A post for Halloween


Halloween. A good time to write about the dead. And as it happens, I was just reading about a woman who is very experienced at being dead: she was Natufian, a group that lived around the eastern Mediterranean between about 15,000 and 11,500 years ago. They were a group in flux, a group that was transitioning from footloose foraging to sedentary farming.

This particular woman was found in a cave in what is now northern Israel called the Halizon Tachtit cave. The cave is well up a steep slope, so it isn’t easy to get to. Getting there carrying a body would have been an effort, which means the process had some kind of importance.

There were 28 others buried in the cave. But the woman I’m writing about is special. She’s described as “old”, which seems to mean she was about 45, and was described in the paper I was reading as “gracile”—slightly built. She had some health issues that would have affected her stance, and her walk.

While most of the others were buried in common pit graves, and disturbed later for one reason or another, she was buried alone, and once buried she was left alone. Her grave was an oval pit that was well prepared; the sides seem to have been mudded in order to secure limestone slabs to them. The floor was also covered in limestone, and there was another limestone slab over the top.

She was buried with more than 50 tortoise shells, and with the tortoise bones as well; these may have been the result of a feast at her burial. But there was also the wing tip of a golden eagle, placed over or near the body. A quote from the paper: “The burial of the woman…at Hilazon Tachtit is unlike any burial found in the Natufian or the preceding Paleolithic periods.”

They call this grave the Shaman grave, because of the importance of the burial and the kind of animal bones near her are consistent with that role for her. I have no idea whether she was a shaman or not; no one can really know that. But there’s no doubt at all that she was someone important, who was greatly value by those who knew her.

Ok, that might be considered a little grim, even though it’s Halloween. So maybe you should also read about the theory that the people who built Gobekli Tepe 11,600 years ago were feasting on bread, hearty stews, and beer, all made with wild grains because there weren’t any farmers yet.

(The paper about the shaman grave: “A 12,000-year-old Shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel)”, by Leore Grosman, Natalie D. Munro, and Anna Belfer-Cohen)


  • It is truly amazing how many of our present ideas of a noble and useful life are buried in the recognizably distant past. Thank you for digging out some fascinating examples of this phenomenon.

By Ullman