Tag: Archeology

The Toolkit of Prehistoric Humans

New discovery: Early humans used chopping tools to break animal bones and consume the bone marrow.

Researchers from the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University unraveled the function of flint tools known as ‘chopping tools’, found at the prehistoric site of Revadim, east of Ashdod. Applying advanced research methods, they examined use-wear traces on 53 chopping tools, as well as organic residues found on some of the tools. They also made and used replicas of the tools, with methods of experimental archaeology. The researchers concluded that tools of this type, found at numerous sites in Africa, Europe and Asia, were used by prehistoric humans at Revadim to neatly break open bones of medium-size animals such as fallow deer, gazelles and possibly also cattle, in order to extract the nutritious high-calory bone marrow.

The study was conducted by Dr. Flavia Venditti of the University of Tübingen and Prof. Ran Barkai and Dr. Aviad Agam of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with the Laboratory of Technological and Functional Analyses of Prehistoric Artefacts (Sapienza, University of Rome) and researchers from Sapienza, University of Rome. The paper was published in January 2021 in the PLOS One Journal.

Prof. Ran Barkai: “For years we have been studying stone tools from prehistoric sites in Israel, in order to understand their functions. One important source of tools is Revadim, an open-air site (as opposed to a cave) dating back to 500,000-300,000 years before our time, and rich with remarkably well-preserved findings.  Over the years we have discovered that Revadim was a highly favored site, reinhabited over and over again by humans, most probably of the late Homo Erectus species.  Bones of many types of game, including elephants, cattle, deer, gazelles and others, were found at the site.”

צילום: פרופ' רן ברקאי

A chopping tool from late Acheulian Revadim.

The researchers add that the prehistoric inhabitants of Revadim developed an effective multipurpose toolkit – not unlike the toolkits of today’s tradesmen. After discovering the functions of some stone tools found at the site, the researchers now focused on chopping tools – flint pebbles with one flaked, sharp and massive edge. Prof. Barkai: “The chopping tool was invented in Africa about 2.6 million years ago, and then migrated with humans wherever they went over the next two million years. Large quantities of these tools have been found at almost every prehistoric site throughout the Old World – in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and even China – evidence for their great importance. However, until now, they had never been subjected to methodical lab testing to find out what they were actually used for.”

The researchers analyzed a sample of 53 chopping tools from Revadim, looking for use-wear traces and organic residues. Many specimens were found to exhibit substantial edge damage as a result of chopping hard materials, and some also showed residues of animal bones, preserved for almost half a million years! Following these findings, experimental archaeology was also applied: The researchers collected flint pebbles from the vicinity of Revadim, manufactured replicas of prehistoric chopping tools and used them to break open bones of dead medium-size animals. Comparisons between the use-wear traces and organic residues on the replicated tools and those on the prehistoric originals significantly substantiated the study’s conclusions.

Prof. Barkai: “Early humans broke animal bones in two to extract bone marrow. This requires great skill and precision, because shattering the bone would damage the bone marrow.  The chopping tool, which we examined in this study, was evidently outstandingly popular, because it was easy to make, and highly effective for this purpose. This is apparently the reason for its enormous distribution over such a long period of time. The present study has expanded our knowledge of the toolkit of early humans – one more step toward understanding their way of life, tracking their migrations, and unraveling the secrets of human evolution.”

Featured image: Prof. Ran Barkai producing a replica of a chopping tool in order to be used in experimental marrow extraction.

TAU Excavation Examines “Ancient High Tech”

Plant remains elucidate early Israel’s role in global metals industry.

By Melanie Takefman

The wind is the first to “welcome” visitors to the hilltop TAU excavation at Yotvata, a kibbutz in the Arava desert. It lashes out at anyone or anything in its path, merciless. The steep ascent to the site is no more hospitable.

“This site is here precisely for this reason,” explains Mark Cavanagh, a doctoral candidate at TAU’s Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies and Archaeology. “The winds powered the smelting furnaces—fanned the flames—in the early periods of the copper industry.” The dig at Yotvata is part of TAU’s Central Timna Valley Excavation, led by Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef. Since 2012, Ben-Yosef and his team have studied the ancient mining industry in Israel’s South, which peaked around 1,000 BCE, during the time of Biblical kings David and Solomon. During the current dig season, the Timna Valley team is studying the earlier stages, in the third millennium BCE, of what Ben-Yosef refers to as the “high tech of the ancient world.”

The wind is the first to “welcome” visitors. TAU excavation at Yotvata

“We’re interested in how the metallurgical industry started,” says Ben-Yosef. His team has found evidence that the early mines’ products served the Egyptian empire. “The elite needed luxury materials such as jewelry, tools and ornaments… copper was part of the social processes that made civilizations and empires.”

According to his hypothesis, the communities surrounding Timna were much more important than previously thought because they had ties to the “great Egypt of the pyramids,” Ben-Yosef says. Moreover, their prominence points to the crucial role of the metal’s industry in the emergence of the Egyptian empire as well as the first urban societies, which developed at around that time in northern and central Israel.

Cavanagh, a New Jersey native, is an archaeobotanist, studying plant remains to learn about the past. He completed an International MA in Archaeology at TAU and is now in the second year of his PhD at TAU, under the supervision of Ben-Yosef and Dr. Dafna Langgut.

At Timna, Cavanagh seeks vestiges of the fuel sources that fed the copper smelting furnaces. By analyzing them, he gleans insights into the broader context of the mines and the role they played in the third millennium BCE. For example, the types of plant remains he finds can tell him about that period’s ecology and climate. Through traces of pollen, for example, he hopes to learn if the area was more savannah-like 5,000 years ago.

