A 12,000-Year-Old Shaman From Hilazon Tachtit, Israel & The Emergence Of Religion

A new paper in PNAS reports on an interesting find from a 12,000-year-old Natufian burial complex in the Hilazon Tachtit cave site in Israel — a shaman, which is unlike any other Natufian burial known to date. Before I get into the details of the paper, let me first introduce the Natufian culture and the ecological context members of this culture lived in.

Map of the Hilazon Tachtit Cave Site, Israel
Map of the Hilazon Tachtit Cave Site, Israel

The Natufian culture existed in the Levant from 14,500 to 11,500 years before the present. They were hunter gatherers at first and had a microlithic industry, perfecting short blades and bladelets. Two different human burials at the Ein Mallaha and Hayonim sites include dogs, suggesting they domesticated dogs around 12,000 years ago. The spread of the culture can be estimated by the presence of Anatolian obsidian and shellfish from the Nile-valley being found at Ein Mallaha.

Around 12,800 to 11,500 years ago a climate shift occurred. There are many names for this climate change, I’ll call it the Younger Dryas event. During this period, there was a rapid return to glacial conditions caused by a significant reduction of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation. And by rapid I mean it happened within 10 years. The cold and dry Younger Dryas climate lowered the biological carrying capacity of the Levant. This ecological change from the Younger Dryas forced cultures into planting seeds obtained from elsewhere, and practicing agriculture.

Illustration of the Shaman Grave from Hilazon, Tachtit, Israel
Illustration of the Shaman Grave from Hilazon, Tachtit, Israel

Okay going back to the paper, archaeologists have recently excavated the Hilazon Tachtit cave site. Hilazon Tachtit is located about 15 km west of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. The site is dated to be 12,400 – 12,000 years old, right at this ecological and cultural transitional period. The site is primarily a burial ground of at least 28 Natufian individuals. Most of the remains are buried in one collective pit, but one burial was special. The remains of a 45 year old woman was separate and accompanied by lots of animal remains. She had bone spurs on her pelvis and spine, indicating she suffered physical ailments. Accompanying her burial are the remains of the tail bones from a cow, a wing bone from a golden eagle, a forearm of a boar, 50 tortoise carapace pieces, two marten skulls and a large foot from another person. She’s intricately buried in a certain position with a stones arranged in a certain fashion and unlike the other individuals.

Some Animal Remains From the Shaman Burial in Hilazon Tachtit, Israel
Some Animal Remains From the Shaman Burial in Hilazon Tachtit, Israel

The authors argue that she was a shaman. Although the term shaman originally comes from the Tungisic speaking people from Siberia, many gatherer groups and small-scale agricultural cultures have had a shamanistic role — a member of the community who functioned as an intermediate between the human and spirit world. They were healer-magician hybrids. The elaborate burial of this physically disabled woman accompanied with tortoises, cow tails, eagle wings, and fur-bearing animals fall in line with our observation of other shaman burials found throughout the world.

The presence of a shaman in this critical transitional period of human cultural evolution suggest that the seeds of organized religion were already planted. Now, there are controversial depictions of shamans in cave art from 15,000 years ago, but this 12,000 year old burial is the first physical evidence of the ideological and socioeconomic changes that accompanied the forager-to-farmer Neolithic transformation. The development of spiritual ideas and religion are a big part of human cultural evolution. We don’t know exactly when human ancestors developed such thoughts, it could certainly be earlier than 12,000 years ago, but at least we now know that early Neolithic peoples, like the Natufians had at least one shaman.

When do you think religious thoughts emerged during human evolution. Oh yeah, I have to ask, does anyone roll shaman in WoW?

    L. Grosman, N. D. Munro, A. Belfer-Cohen (2008). A 12,000-year-old shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806030105

8 thoughts on “A 12,000-Year-Old Shaman From Hilazon Tachtit, Israel & The Emergence Of Religion

  1. When do you think religious thoughts emerged during human evolution.

    Since always and by this I mean *at least* since we are Homo sapiens and maybe before. Our greater cognitive ability makes us ask way too many questions, many of which can only have an answer in the realm of the imaginary (magico-religious dimenson). Additionally we know that the pre-scientific mind tends to explain the why of things by affinity, what again leads us to the magico-religious realm.

    We think we have evidence of “shamanic” or other magical-religious thought at least since Upper Paleolithic. But it’s very likely that it was there before, since our minds were large enough and became concerned about the why of things – to which magical explanations are the most simple, sometimes reasonably approximate, available explanation without proper science.

    Thinking in magical terms is even possible, I think, to understand more or less what the animal offerings in this burial may have meant: the head of a mustelid certainly suggests me smartness, sharp mind, intelligence, while the other offerings may reflect other such attributes (shell for sturdiness and protection; wings for spirituality, far sight or wisdom, etc.) Neverhelss, I must admit that the mammal offerings suggest food to me (ham and bull-tail soup), though they surely meant also spiritual attributes I cannot understand well.

  2. Luis,

    As always, thank you for the insightful and thought provoking comment. I appreciate anytime you comment on a post here and wish other commenters would follow your recipe.

    On the subject at hand, I know that some primatologists, notably Jane Goodall, have observed chimpanzees doing what can be considered a ritual at a waterfall — so the roots of spirtualism maybe far more deep than we expect. Can you elaborate on the evidence for “shamanic” or other magical-religious thoughts since Upper Paleolithic? In all honesty, I’m unfamiliar with that evidence and would like to investigate.


  3. What are the chances that a sudden climate change like that mentioned here might have led to a sudden availability of psychedelic plants, whose ingestion would certainly have encouraged religious imagery & thought?

  4. my mate is a shaman both in faith and on the game world of war craft he claim that the game protrail of the class is not to far off base there are a few things that are off but there is no set guide line saying what is right or what is wrong it is base on the person and what guide helps them, every one has a guide as you can tell from the last name from my mate his is a crow. I do not know what mine is, to me it looks like a mix of a aye-aye, bushbaby, and a rodent, or what crow says “food”. It will not be the same for every one.

  5. I just want to laugh at you losers who believe in Evolution. It’s utterly laughable and pathetic. Just a bunch of kids scraping and guessing at the ancient universe and calling your wild guesses “science.”


  6. One difficulty in determining the origins of religion is distinguishing it from art, if, in fact, there was an early distinction. Geometric engravings on stone from Blombos cave are somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 years. Neanderthals about 50,000 years ago collected and arranged stalactites into two circles in the depths of Bernifal cave for some reason. If there was no clearly practical reason to do these things, they must have appealed to an emotional resonance; aesthetic or spiritual. That doesn’t mean that being a Paleolithic artist didn’t have its practical side if you gained particular recognition for your gifts among your people. One of the best books on the subject is David Lewis-Williams, “The Mind in the Cave” but mine is pretty good too: “Dancing at the Edge of Death: The Origins of the Labyrinth in the Paleolithic” Thanks for the information on this cave – fascinating stuff.

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