Archeologists believe a 12,000-year-old skeleton found in a grave containing 50 tortoise shells, a leopard pelvis, a cow tail and part of an eagle wing is the remains of a witch doctor.
The skeleton, found at an excavation near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, is believed to be that of a deformed woman around 45 years old from the Natufian culture, which at that time ranged from Syria to the Sinai peninsula.
Leore Grosman, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which is in charge of the excavation, 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 the items such as the leopard pelvis. A pestle and mortar used to grind ingredients for potions were also discovered, Grosman said. She said the find cast an unprecedented light on the Natufian people.
“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 the woman was a witch doctor: the elaborate burial, the many animal parts and physical conditions that probably caused a limp. Shamans were historically believed to communicate with animal spirits and often had physical deformities, she said.
Mina Weinstein-Evron, an Israeli archaeologist 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 behavior within this hunter-gatherer group,” she said.
But even if the woman wasn't a witch doctor, the burial itself is still unique, Weinstein-Evron said. 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.