November 18, 2008
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
JERUSALEM – Archeologists digging in northern Israel have discovered the 12,000-year-old skeleton of what they say was a witch doctor.
They said the skeleton was that of a deformed woman of around 45 years of age from the Natufian culture, which ranged from Syria to the Sinai peninsula at the time.
Leore Grosman, in charge of the excavation in the Galilee, said the bones were found in a carefully-carved oval grave with the skull resting on a tortoise shell.
The skeleton was covered by several large stones, which may have been placed there to keep the witch doctor’s spirit entombed.
An additional 49 tortoise shells were found in the grave, along with a leopard pelvis, a cow tail and part of an eagle wing. A pestle and mortar used to grind ingredients for potions were also discovered, Grosman said, adding that the find cast an unprecedented light on the Natufian people and their transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers.
“It points out that there are special people with special positions in the society,” she said. “We imagined it was so but we didn’t have real proof for that until now.”
Grosman said there are several clues that the woman was a witch doctor: the elaborate burial, the presence of so many animal remains, and physical conditions that probably caused a limp. Shamans were historically believed to communicate with animal spirits and often had physical deformities, she said.
Women persecuted as witches in 17th-century north America and Europe were attributed with the same characteristics.
Mina Weinstein-Evron, an Israeli archeologist specializing in Natufian culture who did not take part in the dig, said the find was a breakthrough.
“If it’s a witch, if it’s a shaman, this would be the first proof ever of such a kind of behaviour within this hunter-gatherer group,” she said. But even if the woman wasn’t a witch doctor, the burial itself is still unique.
She said that most people from the period were buried in communal earthen graves, not interred alone in stone and that she had never uncovered anything as elaborate.
The findings were recently published in the United States in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.