A human skull with facial features modelled in lime plaster from Kfar HaHoresh.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
An old woman is found buried in a Hilazon Tachtit cave with a feather taken from a golden eagle, 86 cooked turtles and the arm of a wild boar.
Why? Was she a powerful shaman, possibly a Natufian tribal leader from 12,000 BCE? Speaking to a mesmerized audience at a conference held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on May 24, Prof. Leore Grosman describes how other bodies were found buried on their side with legs pulled up in a manner pointing to elaborate mourning and feasting rites.
The audience is allowed a glimpse through time when this land was not yet biblical, as that book had yet to be written. Instead, it was a land with roaming wild boars and leopards and early human societies, where groups of roughly 25 people walked about and interacted with some 10 other similar-sized tribes, in order to survive, mourn, feast, and remove the skulls of the dead.
We don’t know why they did that last thing.
One of the pleasures of archeology, says Prof. Emeritus Ofer Bar-Yosef, who is an expert on the Nahal Hamar cave – a Pre-Pottery Neolithic storage unit where seashells from the Red Sea, a limestone mask and a sickle with a flint blade and an adorned shaft were found – is that everything prehistoric is open to varied theories. We know that they removed the skulls of the dead, we just don’t know why.
Having worked at the Kfar HaHoresh Neolithic excavations site for 22 years, Prof. Nigel Goring-Morris explained that they were able to learn that foxes were buried next to children who had died prematurely.
At times, only a fox jawbone was placed near the child.
Were the foxes meant to guide the spirits of the children in the afterlife? We don’t know. Without written texts the dead cannot object to this or that tale. Much collective work is needed to piece bones and stone fragments together and offer a plausible theory.
But, as British archeologist Prof. Mike Parker Pearson explains, plausible rarely means right. Talking about Stonehenge, he cheerfully bursts one myth after the other. Stonehenge was not built by druids as they did not exist in Britain at the time. It was not built to communicate with aliens. It is also not a one-of-a-kind sun temple. It was also not built by a powerful civilization at a time of great prosperity and social stability.
As Parker Pearson explains it: “Stonehenge was built at a time where the island turned its back on Neolithic Europe. It was, one could say, the first Brexit in British history.”
The island had a rude awakening with the arrival of the Beaker people who brought foreign European technology, meaning the wheel, in roughly 3,000 BCE. “But don’t worry,” Parker Pearson told The Jerusalem Post
after the lecture, “they kept on building monuments, only smaller ones.”
When Ramilisonina, an archeologist from Madagascar, began working at Stonehenge in 1998, he suggested that it was a monument to honor the dead. “In Madagascar they have a living tradition of erecting monuments to the dead,” Parker Pearson explains, “and I would like to add that when he suggested it, Ramilisonina did not know we found evidence that Stonehenge is the largest Neolithic burial site in Britain.”
The dead, who came from what is now Wales and South West England, might explain why the site was built using bluestones from Preseli Hills and chalk from Salisbury Plain. It was meant to be a neutral place between two territories where the dead could be buried and mourned.
Cattle bones found on the site indicate people came from as far away as Scotland.
That Stonehenge is a cenotaph, a monument honoring the dead who are not there, was suggested by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136, Pearson says. Geoffrey just got the dates wrong thinking it was a monument for victims of the Saxon invasion.
So was the old woman in the cave a Shaman? Negev tour guide Yigal Granot, who wrote a book about Negev wild plants and their medical usages in ancient Arab and Muslim societies, tells me that because women were the plant collectors they were the ones who knew which plants could heal. “As that power was seen to come from God,” he explains, “these women were seen to be closer to God and so, powerful shamans.”
Grosman points out that a lot of the work done on the cave was carried out by female scholars, perhaps binding the past and present in a feminist sense.
“This time [the Neolithic era] in archeology is fascinating,” Goring- Morris told the Post. “During the Neolithic era we begin to be the humans we are today. People who are settled in a land. With that come the usual difficulties we all know – what is mine, what is yours and the quarrels over it. This is relatively a new thing. When we were nomads we didn’t behave in this manner. Only when a human society reaches a few hundred people do social relations change.”