One of the season’s exciting finds was a grave attributed to the Early Bronze Age at Yotvata. Through it, Cavanagh hopes to learn more about the inhabitants of the mining site. “The entire area is covered in graves.” Together, they create a path that indicates travel routes. “We’ll begin to understand the tracks that people were taking in the Early Bronze Age,” he says, both in terms of trade and migration.

Each of these elements, pieced together, will shed light onto what Cavanagh calls “one of the greatest stories of human history: How and when and why did people learn to turn pretty rocks into useful metal?“

Stay tuned for the next season!

Featured image: hilltop TAU excavation at Yotvata

A match made in Megiddo

How the chemistry between archaeology and physics researchers led to groundbreaking discoveries about biblical history

Sometimes when you’ve stopped looking for a solution is exactly when it pops up. Israel Finkelstein, Jacob M. Alkow Professor of the Archaeology of Israel in the Bronze and Iron Ages, Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology, discovered a very interesting finding in 1998, at the archaeological excavation of Megiddo. He noticed a dig participant who did not quite fit the profile of a typical university undergraduate. 

“I sniffed around and learned that this particular student was actually a TAU professor flying under the radar. He turned out to be a very important ‘find,’” smiles Finkelstein. That student, incumbent of the Wolfson Chair in Experimental Physics Eli Piasetzky, Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, was pursuing a degree in archaeology. Prof. Finkelstein pulled him aside to talk, and so began a research partnership that is still active two decades later.  

When were early Biblical texts written?

The archaeological issue of the day was mapping the chronology of the Iron Age in ancient Israel. Finkelstein challenged Piasetzky to improve the dating of remains from biblical times by using the radiocarbon method. The findings, published in professional and lay publications worldwide, rendered a new timeline of ancient Israel with lasting ramifications for biblical studies.

“Until then, the dating of texts was based on Biblical considerations,” explains Prof. Finkelstein, adding, “You can say that Biblical history was the path of the researchers, and archeology was used as a tool to prove the Bible stories were true.” He said. His article caused an uproar among researchers around the world, and he realized that he needed a more accurate dating tool and a talented mathematician to help him. Prof. Finkelstein presented his friend with a challenge – to accurately date the findings discovered in the excavations and to prove his claims.

Using the radiocarbon dating method on hundreds of items collected and tested, Prof. Piasetzky and Prof. Finkelstein presented a new and more accurate timeline in the history of ancient Israel, which was published in the New York Times, and had long-term implications for the study of the Biblical period since then.


The excavation site at Tel Megiddo, where it all began

Algorithms for reading ancient inscriptions

Prof. Piasetzky and Prof. Finkelstein continue their quest to reconstruct ancient history. As reported by The New York Times, they are conducting analyses to help better decipher ink inscriptions on potsherds, known as ostraca that were unearthed at an ancient fortress in the deep desert of Arad in southern Israel.

“The citadel of Arad stands like a time capsule: Active about 2,600 years ago, it was a relatively short-lived, godforsaken outpost, a five-day journey from Jerusalem, populated by maybe 30 soldiers,” describes Finkelstein. “Who inscribed the potsherds found there? Who read them? The ostraca teach us about government and about literacy in ancient Judah. If we determine when writing became a tool used by a wide swathe of society, we can shed light on when early Biblical texts were written.”

A shopping list from thousands of years ago

Prof. Piasetzky and Prof. Finkelstein have put together a team of archaeologists, historians, physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists to analyze handwriting and determine just how many hands penned the Arad ostraca.

To do so, they employ physics techniques of multispectral imaging to reveal inscriptions and improve readability. Next, they compare handwriting by using algorithms specially developed by the team. What they found there was surprising: the new lines discovered were a letter requesting the issuance of wine and food from the warehouses of the Tel Arad fortress to one of the military units in the area. The recipient of the letter was the warehouse clerk, while the address was an officer from Beersheba.

Beyond the information about what people used to eat and drink during that time, the researchers revealed that even quartermasters knew how to read and write, and also learned a few new words that don’t appear in the Bible. “From the content of the letters we learn that literacy permeated even the low ranks of the military administration of the kingdom. If we extrapolate this data to other areas of Judea, and assume that this was the case in the civil administration and among the clergy, the level of literacy is considerable. This level of literacy is a reasonable background for the composition of Biblical texts,” explains Prof. Finkelstein.

Facing the future

After studying the past, Prof. Finkelstein and Prof. Piasetzky explain what can be done with these special technologies in the 2000s. “One may ask why a student of mathematics would be interested in developing tools for handwriting analysis of ancient inscriptions,” Prof. Piasetzky says. “But this type of analysis is also acutely needed today by, say, lawyers, banks, and the police. Furthermore, we’re finding solutions for the challenges of deciphering ink inscriptions found on uneven clay surfaces with faded markings and missing pieces. If our algorithms can analyze decayed inscriptions, think what they can do with modern-day handwriting on flat clean paper surfaces.”

Prof. Finkelstein adds: “With handwriting we face a problem of subjectivity. Scholars – all of us – come with preconceptions. We can convince ourselves that we see this or that particular letter. The computer does not have preconceptions. It measures length of strokes and angles, making numerical comparisons. Our next step is to integrate multispectral imaging at digs. This could dramatically improve excavation methodologies by determining on site if a potsherd is treasure or junk. One inscription can change the way we understand history.”

