Nov 14, 2008

Fifty Tortoises and a 12,000 Year Old Shaman

A stone age shaman was buried with numerous parts of animals, that were apparently significant to her.

The grave contained body parts of several animals that rarely occur in Natufian assemblages. These include fifty tortoises, the near-compete pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, tail of a cow, two marten skulls and the forearm of a wild boar which was directly aligned with the woman's left humerus.

A human foot belonging to an adult individual who was substantially larger than the interred woman was also found in the grave.

Dr. Grosman believes this burial is consistent with expectations for a shaman's grave. Burials of shamans often reflect their role in life (i.e., remains of particular animals and contents of healing kits). It seems that the woman was perceived as being in close relationship with these animal spirits.

The wild boar bone, being aligned with her own, is particularly interesting. It seems to suggest therianthropy. As Graham Hancock explains in Supernatural, there are depictions of shamans transforming into various animals, in cave paintings, going back to the paleolithic era.

Although it's hard to say where the tortoises fit into the belief system of a prehistoric culture, the apparent importance that led these people to collect 50 of the solitary creatures for a burial is intriguing. I find it particularly fascinating, because I seem to be encountering turtle mythos everywhere I look, lately. And, we know that, in many documented indigenous beliefs, turtle and tortoise medicine are seminal, as I wrote here.

According to Dr. Grosman, the burial of the woman is unlike any burial found in the Natufian or the preceding Paleolithic periods. "Clearly a great amount of time and energy was invested in the preparation, arrangement, and sealing of the grave." This was coupled with the special treatment of the buried body.

Shamans are universally recorded cross-culturally in hunter-gatherer groups and small-scale agricultural societies. Nevertheless, they have rarely been documented in the archaeological record and none have been reported from the Paleolithic of Southwest Asia.

There are some other intriguing questions raised by the Natufian culture. According to Wikipedia:

It was a Mesolithic culture, but unusual in that it built stone architecture before the introduction of agriculture. The Natufian communities are possibly the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements of the region, which may have been the earliest in the world. There is no evidence for the deliberate cultivation of cereals, but people at the time certainly made use of wild grasses.

What I find striking, in that, is that it's another instance of a rather highly developed and settled group of hunter-gatherers. Like the discovery of Gobekli Tepe, it challenges ideas about the progression of stone age peoples, suggesting the introduction of architecture before the domestication of grains. Likewise, the recovery of the elaborate burial site for the shaman would seem to indicate a very central role of spiritual practice in the evolving culture.

This discovery also provides further proof that religious leadership was not the sole province of men, in prehistory. Not only was this woman a shaman, she was an important enough figure to require a very involved burial. The idea of women as key figures in prehistoric civilizations has challenged more traditional archaeological views, for some time. Whether these were matriarchal cultures, or simply more gender neutral, continues to be debated, but there is increasing evidence that women held leadership roles in prehistory. In the prologue of Motherpeace, Vicki Noble explains the archaeological finds that inspired much of the artwork in the tarot deck of the same name.

Scholars are coming to acknowledge that the Goddess was alive in the prehistoric imagination and that her images represented a human commitment to "fertility" and "nature." Early religion revolved around "fertility cults" in which the Great Mother was worshiped and women acted as her priestesses. Found in many parts of the ancient world, these fertility religions extended as far back into the prehistoric Ice Age, reflecting the abundance of the Earth Mother and the biological mysteries of the female group. The characteristic features of a "fertility figure" are pendulus breasts, a fat, generally pregnant belly, and well-marked you (female genitalia). Probably the best-known example is the "Venus of Willendorf"...The Venus of Willendorf, Side View of Female Figurine, Gravettian Culture, Upper Paleolithic Period

In contrast to fertility cults is another form of ancient religion, known as shamanism, generally regarded as a predominantly male religious calling. Shamanism is a religion of ecstasy, associated most often with the ability of the spirit-body to detach from the physical body and fly like a bird to the spirit realms. The object of shaman "journeys" is usually a healing of the physical body or the human spirit, of the individual or the community at large.

A shaman's ability to leave the physical body is often represented in art by a bird, a human with the head of a bird, or a figure without a head (suggesting death of the ego). Similarly, a potential shaman may dream of losing his head or, in many cases, of total dismemberment and rebirth as a new being. Through trance journeys into the cosmos, the shaman learns to live in both worlds -- material and spiritual -- saving lost souls and dealing directly with the supernatural. Shamans always have animal "helpers" or "allies," just as witches have their "familiars." The shaman journeys to the other side and communes with the animals in order to take on some of their power and to learn things out of reach of ordinary human consciousness. [emphasis added]

Historically, the largely masculine field of archaeology has been baffled by the prevalence of female representation in prehistoric art and iconography.

Today, in a largely patriarchal world, these prehistoric and "primitive" Goddess images of dignity and quiet religious power challenge existing paradigms of our culture and open the way for spiritual transformation. Yet even in the case of these Goddess images, some contemporary scholars blandly assume that the artists were men. Until recently scholars could get away with asking, "When were there ever great women artists?" Their next step is the assumption that prehistoric man painted what "turned him on," and the conclusion that he must have liked his women fat -- such as the broad-hipped, full-breasted, pregnant "Venus" figurines. Perhaps, as in the age of Rubens, cave men did appreciate a full figure -- how will we ever know? But to reduce the Goddess images to Paleolithic pin-ups is wholly to miss their numinous power, as well as the likelihood that they were created by the female "in her own image."

I like to think that there have been advances in the thinking of archaeologists since the time of that writing. The discovery of this very important female shaman should bring us still further.

No comments: