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Archaeologists Reconstruct the Hillside Burial of an Ancient Shaman

If you’re one of those cheerful people who like to plan their own funerals, start taking notes, because this one was legendary. Based on the artifacts found in a cave tomb, researchers have reconstructed the funeral rites—including extravagant feasting and elaborate rituals—for an apparently important woman who died 12,000 years ago. They published their findings in the journal Current Anthropology.

More than 8000 years before the construction of Stonehenge, the Natufian people occupied the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean. These nomads made their homes in the woods, in the mountains, and underground, using crude tools to hunt, fish, and gather wild grains. In a wild and unpredictable world, these people created communities and worked hard to keep them together.

To do so, researchers say, the Natufians tapped into one of the most unifying of human experiences: ritual. And we now have a view of some of those rituals, thanks to the well-preserved grave of an elderly Natufian woman. The Hilazon Tachtit burial site, hidden under millennia of goat dung, soil, and other graves, was first uncovered in 2008 in the western Galilee region of modern-day Israel. At the time, Hebrew University archaeologist Leore Grosman knew she had found something special; the woman’s body was carefully positioned in her final resting place and blanketed with precious objects like seashells, an eagle’s wing, and the pelvis of a leopard. This woman had been somebody. 

The woman’s remains revealed that she had been petite, old—especially for her time—and that she had likely walked with a limp. Given the proclivity of early humans to associate disability with magical powers, the researchers say it’s likely this woman was revered as a shaman. 

Grosman and her colleagues were curious to unpack the circumstances that led to this beloved woman’s burial in a pit full of animal parts. By examining field notes, the cave’s geology and architecture, digitized maps, and the frequency and distribution of recovered artifacts, they were able to mentally reconstruct the burial process.

The funeral was a complicated affair with at least six steps: digging the oval-shaped hole; covering it with a layer of seashells, chalk, tortoise shells, and stone; covering that with a layer of ashes and sediment; laying the woman to rest, surrounded by rare items and the broken shells of 86 tortoises; filling in the grave and covering her body with stones; then sealing the grave with a huge stone.

Accomplishing all this today would be time-consuming, but just imagine how much work and planning would have been required from the Natufians, with their simple tools. In addition to digging the grave and collecting the materials, they also had to prepare a funeral feast that included gazelles (both fawns and adults) and likely those 86 tortoises. The inclusion of the gazelle fawns indicates the funeral took place in the spring. 

For all their primitive trappings, the late shaman’s people showed some surprisingly sophisticated mental work, Grosman said in a press statement. "The significant pre-planning implies that there was a defined 'to do' list, and a working plan of ritual actions and their order." 

The age of the grave is important as well. "The remnants of a ritual event … provide a rare opportunity to reconstruct the dynamics of ritual performance at a time when funerary ritual was becoming an increasingly important social mediator at a crucial juncture deep in human history," the researchers write. 

Excavation images courtesy of Natali Hilger 

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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