Mysterious Woman Was Buried With 86 Tortoise Shells and a Human Foot 12,000 Years Ago

July 7, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Bones of a woman discovered in a ancient burial site in in northern Israel.
Photo credit: Leore Grosman. Bones of a woman discovered in a ancient burial site in in northern Israel.

Archaeologists have now reconstructed her extravagant funeral.

12,000 years ago, in a cave in the western Galilee region of northern Israel, a deceased woman was laid to rest in an elaborate grave filled with an assortment of peculiar items. These included 86 tortoise shells placed under and around the woman’s body, along with sea shells, an eagle’s wing, a leopard’s pelvis, a forearm of a wild boar, and a human foot belonging to an adult who was substantially larger than the interred woman, all found on top of her.

At only 1.5 meters tall (4 feet 11 inches), the mysterious woman was petite. She was also elderly and disabled, according to a description of the grave contents published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2008.

The items in the grave provide further clues about the buried woman’s role in life, suggesting she was perceived as being in a close relationship with animal spirits. Her interment alongside animal remains is consistent with shaman burials of the time.

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Eight years after the discovery, Leore Grosman from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Natalie Munro from the University of Connecticut, have now identified the six-step sequence of events of the funeral ritual that took place 12,000 years ago. They have published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

"The high quality of preservation and recovery of a well-preserved grave of an unusual woman, probably a shaman, enabled the identification of six stages of a funerary ritual," said Grosman in a press release.

The ritual began with the digging of an oval grave pit in the cave floor. Next, a layer of objects was cached between large stones, including seashells, red ochre, chalk, and several complete tortoise shells. These were covered by a layer of sediment containing ashes, and garbage composed of flint and animal bones.

A tortoise shell excavated at the grave site

One of the 86 tortoise shells found in the grave. Credit: Naftali Hilger

About halfway through the ritual, the woman was laid inside the pit in a childbearing position, and special items including the tortoise shells were placed around and on top of her. Limestones were then placed directly on the body. The ritual concluded with the sealing of the grave with a large, heavy stone.

"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," the researchers said.

This woman’s funeral would have been a massive undertaking, particularly for those tasked with capturing and preparing 86 tortoises and other animals for the feast. Such an elaborate event provides strong evidence that community engagement in ritual practice was growing during this dynamic period of emerging social complexity.

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