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LONDON (Reuters) - An ancient grave unearthed in modern-day Israel containing 50 tortoise shells, a human foot and body parts from numerous animals is likely one of the earliest known shaman burial sites, researchers said on Monday.
The 12,000-year-old grave dates back to the Natufian people who were the first society to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, Hebrew University of Jerusalem researcher Leore Grosman and colleagues said.
"The interment rituals and the method used to construct and seal the grave suggest this is the burial of an ancient shaman, one of the earliest known from the archaeological record," they wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Shamans play an important role in many cultures, mediating between the human and spiritual worlds and acting as messengers, healers, magicians to serve the community, the researchers said.
The Israeli team found the bones in a small cave in the lower Galilee region of present-day Israel that was a Natufian burial ground for a least 28 people.
At the time of burial, more than 10 large stones were placed directly on the head, pelvis, and arms of the elderly woman whose body was laid on its side. The legs were spread apart and folded inward at the knee.
The special treatment of the body and use of stones to keep it in a certain position suggests the woman held a unique position in the community, likely some sort of a shaman, the researchers said.
"The burial of the woman...is unlike any burial found in the Natufian or the preceding Palaeolithic periods," Grosman's team wrote. "We argue that this burial is consistent with expectations for a shaman's grave."
The woman was also interred with some unusual grave goods, including the complete tortoise shells and select body-parts of a wild boar, an eagle, a cow, a leopard, and two martens, as well as a complete human foot.
The grave portrays several hallmarks that later become central in the spiritual arena of cultures worldwide, the researchers added.
"Tortoises, cow tails, eagle wings, and fur-bearing animals continue to play important symbolic and shamanistic roles in the spiritual arena of human cultures worldwide today," they wrote.
"It seems that the woman in the Natufian burial was perceived as being in a close relationship with these animal spirits."
Reporting by Michael Kahn, Editing by Maggie Fox and Jon Boyle