Featured image: Prof. Eli Piasetzky and Prof. Israel Finkelstein talk about how it all started

A Glimpse into the Wardrobes of King David and King Solomon

Archaeologists discover fabric dyed royal purple, dating back to the time of King David and King Solomon.

“King Solomon made for himself the carriage; he made it of wood from Lebanon. Its posts he made of silver, its base of gold. Its seat was upholstered with purple, its interior inlaid with love.” (Song of Songs 3:9–10) For the first time, rare evidence has been found of fabric dyed with royal purple dating from the time of King David and King Solomon.

While examining the findings from the Timna Valley dig (an ancient copper production district in southern Israel), archeologists were surprised to find remnants of woven fabric, a tassel and fibers of wool dyed with royal purple. Direct radiocarbon dating confirms that the finds date from approximately 1000 BCE, corresponding to the biblical monarchies of King David and King Solomon in Jerusalem. The rare dye is often mentioned in the Bible and appears in various Jewish and Christian contexts. This is the first time that purple-dyed textiles dating back to the Iron Age have been found in Israel, or indeed throughout the Southern Levant.

More Precious Than Gold

The research was carried out by Dr. Naama Sukenik from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef from the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with Prof. Zohar Amar, Dr. David Iluz and Dr. Alexander Varvak from Bar-Ilan University and Dr. Orit Shamir from the Israel Antiquities Authority. The unexpected finds have been published in the prestigious PLOS ONE journal.

According to the researchers, true purple [argaman] was produced in an elaborate and difficult process from three species of mollusk indigenous to the Mediterranean Sea: The dye was produced from a gland located within the body of the mollusk by means of a complex chemical process that took several days. Today, most scholars agree that the two precious dyes, purple [argaman] and light blue, or azure [tekhelet] were produced from the purple dye mollusk under different conditions of exposure to light. When exposed to light, azure is obtained whereas without light exposure, a purple hue is obtained. These colors are often mentioned together in the ancient sources, and both have symbolic and religious significance to this day. The Temple priests, David and Solomon, and Jesus of Nazareth are all described as having worn clothing dyed purple.


King David wearing purple while anointed king by Samuel (Dura Europos Synagogue, Syria, 3rd century AD)

The analytical tests conducted at Bar Ilan University’s laboratories, together with dyes that were reconstructed by Prof. Zohar Amar and Dr. Naama Sukenik, identify the species used to dye the Timna textiles and the desired hues. In order to reconstruct the mollusk dyeing process, Prof. Amar travelled to Italy where he cracked thousands of mollusks (which the Italians eat) and produced raw material from their dye glands, which was then used in hundreds of attempts to reconstruct the ancient dyeing process. “This practical work took us back thousands of years,” says Prof. Amar, “and allowed us to better understand obscure historical sources associated with the precious colors of azure and purple.”

“This is a very exciting and important discovery,” explains Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic finds at the Israel Antiquities Authority. “This is the first piece of textile ever found from the time of David and Solomon that is dyed with the prestigious purple dye. In antiquity, purple attire was associated with the nobility, with priests, and of course with royalty. The gorgeous shade of the purple, the fact that it does not fade, and the difficulty in producing the dye, all made it the most highly valued of the dyes, which often cost more than gold. Until the current discovery, we had only encountered mollusk-shell waste and potsherds with patches of dye, which provided evidence of the purple industry in the Iron Age. Now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of the dyed fabrics themselves, preserved for some 3000 years”.

Silicon Valley of the Iron Age

Prof. Ben-Yosef says, “Our archaeological expedition has been excavating continuously at Timna since 2013. The region’s extremely dry climate enables us to recover organic materials such as textile, cords and leather from the Iron Age, from the time of David and Solomon, providing us with a unique glimpse into life in biblical times. We can excavate for another hundred years in Jerusalem and still, we will not be able to discover textiles from 3000 years ago. The state of preservation at Timna is exceptional and it is paralleled only by much more recent sites, such as Masada and the Judean Desert Caves.”

“In recent years, we have been excavating a new site inside Timna known as ‘Slaves’ Hill’. The name may be misleading, since far from being slaves, the laborers were highly skilled metalworkers. Timna was a production center for copper, the Iron Age equivalent of modern-day oil. Copper smelting required advanced metallurgical understanding that was a guarded secret, and those who held this knowledge were the ‘Hi-Tech’ experts of the time. Slaves’ Hill is the largest copper-smelting site in the valley and it is filled with piles of industrial waste such as slag from the smelting furnaces. One of these heaps yielded three scraps of colored cloth. The color immediately attracted our attention, but we struggled to believe that we had found true purple from such an ancient period”.

Royal Argaman – the Most Prestigious Color

The dye was identified with an advanced analytical instrument (HPLC) that indicated the presence of unique dye molecules, originating only in certain species of mollusk. According to Dr. Naama Sukenik, “Most of the colored textiles found at Timna, and in archaeological research in general, were dyed using various plant-based dyes that were readily available and easier to dye with. The use of animal-based dyes is regarded as much more prestigious, and served as an important indicator of the wearer’s high economic and social status. The remnants of the purple-dyed cloth that we found are not only the most ancient in Israel, but in the Southern Levant in general. We also believe that we have succeeded in identifying the double-dyeing method in one of the fragments, in which two species of mollusk were used in a sophisticated way, to enrich the dye. This technology is described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, from the first century CE, and the dye it produced was considered the most prestigious.”

