Hilazon Tachtit Cave: Evidence of Change in Natufian Mortuary Practices

Shaman Burial in Section A – Hilazon-Tachtit Cave / Israel.  By Christine Sterne


The excavations in Israel Hilazon-Tachtit Cave revealed the burial of a very unique elderly female Shaman with exceptional grave offerings and a great change in mortuary practices (Grosman, et.al., 2008). The Natufian Culture is a community lived in Levant (15,000-11,600 cal BP) during the early Neolithic period. The evidence shows that, by the adoption of a sedentary life-style, change from foraging to farming introduced new customs in their social and cultural understanding, which also reflected in their mortuary practices. Even-though there’s ‘no evidence of institutionalised social stratification”, this can be defined as the introduction of new symbolic activity.


The small cave was used as a burial ground by the community with evidence of at least 28 burials. Two circular structures were built of limestone cobbles and large stones brought from outside of the cave were used to trace the outlines of both structures. Beside the structures were three burial pits that contained 25 burials.

The structure A hosted the burial of a very unusual woman. An elderly lady with several skeletal pathologies like deformation on the pelvis, lumbar and sacral vertabrae (upper and lower spine) and heavy erosion on the teeth. 10 large stones were placed directly on the head, pelvis and arms in means of holding the body in fetal position, which, again unexpected from previous Natufian mortuary practices (Grosman et.al., 2008). Another extraordinary element is that the cave is located 10 km. away from the nearest settlement called Hayonim Terrace, where Natufian burials are generally found very close to the settlement areas.

The grave goods in structure A laid in an aesthetic manner were also spectacular and unique. Fragment of a basalt bowl, articulated foot of a large sized man, pointed bone tool along with a round pebble, 50 tortoise shells with traces of consumption, set of wings from an eagle, pelvis of a leopard, articulated forearm of a wild boar were among the excavated grave goods. Structure B, on the other hand was used to prepare the feast and the ceremony as there were kettle bones with butchering marks, evidence of burn marks on animal bones along with more small game and tortoise remains (Munro and Grosman, 2010).

Considering the consumption of special foods derived from rare and symbolically important animals as well as choice of space and invested time and effort, we can say that this lady was a Shaman and an important figure within the community. Looking at the grave goods and the symbology behind the chosen products of the feast, at this point makes sense in understanding the beliefs of the Natufian.

TORTOISE, is the oldest symbol for mother earth in many cultures around the world. The slow movements of the animal as well as its long life therefore its wisdom resembles the planet earth (Woolcot, 2015). Also it is the personification of goddess energy, and the eternal Mother from which our lives evolve. We are born of the womb of Earth, and to her soil our bodies will return. In honoring the Earth, we are asked by Turtle to be mindful of the cycle of give and take, to give back to the Mother as she has given to us.

Turtle has a shell which is similar to the protection that Earth has employed for centuries as her body has been defiled. Mother Earth’s protection has come in the form of Earth changes, new plant growth, the creation of new land masses by volcanoes, and climate alterations.

EAGLE, is the child and messenger of the Sky God, Khotor-Aiyy, according to the Sakha Shamans in Yakut region in Siberia. Central eyes that sees all, ability to fly high, strength of coping with difficult conditions are the aspects of the eagle which also is believed to be a soul carrier between the worlds (Balzer, 1996).

LEOPARD, is the healer of deep wounds and will bring old issues to resolution through the reclaiming of power that was lost during the time of the wounding. As it is more known in north and west African tribes, Leopard is also a symbol of self-acceptance.

The excavation of the Shaman burial, in my opinion, not only providing us with great information and allowing us to interpret deeply about the symbolical aspects of the findings, it also shows us how the change in life-styles reflect and effect the social traditions, making of new ones and changing the world. Feasting and communal rituals are evident to bring people together to engage on events based on mutual beliefs and values, in a way, creating a sedentary community spirit by serving to mitigate a shared stress.



BALZER, M.M. (1996). Flights of the Sacred: Symbolism and Theory in Siberian Shamanism American Anthropological Association 98 pp 305-318

Grosman, l., Munro, N. D. and Belfer-Cohen, A. (2008). A 12,000 Year Old Shaman Burial From The Southern Levant. PNAS. 105 (46)

Munro, N.D. and Grosman, L. (2010). Early Evidence (ca. 12,000 BP) for Feasting at a Burial Cave in Israel. PNAS. 107 (35) pp 15362-15366

Sterne, C. (2009). Shaman Grave from Hilazon-Tachtit Israel [photograph] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/28909871@N03/4077873328/in/photolist-7dmaEQ

Woolcot, I. (2015). Turtle Power Animal: Symbol of Mother Earth [online] Available at: http://www.shamanicjourney.com/turtle-power-animal-symbol-of-mother-earth-fertility-protection-support-security

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