Tag: Archeology

Over the Past 1.5 Million Years, Human Hunting Preferences have Wiped Out Large Animals

Breakthrough study tracks development of early humans’ hunting habits.

A groundbreaking study by researchers from Tel Aviv University tracks the development of humans’ hunting practices over the last 1.5 million years – as reflected in the animals we’ve hunted and consumed. The researchers believe that at any given time early humans preferred to hunt the largest animals available in their surroundings, which provided the greatest quantities of food in return for their effort.

In this way, according to the researchers, early humans repeatedly overhunted large animals to extinction and then went on to the next in size – while improving their hunting technologies to meet the new challenge. The researchers also claim that about 10,000 years ago, when animals larger than deer became extinct, humans began to domesticate plants and animals to supply their needs, which might explain why the agricultural revolution began in the Levant at precisely that time.

The study was conducted by Prof. Ran Barkai and Dr. Miki Ben-Dor of The Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, Prof. Shai Meiri of the School of Zoology and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, and Jacob Dembitzer, a research student of Prof. Barkai and Prof. Meiri, who led the project. The paper was published in the prestigious scientific journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

The study, unprecedented in both scope and timespan, presents a comprehensive analysis of data on animal bones discovered at dozens of prehistoric sites in and around Israel. Findings indicate a continual decline in the size of game hunted by humans as their main food source – from giant elephants 1-1.5 million years ago down to gazelles 10,000 years ago. According to the researchers, these findings paint an illuminating picture of the interaction between humans and the animals around them over the last 1.5 million years.

Overhunting or Climate Changes?

Prof. Barkai notes two major issues presently addressed by prehistorians worldwide: What caused the mass extinction of large animals over the past hundreds of thousands of years – overhunting by humans or perhaps recurring climate changes? And what were the driving forces behind great changes in humankind – both physical and cultural – throughout its evolution?

Prof. Barkai: “In light of previous studies, our team proposed an original hypothesis that links the two questions: We think that large animals went extinct due to overhunting by humans, and that the change in diet and the need to hunt progressively smaller animals may have propelled the changes in humankind. In this study we tested our hypotheses in light of data from excavations in the Southern Levant covering several human species over a period of 1.5 million years.”

Prof. Ran Barkai

Jacob Dembitzer adds: “We considered the Southern Levant (Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Southwest Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon) to be an ‘archaeological laboratory’ due to the density and continuity of prehistoric findings covering such a long period of time over a relatively small area – a unique database unavailable anywhere else in the world. Excavations, which began 150 years ago, have produced evidence for the presence of humans, beginning with Homo erectus who arrived 1.5 million years ago, through the Neanderthals who lived here from an unknown time until they disappeared about 45,000 years ago, to modern humans (namely, ourselves) who came from Africa in several waves, starting around 180,000 years ago.”

The researchers collected all data available in the literature on animal bones found at prehistoric sites in the Southern Levant, mostly in Israel. These excavations, conducted from 1932 until today, provide a unique sequence of findings from different types of humans over a period of 1.5 million years. With some sites comprising several stratigraphic layers, sometimes thousands of years apart, the study covered a total of 133 layers from 58 prehistoric sites, in which thousands of bones belonging to 83 animal species had been identified. Based on these remains, the researchers calculated the weighted mean size of the animals in each layer at every site.

Prof. Meiri: “Our study tracked changes at a much higher resolution over a considerably longer period of time compared to previous research. The results were illuminating: we found a continual, and very significant, decline in the size of animals hunted by humans over 1.5 million years. For example, a third of the bones left behind by Homo erectus at sites dated to about a million years ago, belonged to elephants that weighed up to 13 tons (more than twice the weight of the modern African elephant) and provided humans with 90% of their food. The mean weight of all animals hunted by humans at that time was 3 tons, and elephant bones were found at nearly all sites up to 500,000 years ago.”

“Starting about 400,000 years ago, the humans who lived in our region – early ancestors of the Neandertals and Homo sapiens, appear to have hunted mainly deer, along with some larger animals weighing almost a ton, such as wild cattle and horses. Finally, in sites inhabited by modern humans, from about 50,000 to 10,000 years ago, approximately 70% of the bones belong to gazelles – an animal that weighs no more than 20-30kg. Other remains found at these later sites came mostly from fallow deer (about 20%), as well as smaller animals such as hares and turtles.”

