Natufian-period funerary ritual in the Southern Levant
Twelve thousand years ago in what is now northern Israel, a petite woman was laid to rest in a grave pit layered with seashells, red ochre, chalk, whole tortoise shells, ash, flint and animal bones. The woman, who was positioned in a child-bearing pose and was likely a shaman, had lived in western Galilee at a time when the people of the Southern Levant were transitioning from a foraging lifestyle to a sedentary one centered on farming. The unusual burial, say researchers Leore Grosman of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut, reveals the social changes that accompanied the agricultural transition during the Natufian period (15,000–11,000 years ago).
The excavation of the burial at Hilazon Tachtit Cave was first published in 2008 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Since then, Grosman and Munro have reconstructed the funerary ritual conducted for this shaman, recently reporting their analysis in Current Anthropology. The Natufian-period ritual, which Grosman and Munro believe occurred in six stages, concluded with a large stone placed over the 2.3 by 3.3 by 1.5-foot grave. That an enormous amount of energy was spent on this funeral, from the gathering of material for the grave pit to the preparation of the funerary banquet, indicates this was no ordinary burial.
“The remnants of a ritual event at this site provide a rare opportunity to reconstruct the dynamics of ritual performance at a time when funerary ritual was becoming an increasingly important social mediator at a crucial juncture deep in human history,” explain Grosman and Munro in a Hebrew University of Jerusalem press release.
“This unusual Late Natufian funerary event,” the press release continues, “provides strong evidence for community engagement in ritual practice, and its analysis contributes to the growing picture of social complexity in the Natufian period as a predecessor for increasingly public ritual and social transformations in the early Neolithic period that follows.”
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