Prof. Ben-Yosef identifies the copper-production center at Timna as part of the biblical Kingdom of Edom, which bordered the Kingdom of Israel to the south. According to him, the important finds should revolutionize our concepts of nomadic societies in the Iron Age: “The new finds reinforce our assumption that there was an elite at Timna, attesting to a stratified society. In addition, since the mollusks are indigenous to the Mediterranean, this society obviously maintained trade relations with other peoples who lived on the coastal plain. However, we do not have evidence of any permanent settlements in the Edomite territory. The Edomite Kingdom was a kingdom of nomads in the early Iron Age.”

“When we think of nomads, it is difficult for us to free ourselves from comparisons with contemporary Bedouins, and we therefore find it hard to imagine kings without magnificent stone palaces and walled cities. Yet, in certain circumstances, nomads can also create a complex socio-political structure, one that the biblical writers could identify as a kingdom. Of course, this whole debate has repercussions for our understanding of Jerusalem in the same period. We know that the Tribes of Israel were originally nomadic and that the process of settlement was gradual and prolonged. Archaeologists are looking for King David’s palace. However, perhaps King David did not express his wealth in splendid buildings, but rather with objects more suited to a nomadic heritage such as textiles and artifacts.”

According to Prof. Ben-Yosef, “It is wrong to assume that if no grand buildings and fortresses are found, then biblical descriptions of the United Monarchy in Jerusalem must be literary fiction. Our new research at Timna has showed us that even without such buildings, there were kings in our region who ruled over complex societies, formed alliances and trade relations, and waged war on each other. The wealth of a nomadic society was not measured in palaces and monuments made of stone, but in things that were no less valued in the ancient world – such as the copper produced at Timna and the purple dye that was traded with its copper smelters.”

Featured image: Wool textile fragment decorated by threads dyed with Royal Purple, ~1000 BCE, Timna Valley, Israel. Photo: Dafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

New evidence points to existence of Biblical figure

A line of the Mesha Stele inscription lends credence to the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers, Tel Aviv University researchers say

he legendary King Balak from the Book of Numbers may have been a real historical figure, according to a new reading of the Mesha Stele, the longest extra-biblical inscription in existence.
The Mesha Stele, an ancient inscribed stone dating to the ninth century BCE, tells the story of the territorial expansion and construction endeavors of King Mesha of Moab, who is also mentioned in the Second Book of Kings in the Old Testament. The stele was found in the 19th century among the ruins of the ancient town of Dibon in Moab, located in today’s Jordan, east of the Dead Sea. The stele is on display at the Louvre Museum.
According to the study, a word on Line 31 of the stele that has until now been interpreted as “House of David” in fact refers to King “Balak,” who is known as a Moab ruler only from the Book of Numbers.
The new Tel Aviv University-Collège de France study was published on May 2 in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University. It was co-authored by Prof. Israel Finkelstein and Prof. Nadav Na’aman of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures in collaboration with Prof. Thomas Römer of Collège de France and the University of Lausanne.

Learning from the “squeeze”

A recent exhibit, Mésha et la Bible, held in October 2018 at the Collège de France in Paris in conjunction with the Louvre Museum, showcased the Meshe Stele “squeeze,” a reverse copy of the inscription on paper. This exhibition afforded researchers the unique opportunity to take high-resolution photographs of the squeeze.
Although the stele had been cracked in the 19th century, the parts that went missing were preserved in the squeeze, which was made before the stone broke into pieces.
The authors of the new research studied new high-resolution photographs of the squeeze and of the stele itself. These new images made it clear that there are three consonants in the name of the monarch mentioned in Line 31, and that the first is the Hebrew letter bet, which corresponds to the English letter “B.”
The most likely candidate for the monarch’s name is “Balak.” The seat of the king referred to in Line 31 was “Horonaim,” which is mentioned four times in the Bible in relation to the Moabite territory south of the Arnon River.

No longer the “House of David”

“We believe Balak was a historical figure like Balaam, who, before the discovery of the famous Deir Alla inscription in Jordan in 1967, was considered an ‘invented’ character,” explains Prof. Finkelstein. “The new photographs of the Mesha Stele and the squeeze indicate that the reading ‘House of David’ — accepted by many scholars for more than two decades — is no longer valid.”
In 1994 the French epigrapher André Lemaire suggested that letters missing in Line 31 of the stele would spell “House of David,” as in the Tel Dan Stele, which features the term in reference to the Kingdom of Judah. Accordingly, Lemaire proposed that in the mid-ninth century Judah ruled in southern Moab, east of the Dead Sea.
“With due caution, we suggest that the line refers to the Moabite King Balak, who, according to the Balaam story in Numbers 22-24, was supposed to bring a divine curse on the people of Israel,” Prof. Na’aman says.
“The biblical story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele,” Prof. Römer adds. “But to proffer a sense of authenticity to his story, its author must have integrated into the plot certain elements borrowed from ancient reality, including the names Balaam and Balak.”

When Size Does Matter…

TAU study suggests the extinction of large animals led to increased volume of the human brain.

In recent years, more and more evidence has been accumulated to the effect that humans were a major factor in the extinction of large animals, and consequently had to adapt to hunting smaller animals, first in Africa and later in all other parts of the world. When humans first emerged in Africa 2.6 million years ago, the average size of land mammals was close to 500kg. Just before the beginning of agriculture, this figure had decreased by over 90% – down to a few dozen kilos. In their new study, Dr. Miki Ben-Dor and Prof. Ran Barkai from the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University offer an original and unifying explanation for the physiological, behavioral and cultural evolution of the human species, from its first appearance about two million years ago, to the agricultural revolution, around 10,000 BCE. Dr. Ben-Dor and Prof. Barkai suggest that humans developed as hunters of large animals, eventually causing the extinction of the latter.

