Return of a Shaman

Return of a Shaman September 2, 2010
Here are links to four versions of the same story about an archeological dig at a 12,000 year old site in Israel: from TIME Magazine, US News & World Report (which appears to be republishing Science Magazine), the Christian Science Monitor, and the BBC.
The site is significant because it gives us a picture of the transitionary period from hunter-gatherers who followed wild herds to farmers who raised crops and tended domesticated herds in fixed locations – the beginnings of civilization.
The four sources essentially tell the same story and all four are almost certainly based on a paper to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper isn’t on their website yet and would be behind a pay wall if it was.
What I find interesting is that three of the four stories mention the remains of a 45 year old woman with “unusual physical characteristics” who was buried with “a strange assortment of individual animal bones.” Two of the stories speculate that she was a shaman, based on what was found buried with her.
The BBC story gives the most details, saying the items buried with the woman “included the pelvis of a leopard, the wingtip of an eagle, and the skull of a stone marten – all animals with distinctive fur or feathers” and that “The woman herself had some unusual physical characteristics, probably congenital malformations which very likely led to a life-long limp.” But the BBC simply reports the findings and doesn’t mention the inference (no doubt from the archeologists working the site) that she was a shaman.
The Christian Science Monitor draws the conclusions the BBC didn’t. “The carefully constructed burial pit, the apparent ‘offerings,’ the tortoise shells, and the physical characteristics of the woman herself point to the woman as having a unique status, likely as a shaman.”
The US News/Science story simply calls her “an elderly woman who probably had been a shaman.” And the TIME story makes no mention of her.
So what does this discrepancy mean from a journalism standpoint? Probably nothing more than the background and interests of the individual story writer. But it’s a reminder that what we read and see and hear is only a small part of the whole story.
Shamans are walkers between the worlds. If this woman was a shaman, in life she journeyed to the Otherworld to bring back wisdom and knowledge for her people. Now she’s traveling forward through time, bringing us knowledge from 12,000 years ago. May we learn from her – and then return her bones to their proper resting place.

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