25,000 years ago there was an important woman living in the (now) Czech Republic. Her tribe was treating her so well that the archaeologists who found her back in 1949 thought she must have been a shaman or other important religious figure1.
Firstly, the tribe gave her good healthcare, helping her survive a disfiguring facial injury. Then, when she did eventually die, they gave her a special burial. Plus, someone made a carving of her face on valuable mammoth ivory; which she was buried with1.
She must have been super important!
Or maybe, the results of 70-year-old science examining a badly broken skull isn’t that reliable. So a group of Czech researchers began reconstructing the bones to find out1.
This Shaman hails from a place now called Dolni Vestonici, earning her the glamorous name “Dolni Vestonici 3” as the third burial found at the site. So I’ll call her Devee, the DV3 burial1.
Life must have been tough for Devee. Living around 25,000 years ago (which we know from radiocarbon dating) she saw the height of the last ice age, with massive glaciers extending from the poles to only a few kilometres away1.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Devee never had fun. People living there made the first ceramics, creating a variety of figurines. However, they fired them wrong; ensuring most would explode as they baked. Was this part of a ritual Devee the Shaman took part in, or just an excuse to blow things up2?
This sort of symbolism extended into death at Dolni Vestonici. Burials seem to have had all sorts of rituals and artefacts associated with them. The deceased was carefully positioned, often painted, and buried with fancy objects3.
Of course, Devee’s burial is the most impressive. Not only did she have the usual care and attention given to her, but her tribe seems to have taken it all a step further. They covered her burial with valuable mammoth bone and made a portrait of her.
Plus, she was kept alive despite some pretty serious injuries. Altogether, it seemed obvious to the original excavators that she was an important figure in her tribe.
How well does this conclusion survive under modern scrutiny?
One of the big issues with Devee’s original research is the facial reconstruction. When researchers found her skull, it was badly damaged. They quickly sought to put it back together; revealing she had taken a hefty blow to the face; permanently scarring her1.
Devee’s continued survival, despite this injury, is a key piece of evidence she was important to her tribe. Yet nobody has redone her facial reconstruction, despite all the advances we’ve made since the 40s1. Was her injury as bad as it first appeared?
So Nerudová and a group of researchers working in the Czech Republic set about redoing Devee’s facial reconstruction with all the latest scientific equipment. Her bones were put into the computer, and CT scans were done to examine the extent of her injuries1.
All of this confirmed that she did take a major blow to the face. However, the initial investigation may have overstated its seriousness. As she recovered, the resulting disfigurement may have become almost imperceptible. Of course, she’d still need help from her friends to recover in the first place1.
So Devee retains her place as a key figure of the Dolni Vestonici tribe. But her story doesn’t end there. The new set of scans was so detailed that Nerudová et al. were able to do a proper foresnic facial reconstruction1.
So without further ado, here is the Shaman of Dolni Vestonici1
- Nerudová, Z., Vaníčková, E., Tvrdý, Z., Ramba, J., Bílek, O. and Kostrhun, P., 2018. The woman from the Dolní Věstonice 3 burial: a new view of the face using modern technologies. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, pp.1-12.
- Vandiver, P.B., Soffer, O., Klima, B. and Svoboda, J., 1989. The origins of ceramic technology at Dolní Věstonice, Czechoslovakia. Science, 246(4933), pp.1002-1008.
- Klima, B., 1987. A triple burial from the Upper Paleolithic of Dolní Věstonice, Czechoslovakia. Journal of Human Evolution, 16(7-8), pp.831-835.