Archaeology

Newly Unearthed Remains Reveal the Complexity of Levantine Hunter-Gatherers

Life before the dawn of agriculture in the Near East turns out to have been far more complex — and comfortable — than previously thought.

Diners at top-tier restaurants often pay extra for items like foraged wild mushrooms, dry-farmed produce, and tisanes made out of freshly picked herbs. These items often appear on the menu of Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse, where downstairs guests can enjoy their meal in view of a comforting wood fire.

Before the dawn of agriculture in the Near East, some hunter-gatherers surprisingly enjoyed similar comforts. A recent years-long excavation of a 14,600–12,000-year-old site in Jordan unearthed the remains of elaborate stone buildings, a fire pit, artworks, stone tools, and ample food remains from what appears to have been a healthy, balanced diet.

The site, Shubayqa 1, which lies northeast of Amman, is described in the journal Scientific Reports. The research sheds light not only on the transition from foraging to farming, but also on the Natufian culture that lived there during this important time in human history.

"The Natufian culture is characterized by the appearance of solid stone buildings — indeed, some of the earliest in the world," Tobias Richter, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, told Seeker.

One oval-shaped, semi-subterranean Natufian structure at the site featured a flagstone-paved floor. Maintaining the structure's look and functionality, the builders lined the fire pit with carefully placed stones.

"They also domesticated the dog as early as 14,000 years ago, which still represents some of the best evidence for the early domestication of the dog," Richter said.

He added that the Natufians were among the first societies to product art, which consisted of usually carved bone and stone figures, as well as incised stones. They also started to produce large numbers of grinding, pounding, and pulverizing tools.

Richter and his team dated more than twenty samples from different layers of Shubayqa 1, making it one of the best and more accurately dated Natufian sites in the world. The dating, directed by Elisabetta Boaretto of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, involved accelerator mass spectrometry, which can reveal the amount of carbon-14 in a sample down to a single atom.

Based on this and other research, it is now believed that the Natufians lived in what is now Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, in addition to Jordan — a region commonly known as the Levant.

Previously it was thought that the Natufians first settled in the Mount Carmel and Galilee region before later fanning out. The new research suggests that the Natufians instead inhabited a variety of places at about the same time, demonstrating their versatility at adapting to different habitats.

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Interestingly, some of the first modern human migrants out of Africa went to the Levant, perhaps attracted by its diverse array of animal and plant life. Certain people today therefore have Natufian ancestry.

"Some genetic traits that we know exist in Natufian populations can also be found in modern European populations and in northeast African populations," Richter explained.

The Levant later gave rise to the world's three primary monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — that possibly have their very early roots in Natufian culture. Richter said these people buried their dead, often including grave goods with the human remains.

"Some have argued that this is evidence for the presence of ritual specialists — shamans — or some kind of group leaders," Richter said. "What seems clear is that the Natufians had developed a complex symbolic cosmology and treated their dead with respect."

Their diet was equally complex. The remains at Shubayqa 1 and at other Natufian sites show that these people hunted birds, gazelle, and other animals. A starchy staple appears to have been the tubers of the sea club-rush plant. The tubers are fibrous, and therefore require flaking or grinding to be palatable, but can reward diners with a pleasant, sweet taste.

"In addition to tubers, they relied on a wide range of other wild plants, such as cruciferous vegetables, wild cereals, and legumes," Richter said, adding that he and his team are currently writing another paper concerning the Natufian diet.

The emerging picture of Natufian life throws a wrench into a popular theory about how agriculture began. The theory holds that as populations in the Fertile Crescent (which includes the Levant) grew, their hunter-gatherer way of life became unsustainable and they increasingly adopted agriculture.

"Personally, I am not entirely sure that this was the case," Richter said. "Our evidence certainly suggests that the Natufian culture was more variable in terms of the habitats it was able to exploit, and in terms of its plant subsistence economy."

"And," he continued, "it is problematic to treat a historical outcome as something that is inevitable."

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Scientists do not yet know precisely where agriculture first began, and what culture initiated this way of life that forever changed humanity. It could be that the Natufians gave rise to the first farmers, but more evidence is needed to solve that mystery.

The answers could come from Richter's latest excavation. He and his team are now working at another settlement, called Shubayqa 6, which lies about a half a mile east of Shubayqa 1. The scientists, he said, are examining the changes in the use of plants and between between the hunter-gatherer period and the Neolithic way of life, which is characterized by farming, domestication of animals for food, and the establishment of villages.

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