Climate Change had Minimal Impact

Jacob Dembitzer: “Our next question was: What caused the disappearance of the large animals? A widely accepted theory attributes the extinction of large species to climate changes through the ages. To test this, we collected climatic and environmental data for the entire period, covering more than a dozen cycles of glacial and interglacial periods. This data included temperatures based on levels of the oxygen 18 isotope, and rainfall and vegetation evidenced by values of carbon 13 from the local Soreq Cave. A range of statistical analyses correlating between animal size and climate, precipitation, and environment, revealed that climate, and climate change, had little, if any, impact on animal extinction.”

According to Dr. Ben-Dor: “Our findings enable us to propose a fascinating hypothesis on the development of humankind: Humans always preferred to hunt the largest animals available in their environment, until these became very rare or extinct, forcing the prehistoric hunters to seek the next in size. As a result, to obtain the same amount of food, every human species appearing in the Southern Levant was compelled to hunt smaller animals than its predecessor, and consequently had to develop more advanced and effective technologies. Thus, for example, while spears were sufficient for Homo erectus to kill elephants at close range, modern humans developed the bow and arrow to kill fast-running gazelles from a distance.”

Environmental Damage from the Dawn of Humanity

Prof. Barkai concludes: “We believe that our model is relevant to human cultures everywhere. Moreover, for the first time, we argue that the driving force behind the constant improvement in human technology is the continual decline in the size of game. Ultimately, it may well be that 10,000 years ago in the Southern Levant, animals became too small or too rare to provide humans with sufficient food, and this could be related to the advent of agriculture. In addition, we confirmed the hypothesis that the extinction of large animals was caused by humans – who time and time again destroyed their own livelihood through overhunting. We may therefore conclude that humans have always ravaged their environment but were usually clever enough to find solutions for the problems they had created – from the bow and arrow to the agricultural revolution. The environment, however, always paid a devastating price.”

Featured image: Prof. Shai Meiri of the School of Zoology and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History

Ancient Climate Crisis Transformed Us from Nomadic Hunters to Settled Farmers

Researchers used plant remains to reconstruct the climate in the Southern Levant at the end of the last ice age.

What made the residents in the Southern Levant, tens of thousands of years ago, put down their walking sticks and hunting gear and instead become settled farmers? Apparently, it was the result of a climate crisis that took place at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.

A new record of significant climate changes in the region, based on the identification of ancient plant remains, sheds light on the dramatic transition. Against the background of the Glasgow Climate Change Summit, the researchers believe that understanding the response of the region’s flora to the dramatic past climate changes can help in preserving the regional variety of plant species and in planning for current and future climate challenges.

The Crisis that Marched Humanity Forward

The research was conducted by Dr. Dafna Langgut of the Department of Archaeology and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University; Prof. Gonen Sharon, Head of the MA Program in Galilee Studies at Tel-Hai College, and Dr. Rachid Cheddadi, expert in evolution and palaeoecology of University of Montpellier, Institute of Evolutionary Sciences (ISEM) Montpellier, France. The groundbreaking study was recently published in the leading scientific journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

The study was conducted at the prehistoric archaeological site Jordan River Dureijat (“Jordan River Stairs”) on the shores of the ancient Lake Hula. The site is unique for its exceptional preservation conditions yielding finds that enabled discovery of the primary activity of its early local residents – fishing. Preserved botanic remains also enabled researchers to identify the plants that grew 10,000 – 20,000 years ago in the Hula Valley and its surroundings. 

 

The prehistoric archaeological site Jordan River Dureijat (“Jordan River Stairs”) on the shores of the Paleo Lake Hula

Two major processes in world history took place during this period, the first of which was the transition from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle that occurs during a period of dramatic climate change. Prof. Sharon, supervisor of the Madregot Hayarden (“Jordan Stairs”) excavation, explains: “In the study of prehistory, this period is called the Epipalaeolithic period. At its outset, people were organized in small groups of hunter-gatherers who roamed the area. Then, about 15,000 years ago, we are witness to a significant change in lifestyle: the appearance of settled life in villages, and additional dramatic processes that reach their apex during the Neolithic period that followed. This is the time when the most dramatic change of human history occurred – the transition to the agricultural way of life that shaped the world as we know it today.”

Dr. Langgut, an archaeobotanist specializing in identification of plant remains, elaborates on the second dramatic process of this period, namely the climatic changes that occurred in the region. “Although at the peak of the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago, the Mediterranean Levant was not covered with an ice sheet as in other parts of the world, the climatic conditions that existed nevertheless differed from those of today. Their exact characteristics were unclear until this study. The climatic model that we built is based on reconstruction of the fluctuation of the spread of plant species indicating that the main climatic change in our area is expressed by a drop in temperature (up to five degrees Celsius less than today), whereas the precipitation amounts (rain, snow, sleet, or hail) were close to those of today (only about 50 mm less than today’s annual average).

 

Dr. Dafna Langgut

Temperature Fluctuations

However, Dr. Langgut explains that about 5,000 years later, in the Epipalaeolithic period (about 15,000 years ago) a significant improvement in climate conditions can be seen in the model. An increased prevalence of heat-tolerant tree species, such as olive, common oak, and Pistacia, indicate an increase in temperature and precipitation.

During this period, the first sites of the Natufian culture appear in our region. It could very well be that the temperate climate assisted in the development and flourishing of this culture, in which permanent settlement, stone structures, food storage facilities, and more first appear on the global stage.  

The next stage of the study deals with the end of the Epipalaeolithic period, about 11,000-12,000 years ago, known globally as the Younger Dryas period. This period is characterized by a return to a cold, dry climate like that of the ice age, causing somewhat of a climate crisis around the world. The researchers claim that until this study, it was unclear whether and to what extent there was any expression of this period in the Levantine region.

Little Rain, but Throughout the Year

According to the researchers: “The findings that arise from the climate model presented in the article show that the period was characterized by climatic instability, intense fluctuations, and a considerable drop in temperatures. Nevertheless, while reconstructing the precipitation, a surprising phenomenon was discovered: the average quantities of rainfall reconstructed were only slightly less than those of today; however, the precipitation was distributed over the entire year, including summer rains.”

The researchers claim that such distribution assisted in the expansion and thriving of annual and leafy plant species. The gatherers who lived in this period now had a wide, readily available variety of gatherable plants throughout the entire year. This variety enabled their familiarity just before domestication. The researchers are of the opinion that these findings contribute to a new understanding of the environmental changes that took place on the eve of the transition to agriculture and domestication of animals.

Summary

Why did humans settle down and start farming the land? While this study doesn’t fully answer this questions, it does reconstruct the climate in what is today Israel from 20,000 to 10,000 years ago, revealing the dramatic environmental and climatic changes that uniquely combined with social and technological innovations 12,000 years ago and formed the background for the development of acriculture in the Levant. 

The warmer, more humid climate between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago coincided with the Natufian culture, and may have supported their practice of living in one place for a long time, thanks to increased gathering and storage opportunities. Around 13,000 years ago, temperatures sunk a bit and rains would fall throughout the year, favoring open-field vegetation and plants. 12,000 years ago, the Holocene (the current geological era) began, which in the Near East meant long hot and dry summers necessitating gathering and storing food during winter and spring. The new environmental conditions pushed people to make greater efforts to domesticate, farm and store their crops – setting the stage for the Neolithic revolution. 

Dr. Langgut concludes: “This study contributes not only to understanding the environmental background for momentous processes in human history such as the first permanent settlement and the transition to agriculture, but also provides information on the history of the region’s flora and its response to past climatic changes. There is no doubt that this knowledge can assist in preserving species variety and in meeting current and future climate challenges.”

 

Dr. Dafna Langgut collects sediment samples for pollen investigation.

Featured image: An Israeli farmer in his vineyard 

Recordings of the magnetic field from 9,000 years ago teach us about the magnetic field today

View west of the 1999 excavations, Stratum IIB,  Tel Tifdan/ Wadi Fidan. Photo courtesy of Thomas E. Levy

Tel Aviv University Research Links Archaeology, Physics, and Geophysics

  • Burnt archaeological flints enable us to determine the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field during prehistoric periods.
  • Information about the magnetic field in antiquity helps us understand the magnetic field today. Researchers: “the current weakening of the field is a reversible trend; Seven thousand six hundred years ago, the strength of the magnetic field was even lower than today, but within approximately 600 years, it gained strength and again rose to high levels.”

International research by Tel Aviv University, the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Rome, and the University of California San Diego uncovered findings regarding the magnetic field that prevailed in the Middle East between approximately 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. Researchers examined pottery and burnt flints from archaeological sites in Jordan, on which the magnetic field during that time period was recorded. Information about the magnetic field during prehistoric times can affect our understanding of the magnetic field today, which has been showing a weakening trend that has been cause for concern among climate and environmental researchers.

