When the “Shaman of Bad Dürrenberg” was discovered in eastern Germany in 1934, the remains were assigned to a rich man, the “original Aryan”. The Nazis, already in power, believed they had discovered in the 9,000-year-old remains one of their powerful “Aryan” ancestors: A white-skinned, blue-eyed, blond-haired man.
However, more recent investigations have revealed they were thoroughly mistaken. The buried skeleton did not belong to a white man, but a dark-skinned, powerful woman, buried with a child – a female shaman from the Mesolithic period, which lasted roughly from 9,500 to 4,500 BC.
Who was the shaman of Bad Dürrenberg?
“Rarely have people been so mistaken about a person as they were about this woman,” renowned archaeologists and authors Harald Meller and Kai Michel write in their book Das Rätsel der Schamanin: Eine archäologische Reise zu unseren Anfängen, (German for: “The Riddle of the Shaman: A Journey into Our Past”) which was published in October last year.
Meller and Michel explain how they tried to throw light on the skeleton’s secrets, using genetic analysis, magnetic resonance imaging and state-of-the-art dental examinations.
It was not only the deceased’s gender and skin colour that the archaeologists were wondering about but also her position in society: Had this woman been a powerful shaman? If so, why was she chosen for this important position? And who was the child buried beside her?
What is shamanism?
Shamans are “border crossers to the spirit realm, to which they gain access by means of trance,” Michel and Meller explain in their book. Shamans mediate between the spirit and the living world, using drums or other instruments, dance, and trance-inducing substances.
Some scholars believe the term ‘shamanism’ can only be applied to certain cultures of Siberia, where it was first discovered and described by Western scholars, while others consider shamanism a widespread phenomenon in history and shamanism as “the first religion of humankind”.
Archaeologists first suspected that the woman found in Bad Dürrenberg may have been a shaman because she had been buried with some extraordinary burial items. She wore deer antlers on her head, perhaps even a whole deer skull. The shells of three turtles found in her grave may have served as rattles used in shamanic rituals. She was also buried with numerous pierced animal teeth which may have been worn as pendants.
The shaman’s powerful role
An examination of her cervical vertebra has also revealed that the blood supply to her brain stem was restricted, which probably resulted in what is known today as Downbeat-Nystagmus, where the eyes drift upward and then “beat” or jump downward.
Nystagmus is not a medical condition and would have posed no danger to her physical health. But the movement of her eyes may have made it appear as if she was in a trance or “possessed” by animal spirits, Meller and Michel write in their illuminating book. Combining the suspense of a crime novel with the appeal of a well-researched piece of historiography, they outline how this woman may have become an important figure in her community.
In their book, Michel and Meller paint a picture of a woman who was powerful and cherished, and one who may have functioned as an oracle for her community, as a wise woman or even a political leader. She was also valued despite or because of an unusual physical phenomenon that may have set her apart from others.
Discovery confirms beliefs are outdated
The researchers also gained new knowledge about the young boy with whom she was buried. Complete sequencing of the woman’s genetic material and partial decoding of the child’s genome revealed that he wasn’t her child. They were however related, though not closely. The child’s bones are still being studied to find more clues as to how and why he was buried in the shaman’s grave.
They point out that the investigation of the shaman’s remains confirms that widespread historical beliefs are outdated. In prehistoric times, women weren’t inferior to men. They received sumptuous burials and held important social and political positions. People who differed physically or psychologically from a perceived norm were not cast out but could rise to important positions.
Nine thousand years ago, it might have been normal for a coloured female, who was physically different from the average person in her community, to become a powerful spiritual or political leader.
A Nazi nightmare
This would not have been welcome news for the Nazis. When they first excavated the shaman’s grave, they were looking for proof that their ancestral “Aryans” had always lived in Germany to support the idea of their “thousand-year empire” and their fascist racial doctrine.
What they lacked wasn’t modern archaeological methods, as Michel and Meller point out, but the ability or desire to look at the grave without prejudice. The buried boy, for example, was not mentioned at all or only in passing in the first two archaeological reports. That the remains could have belonged to a woman was not even considered until 1957, long after the end of Nazi rule.
Through archaeological investigation, year by year, the “dream find of the Nazis,” as Harald Meller and Kai Michel write in their book, turned into the “nightmare of all Nazis”. With modern technology, ‘whitewashing’ human remains is no longer an option.
The shaman is not the only one of her kind. In 2022, it turned out that the “Man of Neuessing,” who is 34,000 years old, didn’t have white skin either. The man, known as the “oldest Bavarian,” lived in the Ice Age in what is now southern Germany — and was black.
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