Hunting Smarter, Not Harder

Comparing the size of animals found in archaeological cultures, representing different species of humans in east Africa, southern Europe and Israel, the researchers found that in all cases there was a significant decline in the prevalence of animals weighing over 200kg, coupled with an increase in the volume of the human brain. According to the researchers, the decrease in the size of wild animals and the need to hunt small, swift animals forced humans to display cunning and boldness – an evolutionary process that demanded increased volume of the human brain – which actually grew from 650cc to 1,500cc – and later led to the development of language enabling the exchange of information about where prey could be found. “We correlate the increase in human brain volume with the need to become smarter hunters,” explains Dr. Ben-Dor. For example, the need to hunt dozens of gazelles instead of one elephant generated prolonged evolutionary pressure on the brain functions of humans, who were now using up much more energy in both movement and thought processes. Hunting small animals, that are constantly threatened by predators and therefore very quick to take flight, requires a physiology adapted to the chase as well as more sophisticated hunting tools. Cognitive activity also rises as fast tracking requires fast decision-making, based on phenomenal acquaintance with the animals’ behavior – information that needs to be stored in a larger memory.” The theory claims that all means served one end: body energy conservation.

Getting Comfortable

“The evolutionary adaptation of humans was very successful,” says Dr. Ben-Dor. “As the size of animals continued to decrease, the invention of the bow and arrow and domestication of dogs enabled more efficient hunting of medium-sized and small animals – until these populations also dwindled. Toward the end of the Stone Age, as animals became even smaller, humans had to put more energy into hunting than they were able to get back. Indeed, this is when the Agricultural Revolution occurred, involving the domestication of both animals and plants. As humans moved into permanent settlements and became farmers, their brain size decreased to its current volume of 1300-1400cc. This happened because, with domesticated plants and animals that don’t take flight, there was no more need for the allocation of outstanding cognitive abilities to the task of hunting.” Prof. Barkai adds: “It must be understood that our perspective is not deterministic. Humans brought this trouble upon themselves. By focusing on hunting the largest animals, they caused extinctions. Wherever humans appeared – whether homo erectus or homo sapiens, we see, sooner or later, mass extinction of large animals. Dependence on large animals had its price. Humans undercut their own livelihood. But while other species, like our cousins the Neanderthals, became extinct when their large prey disappeared, homo sapiens decided to start over again, this time relying on agriculture.” To date, no unifying explanation has been proposed for this major phenomenon in human prehistory. The novel theory was published in Quaternary Journal.

Early Humans Deliberately Recycled Flint To Create Tiny, Sharp Tools

Exceptional conditions at Israel’s Qesem Cave preserved 400,000-year-old “tool kit,” TAU researchers say

A new Tel Aviv University study finds that prehistoric humans “recycled” discarded or broken flint tools 400,000 years ago to create small, sharp utensils with specific functions. These recycled tools were then used with great precision and accuracy to perform specific tasks involved in the processing of animal products and vegetal materials.

The site of Qesem Cave, located just outside Tel Aviv, was discovered during a road construction project in 2000. It has since offered up countless insights into life in the region hundreds of thousands of years ago.

In collaboration with Prof. Cristina Lemorini of Sapienza University of Rome, the research was led jointly by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Flavia Venditti in collaboration with Profs. Ran Barkai and Avi Gopher. All three are members of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. It was published on April 11 in the Journal of Human Evolution.

In recent years, archaeologists working in caves in Spain and North Africa and digs in Italy and Israel have unearthed evidence that prehistoric people recycled objects they used in daily life. Just as we recycle materials such as paper and plastic to manufacture new items today, early hominids collected discarded or broken tools made of flint to create new utensils for specific purposes hundreds of thousands of years ago.

“Recycling was a way of life for these people,” Prof. Barkai says. “It has long been a part of human evolution and culture. Now, for the first time, we are discovering the specific uses of the recycled ‘tool kit’ at Qesem Cave.”

Exceptional conditions in the cave allowed for the immaculate preservation of the materials, including micro residue on the surface of the flint tools.

“We used microscopic and chemical analyses to discover that these small and sharp recycled tools were specifically produced to process animal resources like meat, hide, fat and bones,” Venditti explains. “We also found evidence of plant and tuber processing, which demonstrated that they were also part of the hominids’ diet and subsistence strategies.”

According to the study, signs of use were found on the outer edges of the tiny objects, indicating targeted cutting activities related to the consumption of food: butchery activities and tuber, hide and bone processing. The researchers used two different and independent spectroscopic chemical techniques: Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX).

“The meticulous analysis we conducted allowed us to demonstrate that the small recycled flakes were used in tandem with other types of utensils. They therefore constituted a larger, more diversified tool kit in which each tool was designed for specific objectives,” Venditti says.

She adds, “The research also demonstrates that the Qesem inhabitants practiced various activities in different parts of the cave: The fireplace and the area surrounding it were eventually a central area of activity devoted to the consumption of the hunted animal and collected vegetal resources, while the so-called ‘shelf area’ was used to process animal and vegetal materials to obtain different by-products.”

“This research highlights two debated topics in the field of Paleolithic archaeology: the meaning of recycling and the functional role of small tools,” Prof. Barkai observes. “The data from the unique, well-preserved and investigated Qesem Cave serve to enrich the discussion of these phenomena in the scientific community.”

