All of this would normally be of interest primarily to professional archeologists, but one of the burials, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has received considerable attention, including an article in Time Magazine.
Second, the woman was buried with a number of very unusual grave goods — more than fifty complete tortoise shells, two stone marten skulls, the feathered wing tip of a golden eagle, part of an aurochs tail, the pelvis of a leopard, the forearm of a wild boar, a male gazelle horn core, and a complete articulated human foot.
The grave itself was also unusual. The walls had been intentionally plastered with mud, the floor lined with limestone slabs, and the body itself pinned down with more than ten large stones. The burial, the authors state, is unlike any other found in this area during the Natufian period or the preceding Paleolithic. In addition, this burial was apparently the first use of this cave, which is located more than six miles away from the nearest Natufian domestic site, so it presumably took some effort to carry the body to be buried.
Clearly this was a special person.
Now the authors are making a large claim here, and it is worth following their reasoning. The conclusion is based on just two facts. The woman was physically disabled; and she was buried with animal parts. But then how does this make her a shaman? In some cultures, the authors state, there are accounts of physically disabled individuals being ascribed healing and spiritual powers. And, because of the presence of animal remains in the grave, the woman "was perceived as being in close relationship with these animal spirits."
I am also not convinced that the presence of buried animal remains, no matter how unusual, are persuasive evidence that the grave contains a shaman. It is true, of course, that some shamans in some cultures are buried with animal parts, but again the inference does not run in the other direction. Since we have absolutely no evidence of Natufian spiritual beliefs, we are free to speculate at will. If the woman had a congenital limp, and was about forty-five years old, perhaps each turtle shell stood for a year of her life during which she walked slowly and awkwardly, like a turtle, and the eagle, gazelle, and leopard parts are meant to give her, in the next life, the speed and grace she lacked in this one. Perhaps the human foot was meant to be hers in the hereafter.
This speculation is not offered to be taken with any great seriousness. The point is that it accounts for the evidence just about as well as the speculation that the woman was a shaman — that, to use Bar-Yosef's term, it is just as parsimonious.
There is no question that the grave is unusual and fascinating. It is apparently also true that the burial took place during the presumably profound social and economic changes associated with the transition to agriculture. In this specialized burial, we may be seeing the emergence of social rather than spiritual stratification, or some other cultural phenomenon entirely.