Female Shamans of Ancient Europe

September 12, 2016

In her book The Woman in the Shaman’s Body, Barbara Tedlock argues that the prehistoric foundations of our species’ shamanic activity is filled with evidence that women have been important and active participants in those practices. She highlights convincing pieces of evidence that reveal prehistoric women shamans. One of these is the skeleton that was unearthed in Dolni Věstonice.

Dolni Věstonice is an Upper Paleolithic archaeological site in the Czech Republic about 100 miles north of Vienna, Austria. First discovered in the early twentieth century, the site was radiocarbon dated to approximately 28,000 years ago. While this place is now arguably near the geographic center of Europe, during the Upper Paleolithic period the area was on the edge of the glacial ice. A skeleton unearthed there was of a woman in her forties—old enough to have been a grandparent. As an elder, she would have been important to her people.

Rachel Caspari argues that elderly people were highly influential in prehistoric society. Grandparents assisted in childcare, perpetuated cultural transmission through storytelling, and contributed to the increased complexity of stone tools through their practiced experience. In other words, during the Stone Age, elders were a vital repository of all the collected knowledge, history, and wisdom of their people.

Not simply set apart by her advanced years, the skull of the woman of Dolni Věstonice revealed that she also had a marked facial asymmetry. Her high-status burial and facial deformity suggests that she was a shaman. According to Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University, people with disabilities were often thought to have unusual or supernatural power. This special woman was buried under two engraved mammoth shoulder blades.

She and the contents of her grave had been painted with red ochre after her death. Over her head was a flint spearhead, and in one hand she held the body of a fox.

Twelve thousand years ago in another part of Eurasia, a shaman in what is now northern Israel was afforded similar honors when she was interred. Relatively old for her time, the nearly 5-foot-tall, 45-year-old woman was placed in a mud-plastered and rock-lined pit in a cave and was buried beneath a large stone slab. She was buried with fifty carefully arranged tortoise shells; parts of wild pigs; an eagle wing; a cow tail; a leopard’s pelvis; two marten skulls; the forearm of a wild boar, which was laid in alignment with her upper left arm; and other artifacts, including a human foot.*

*This last inclusion is especially interesting, as the woman would have limped and dragged one of her own feet as she walked because of a spinal deformity.

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