“Our data shows that lithic recycling at Qesem Cave was not occasional and not provoked by the scarcity of flint,” Venditti concludes. “On the contrary, it was a conscious behavior which allowed early humans to quickly obtain tiny sharp tools to be used in tasks where precision and accuracy were essential.”

The researchers are continuing to investigate prehistoric recycling by applying their analysis to other sites in Africa, Europe and Asia.

Photo caption: Experimental activity of cutting tubers with a small recycled flake and a close-up of its prehension (inset). Photo credit: Flavia Venditti.

Got Beef? Your Ancestors Were Likely VERY into Meat…

TAU researchers: Humans were apex predators for two million years.

Whether you are a tofu loving vegan, a vegetarian (however you choose to define it – eggs, no eggs; fish, no fish), a flexitarian, a devout paleo dieter or a strict Atkins dieter, researchers at TAU were able to reconstruct the nutrition of Stone Age humans and can tell you quite a bit about your ancestors… You may want to sit down for this one: Your ancestors specialized in hunting large animals and were, in fact, hyper carnivores (and not just for two short seconds, more like for about two million years). Contrary to the widespread hypothesis that humans owe their evolution and survival to their dietary flexibility, allowing them to combine the hunting of animals with vegetable foods, the picture emerging here is of humans evolving mostly as predators of large animals. The multidisciplinary reconstruction conducted by TAU researchers for almost a decade proposes a complete change of paradigm in the understanding of human evolution. In their paper, which was published in the Yearbook of the American Physical Anthropology Association, Dr. Miki Ben-Dor and Prof. Ran Barkai of TAU’s Jacob M. Alkov Department of Archaeology, together with Raphael Sirtoli of Portugal, show that humans were an apex predator for about two million years. It was only the extinction of larger animals (megafauna) in various parts of the world, and the decline of animal food sources toward the end of the stone age, that led humans to gradually increase the vegetable element in their nutrition, until finally they had no choice but to domesticate both plants and animals – and became farmers. “Our study addresses a very great current controversy – both scientific and non-scientific,” says Prof. Barkai. “For many people today, the Paleolithic diet is a critical issue, not only with regard to the past, but also concerning the present and future. It is hard to convince a devout vegetarian that his/her ancestors were not vegetarians, and people tend to confuse personal beliefs with scientific reality. Our study is both multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. We propose a picture that is unprecedented in its inclusiveness and breadth, which clearly shows that humans were initially apex predators, who specialized in hunting large animals. As Darwin discovered, the adaptation of species to obtaining and digesting their food is the main source of evolutionary changes, and thus the claim that humans were apex predators throughout most of their development may provide a broad basis for fundamental insights on the biological and cultural evolution of humans.” Our Body Remembers – A Multidisciplinary Affair “So far, attempts to reconstruct the diet of stone-age humans were mostly based on comparisons to 20th century hunter-gatherer societies,” explains Dr. Ben-Dor. “This comparison is futile, however, because two million years ago hunter-gatherer societies could hunt and consume elephants and other large animals – while today’s hunter gatherers do not have access to such bounty. The entire ecosystem has changed, and conditions cannot be compared. We decided to use other methods to reconstruct the diet of stone-age humans: to examine the memory preserved in our own bodies, our metabolism, genetics and physical build. Human behavior changes rapidly, but evolution is slow. The body remembers.” In a process unprecedented in its extent, Dr. Ben-Dor and his colleagues collected about 25 lines of evidence from about 400 scientific papers from different scientific disciplines, dealing with the focal question: Were stone-age humans specialized carnivores or were they generalist omnivores? Most evidence was found in research on current biology, namely genetics, metabolism, physiology and morphology. “One prominent example is the acidity of the human stomach,” says Dr. Ben-Dor. “The acidity in our stomach is high when compared to omnivores and even to other predators. Producing and maintaining strong acidity require large amounts of energy, and its existence is evidence for consuming animal products. Strong acidity provides protection from harmful bacteria found in meat, and prehistoric humans, hunting large animals whose meat sufficed for days or even weeks, often consumed old meat containing large quantities of bacteria, and thus needed to maintain a high level of acidity. Another indication of being predators is the structure of the fat cells in our bodies. In the bodies of omnivores, fat is stored in a relatively small number of large fat cells, while in predators, including humans, it’s the other way around: we have a much larger number of smaller fat cells. Significant evidence for the evolution of humans as predators has also been found in our genome. For example, geneticists have concluded that “areas of the human genome were closed off to enable a fat-rich diet, while in chimpanzees, areas of the genome were opened to enable a sugar-rich diet.” Evidence from human biology was supplemented by archaeological evidence. For instance, research on stable isotopes in the bones of prehistoric humans, as well as hunting practices unique to humans, show that humans specialized in hunting large and medium-sized animals with high fat content. Comparing humans to large social predators of today, all of whom hunt large animals and obtain more than 70% of their energy from animal sources, reinforced the conclusion that humans specialized in hunting large animals and were in fact hypercarnivores. Not an Afternoon Hobby “Hunting large animals is not an afternoon hobby,” says Dr. Ben-Dor. “It requires a great deal of knowledge, and lions and hyenas attain these abilities after long years of learning. Clearly, the remains of large animals found in countless archaeological sites are the result of humans’ high expertise as hunters of large animals. Many researchers who study the extinction of the large animals agree that hunting by humans played a major role in this extinction – and there is no better proof of humans’ specialization in hunting large animals.  Most probably, like in current-day predators, hunting itself was a focal human activity throughout most of human evolution. Other archaeological evidence – like the fact that specialized tools for obtaining and processing vegetable foods only appeared in the later stages of human evolution – also supports the centrality of large animals in the human diet, throughout most of human history.”       The multidisciplinary reconstruction conducted by TAU researchers for almost a decade proposes a complete change of paradigm in the understanding of human evolution. Contrary to the widespread hypothesis that humans owe their evolution and survival to their dietary flexibility, which allowed them to combine the hunting of animals with vegetable foods, the picture emerging here is of humans evolving mostly as predators of large animals. “Archaeological evidence does not overlook the fact that stone-age humans also consumed plants,” adds Dr. Ben-Dor. “But according to the findings of this study plants only became a major component of the human diet toward the end of the era.” Evidence of genetic changes and the appearance of unique stone tools for processing plants led the researchers to conclude that, starting about 85,000 years ago in Africa, and about 40,000 years ago in Europe and Asia, a gradual rise occurred in the consumption of plant foods as well as dietary diversity – in accordance with varying ecological conditions. This rise was accompanied by an increase in the local uniqueness of the stone tool culture, which is similar to the diversity of material cultures in 20th-century hunter-gatherer societies. In contrast, during the two million years when, according to the researchers, humans were apex predators, long periods of similarity and continuity were observed in stone tools, regardless of local ecological conditions.