The research was conducted under the leadership of Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef of the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University and Prof. Lisa Tauxe, head of the Paleomagnetic Laboratory at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in collaboration with other researchers from the University of California at San Diego, Rome and Jordan. The article was published in the journal PNAS.

Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef
Photo courtesy of Yoram Reshef

“Albert Einstein characterized the planet’s magnetic field as one of the five greatest mysteries of modern physics…”

Prof. Ben-Yosef explains, “Albert Einstein characterized the planet’s magnetic field as one of the five greatest mysteries of modern physics. As of now, we know a number of basic facts about it: The magnetic field is generated by processes that take place below a depth of approximately 3,000 km beneath the surface of the planet (for the sake of comparison, the deepest human drilling has reached a depth of only 20 km); it protects the planet from the continued bombardment by cosmic radiation and thus allows life as we know it to exist; it is volatile and its strength and direction are constantly shifting, and it is connected to various phenomena in the atmosphere and the planet’s ecological system, including – possibly – having a certain impact on climate. Nevertheless, the magnetic field’s essence and origins have remained largely unresolved. In our research, we sought to open a peephole into this great riddle.”

The researchers explain that instruments for measuring the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field were first invented only approximately 200 years ago. In order to examine the history of the field during earlier periods, science is helped by archaeological and geological materials that recorded the properties of the field when they were heated to high temperatures. The magnetic information remains “frozen” (forever or until another heating event) within tiny crystals of ferromagnetic minerals, from which it can be extracted using a series of experiments in the magnetics laboratory. Basalt from volcanic eruptions or ceramics fired in a kiln are frequent materials used for these types of experiments. The great advantage in using archaeological materials as opposed to geological is the time resolution: While in geology dating is on the scale of thousands years at best, in archaeology the artifacts and the magnetic field that they have recorded can be dated at a resolution of hundreds and sometimes even tens of years (and in specific cases, such as a known destruction event, even give an exact date). The obvious disadvantage of archaeology is the young age of the relevant artifacts: Ceramics, which have been used for this purpose up until now, were only invented 8,500 years ago.

Burnt flints and ceramics used to reconstruct the strength of the ancient geomagnetic field
(https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2100995118)

The current study is based on materials from four archaeological sites in Wadi Feinan (Jordan), which have been dated (using carbon-14) to the Neolithic period – approximately 10,000 to 8,000 years ago – some of which predate the invention of ceramics. Researchers examined the magnetic field that was recorded in 129 items found in these excavations, and this time, burnt flint tools were added to the ceramic shards.  Prof. Ben-Yosef: “This is the first time that burnt flints from prehistoric sites are being used to reconstruct the magnetic field from their time period. About a year ago, groundbreaking research at the Hebrew University was published, showing the feasibility of working with such materials, and we took that one step forward, extracting geomagnetic information from tightly dated burned flint. Working with this material extends the research possibilities tens of thousands of years back, as humans used flint tools for a very long period of time prior to the invention of ceramics. Additionally, after enough information is collected about the changes in the geomagnetic field over the course of time, we will be able to use it in order to date archaeological remains”.

Wadi Fidan 61 Pottery Neolithic.
Photo courtesy of Thomas E. Levy

An additional and important finding of this study is the strength of the magnetic field during the time period that was examined. The archaeological artifacts demonstrated that at a certain stage during the Neolithic period, the field became very weak (among the weakest values ever recorded for the last 10,000 years), but recovered and strengthened within a relatively short amount of time. According to Prof. Tauxe, this finding is significant for us today: “In our time, since measurements began less than 200 years ago, we have seen a continuous decrease in the field’s strength. This fact gives rise to a concern that we could completely lose the magnetic field that protects us against cosmic radiation and therefore, is essential to the existence of life on Earth. The findings of our study can be reassuring: This has already happened in the past. Approximately 7,600 years ago, the strength of the magnetic field was even lower than today, but within approximately 600 years, it gained strength and again rose to high levels.”

The research was carried out with the support of the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation, which encourages academic collaborations between universities in Israel and in the US. The researchers note that in this case, the collaboration was particularly essential to the success of the study because it is based on a tight integration of methods from the fields of archaeology and geophysics, and the insights that were obtained are notably relevant to both of these disciplines.

