from pelvic deformities and overall degeneration. It is argued that given the time period and the type of burial she was part of the Natufian culture. She was in a fetal position surrounded by 50 faunal bones from varying species such as tortoise, boar, and even a complete human foot. Munro, one of the collaborators, argued that “What was unusual here was there were so many different parts of different animals that were unusual, that were clearly put there on purpose… This care along with the animal parts point to the grave belonging to both an important member of the society and possibly a healer called a shaman” (quoted by Bryner 2008).
More recently the same team has continued excavation in the cave and found what they are describing as a funeral feast. It includes the remains of 71 tortoises and three wild cattle, enough food to feed at least 35 individuals. Given the types of faunal bones recovered, the cutmarks and the location, Grosman and Munro argue that this could only represent a feast for the shaman.
The problem with their conclusion, as noted by various others (Balter 2010, Moseman 2010) is that we cannot excavate the ritual significance behind the meal. A communal meal does not necessitate spiritual or ritual meaning. It is also unknown as to what the time gap in between the woman’s burial and the deposition of the faunal remains, so co-occurrence is also an issue. While the story created by Grosman and Munro is very compelling, and brings a sympathetic side to our ancestors, we must be careful in attributing spiritual or cultural meaning to an act when we lack the evidence to do so.
Bryner. 2008. “Female Shaman’s Grave Loaded with Goodies”. Live Science. http://www.livescience.com/history/081103-shaman-grave.html
Grosman et al. 2008. “A 12,000 year old shaman burial from the southern Levant (israel)”. PNAS. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2008/10/31/0806030105.abstract
Beltar. 2010. “The First Feast?”. ScienceNOW. http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2010/08/the-first-feast.html
Moseman. 2010. “Have archaeologists found the first funeral feast?”. Discover Magazine. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/08/31/have-archaeologists-found-evidence-of-an-ancient-funeral-feast/