Mmm Mmm Marrow?

Study Finds Prehistoric Humans Ate Bone Marrow Like Canned Soup 400,000 Years Ago

Bone and skin preserved the nutritious marrow for later consumption, TAU researchers say Tel Aviv University researchers, in collaboration with scholars from Spain, have uncovered evidence of the storage and delayed consumption of animal bone marrow at Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, the site of many major discoveries from the late Lower Paleolithic period some 400,000 years ago. The research provides direct evidence that early Paleolithic people saved animal bones for up to nine weeks before feasting on them inside Qesem Cave. The study, which was published in the October 9 issue of Science Advances, was led by Dr. Ruth Blasco of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations and Centro Nacional de Investigación Sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) and her TAU colleagues Prof. Ran Barkai and Prof. Avi Gopher. It was conducted in collaboration with Profs. Jordi Rosell and Maite Arilla of Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES); Prof. Antoni Margalida of University of Lleida, University of Bern, and the Institute for Game and Wildlife Research (IREC); and Prof. Daniel Villalba of University of Lleida. “Bone marrow constitutes a significant source of nutrition and as such was long featured in the prehistoric diet,” explains Prof. Barkai. “Until now, evidence has pointed to immediate consumption of marrow following the procurement and removal of soft tissues. In our paper, we present evidence of storage and delayed consumption of bone marrow at Qesem Cave.” “This is the earliest evidence of such behavior and offers insight into the socioeconomics of the humans who lived at Qesem,” adds Dr. Blasco. “It also marks a threshold for new modes of Paleolithic human adaptation.” “Prehistoric humans brought to the cave selected body parts of the hunted animal carcasses,” explains Prof. Rosell. “The most common prey was fallow deer, and limbs and skulls were brought to the cave while the rest of the carcass was stripped of meat and fat at the hunting scene and left there. We found that the deer leg bones, specifically the metapodials, exhibited unique chopping marks on the shafts, which are not characteristic of the marks left from stripping fresh skin to fracture the bone and extract the marrow.” The researchers contend that the deer metapodials were kept at the cave covered in skin to facilitate the preservation of marrow for consumption in time of need. The researchers evaluated the preservation of bone marrow using an experimental series on deer, controlling exposure time and environmental parameters, combined with chemical analyses. The combination of archaeological and experimental results allowed them to isolate the specific marks linked to dry skin removal and determine a low rate of marrow fat degradation of up to nine weeks of exposure. “We discovered that preserving the bone along with the skin, for a period that could last for many weeks, enabled early humans to break the bone when necessary and eat the still nutritious bone marrow,” adds Dr. Blasco. “The bones were used as ‘cans’ that preserved the bone marrow for a long period until it was time to take off the dry skin, shatter the bone and eat the marrow,” Prof. Barkai emphasizes. Until recently, it was believed that the Paleolithic people were hunter gatherers who lived hand-to-mouth (the Stone Age version of farm-to-table), consuming whatever they caught that day and enduring long periods of hunger when food sources were scarce. “We show for the first time in our study that 420,000 to 200,000 years ago, prehistoric humans at Qesem Cave were sophisticated enough, intelligent enough and talented enough to know that it was possible to preserve particular bones of animals under specific conditions, and, when necessary, remove the skin, crack the bone and eat the bone marrow,” Prof. Gopher explains. According to the research, this is the earliest evidence in the world of food preservation and delayed consumption of food. This discovery joins other evidence of innovative behaviors found in Qesem Cave including recycling, the regular use of fire, and cooking and roasting meat. “We assume that all this was because elephants, previously a major source of food for humans, were no longer available, so the prehistoric humans in our region had to develop and invent new ways of living,” concludes Prof. Barkai. “This kind of behavior allowed humans to evolve and enter into a far more sophisticated kind of socioeconomic existence.” Photo caption: Marrow inside a metapodial bone after six weeks of storage. Credit: Dr. Ruth Blasco.  

New Type of Prehistoric Human Discovered in Israel

TAU researchers unearth missing link in human evolution.