Link to the article:

https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2100995118

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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)

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.

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.

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

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

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.

Globalization During the Bronze & Early Iron Ages

Evidence for trade from India & Southeast Asia to the Land of Israel in the 16th century BCE.

A new international study, which included researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, reveals significant global trade between India & Southeast Asia and the Land of Israel as early as the 16th century BCE. Traded goods included exotic foods like soybeans, bananas and turmeric – almost one thousand years before any previously known availability of these foods in our region.

The study focused on food remains identified in the dental calculus of people buried at Tel Megiddo and Tel Erani (near Kiryat Gat). Examination of the teeth, dated from the 16th century BCE at Megiddo and the 11th century BCE at Tel Erani, revealed traces of various foods, including foods from Southeast Asia, such as soybeans, bananas and turmeric.

The study, led by Prof. Philipp Stockhammer of the University of Munich, involved researchers from institutions around the world. TAU was represented by Prof. Israel Finkelstein and Dr. Mario Martin of the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures; and the Israel Antiquities Authority was represented by Dr. Ianir Milevski and Dmitry Yegorov of the Excavations, Surveys and Research Department. The findings were published in the PNAS journal in December 2020.

The researchers explain that when we picture the market of the city of Megiddo 3,700 years ago, we think of local foods like wheat, dates and sesame seeds, and sure enough, ancient proteins and microfossils from these staple foods were found in the examined jawbones. However, alongside these expected findings, traces of soybeans, bananas and turmeric were also discovered.

According to the researchers, this is the earliest evidence of soybeans, bananas and turmeric found anywhere outside of Southeast Asia. The discovery pushes back the earliest known availability of these foods in the Land of Israel and the Mediterranean Basin by centuries (turmeric) and even a thousand years (soybeans). This means that long-distance trade in exotic fruits, spices and oils was conducted between Southeast Asia and the region of the Land of Israel, through Mesopotamia or Egypt, as early as the second millennium BCE – namely, globalization in the Bronze and early Iron Ages. Clearly, no bananas would have survived the journey from Southeast Asia to Megiddo, and therefore we can assume that these were delivered and consumed as dry fruits.

“This is clear evidence of trade with southeast Asia as early as the 16th century BCE – much earlier than previously assumed,” explains Prof. Finkelstein. “Several years ago, we found similar evidence of long-distance trade: molecular traces of vanilla in ceramic vessels from the same period at Megiddo. Yet very little is known about the trade routes or how the goods were delivered.”

“One surprising find in our excavation at Tel Erani was a cemetery from the Early Iron Age – about 3,100 years ago,” report Dr. Ianir Milevski and Dmitry Yegorov of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “In some tombs we found families buried together, children alongside their parents. We also found burial offerings – bowls, jugs and pitchers buried with the dead, for their use in the afterlife. In some vessels, we found animal bones, mostly the remains of sheep and goats, intended as food for the dead. We plan to further investigate the vessels, in search of remains of bananas and sesame seeds similar to those found in the teeth of the people buried with them. Dr. Milevski and Yegorov added that they are collaborating with Prof. Stockhammer, in testing the DNA in the human bones, in an attempt to understand who these people were and where they came from.”

Soy was first domesticated in the region of China in the 7th millennium BCE. The banana, domesticated in New Guinea in the 5th millennium BCE, arrived in West Africa 4,000 years later, but until now no indication was found of any earlier appearance of this fruit in the Middle East.

Turmeric and soy proteins were discovered in the jawbone of one person in Megiddo, and banana proteins were found in two jawbones from Tel Erani. Thus, we cannot determine just how accessible these foods were to anyone from any social class. The researchers assume that the jawbones probably belonged to people of relatively high social status in the city-state of Megiddo. This is apparent from the structure of the tombs and the offerings placed in them. In addition, the researchers found evidence of the consumption of sesame seeds in jawbones from both Megiddo and Tel Erani, indicating that this was a significant component of the local cuisine as early as the second millennium BCE.

“Our study demonstrates the immense possibilities embodied in the incorporation of the exact and natural sciences into modern archaeological research,” concludes Prof. Finkelstein.  “Traditional archaeology, which may also be called macro-archaeology, provides data visible to the eye – such as buildings, pottery, jewelry and weapons. A whole world of other data, of critical importance, is revealed only under the microscope and by using advanced analytical methods.”

Featured image: Prof. Israel Finkelstein

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