A new discovery by Tel Aviv University researchers may change the story of human evolution. The bones of an early human, unknown to science, were found at an excavation site near the city of Ramla. Researchers believe the remains represent one of the “last survivors” of an ancient human group that lived here at the Levant alongside Homo sapiens (modern humans) between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago.

Two teams of researchers took part in the dramatic discovery, published in the prestigious Science journal: an anthropology team from Tel Aviv University headed by Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, Dr. Hila May and Dr. Rachel Sarig from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research and the Shmunis Family Anthropology Institute, situated in the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University; and an archaeological team headed by Dr. Yossi Zaidner from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Until today, most researchers believed the small groups of Neanderthals  arrived in the Levant from Europe about 70,000 years ago. The discovery of a new human group in this region, which resembles Pre-Neanderthal populations in Europe, challenges the prevailing hypothesis that Neanderthals originated from Europe, suggesting that at least some of the Neanderthals’ ancestors actually came from the Levant. In other words, TAU researchers are now suggesting instead that the famous Neanderthals of Western Europe are only the remnants of a much larger population that lived here in the Levant – and not the other way around.



Timeline: The Nesher Ramla Homo type was an ancestor of both the Neanderthals in Europe and the archaic Homo populations of Asia.

Another Piece to the Puzzle of Human Evolution

Prof. Israel Hershkovitz explains that the discovery of this new type of prehistoric human is of great scientific importance: “It enables us to make new sense of previously found human fossils, add another piece to the puzzle of human evolution, and understand the migrations of humans in the old world. Even though they lived so long ago, in the late middle Pleistocene (474,000-130,000 years ago), the Nesher Ramla people can tell us a fascinating tale, revealing a great deal about their descendants’ evolution and way of life.”

The important human fossil was found by Dr. Zaidner of the Hebrew University during salvage excavations at the Nesher Ramla prehistoric site, in the mining area of the Nesher cement plant (owned by Len Blavatnik) near the city of Ramla. Digging down about 8 meters, the excavators found large quantities of animal bones, including horses, fallow deer and aurochs, as well as stone tools and human bones. An international team led by the researchers from TAU and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem identified the morphology of the bones as belonging to a new type of earlier species, previously unknown to science. This is the first type of prehistoric human species to be defined in Israel, and according to common practice, it was named after the site where it was discovered – the Nesher Ramla Homo type.


WATCH: Researchers from TAU have identified a new type of early human at the Nesher Ramla site, dated to 140,000 to 120,000 years ago:


Neanderthals Made in the Middle East

“This is an extraordinary discovery,” notes Dr. Yossi Zaidner. “We had never imagined that alongside Homo sapiens, archaic Homo roamed the area so late in human history. The archaeological finds associated with human fossils show that Nesher Ramla Homo possessed advanced stone-tool production technologies and most likely interacted with the local Homo sapiens“. The culture, way of life, and behavior of the Nesher Ramla Homo are discussed in a companion paper also published in Science journal.

Furthermore, Prof. Hershkovitz explains that “Before these new findings, most researchers believed the Neanderthals to be a ‘European story’, in which small groups of Neanderthals were forced to migrate southwards to escape the spreading glaciers, with some arriving in the Land of Israel about 70,000 years ago. The Nesher Ramla fossils make us question this theory, suggesting that the ancestors of European Neanderthals lived in the Levant as early as 400,000 years ago, repeatedly migrating westward to Europe and eastward to Asia. In fact, our findings imply that the famous Neanderthals of Western Europe are only the remnants of a much larger population that lived here in the Levant – and not the other way around.”

Neanderthals and Sapiens Sharing Bed

Despite the absence of DNA in these fossils, the findings from Nesher Ramla offer a solution to a great mystery in the evolution of Homo: How did genes of Homo sapiens penetrate the Neanderthal population that presumably lived in Europe long before the arrival of Homo sapiens? Geneticists who studied the DNA of European Neanderthals have previously suggested the existence of a Neanderthal-like population which they called the ‘missing population’ or the ‘X population’ that had mated with Homo sapiens more than 200,000 years ago. In the anthropological paper now published in Science, the researchers suggest that the Nesher Ramla Homo type might represent this population, heretofore missing from the record of human fossils. Moreover, the researchers propose that the humans from Nesher Ramla are not the only ones of their kind discovered in the region, and that some human fossils found previously in Israel, which have baffled anthropologists for years – like the fossils from the Tabun cave (160,000 years ago), Zuttiyeh cave (250,000), and Qesem cave (400,000) – belong to the same new human group now called the Nesher Ramla Homo type.

“People think in paradigms,” says Dr. Rachel Sarig. “That’s why efforts have been made to ascribe these fossils to known human groups like Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis or the Neanderthals. But now we say: No. This is a group in itself, with distinct features and characteristics. At a later stage small groups of the Nesher Ramla Homo type migrated to Europe – where they evolved into the ‘classic’ Neanderthals that we are familiar with, and also to Asia, where they became archaic populations with Neanderthal-like features. As a crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, the Land of Israel served as a melting pot where different human populations mixed with one another, to later spread throughout the Old World. The discovery from the Nesher Ramla site writes a new and fascinating chapter in the story of humankind.”


The Nesher Ramla research team (left to right): Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, Marion Prevost, Dr. Hila May, Dr. Rachel Sarig and Dr. Yossi Zaidner.


Featured image: TAU’s Dr. Rachel Sarig, Dr. Hila May, and Prof. Israel Hershkovitz holding the Nesher Ramla fossils (photo: Tel Aviv University)


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