Israeli-led study busts myths about the lives of Levant 'cavemen'

Research shows that Neanderthals in Northern Israel were a resilient population before modern humans arrived from Africa 60,000 years ago.

June 7, 2017 13:55
3 minute read.
Israel archeology

An aerial view of the excavation site in Ein Qashsish. (photo credit: ERELLA HOVERS/THE HEBREW UNIVERSITY OF JERUSALEM)

A joint study conducted by an international team led by Israeli researchers may prove that Neanderthals in the Levant were not exclusively cave dwellers as was previously believed.

According to the study, published Wednesday in the journal Scientific Reports, Neanderthals constituted a resilient population that survived successfully in caves and open landscapes 60,000 years ago, before modern humans reached the region.

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The researchers, who excavated the open-air site of Ein Qashish, on the banks of the Kishon stream in northern Israel, determined that Neanderthals, known in folklore as “cavemen,” conducted much of their activities in the open landscape.

A Neanderthal tooth studied by researchers. (credit: Erella Hovers/Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

The study was led by Dr. Ella Been from Ono Academic College, Prof. Erella Hovers from the Institute of Archeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Dr. Omry Barzilai from the Antiquities Authority, with assistance from Dr.

Ravid Ekshtain of HU and Dr.

Ariel Malinsky-Buller from the Museum for Human Behavioral Evolution in Monrepos, Germany.

The study focused on an analysis of two pairs of the first Neanderthal skeletal remains found outside caves in the Levant. The remains were dated to the late Middle Paleolithic period, between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago by Dr. Naomi Porat from the Geological Survey of Israel.

The first specimen is represented by a single upper-molar tooth and was studied by Dr. Stefano Benazzi and colleagues from the University of Ravena in Italy and the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.

“This tooth is attributed to a Neanderthal [by] using advanced imaging and statistical techniques,” Benazzi said.

“The other individual, studied by Dr. Ella Been, in collaboration with researchers from Bar-Ilan and Tel Aviv universities, is represented by lower limbs of a young Neanderthal, 15 to 22 years in age, who suffered from injuries that caused limping,” he said. “This individual was found within a rich archeological level containing flint tools, animal bones and some unusual finds for this period, such as a marine shell, pigments and an antler of a deer.”

The fate of Neanderthals and the nature of their interactions with modern humans are among the focal questions in the research of the Middle Paleolithic period, which lasted approximately 200,000 years. The Near East is the only region known today where the two populations coexisted during that time.

“The finds from Ein Qashish allow, for the first time in the history of research in this region, to tie material culture remains in an open-air site with the Neanderthals, known until now only from cave sites,” Hovers said. “The current study indicates that Neanderthals repeatedly visited the site of Ein Qashish, and that the settlement system of Neanderthal groups included both caves and open-air sites.”

Fieldwork at the site and subsequent research on the finds were conducted by researchers and students from the Antiquities Authority, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Haifa.

The lower limbs of a Neanderthal analyzed. (photo credit: Erella Hovers/Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

The research was financed by the company Derech Eretz Inc. as part of a major road construction.

A number of researchers have recently postulated that Neanderthals adapted to life in rugged mountainous terrains, whereas modern humans adapted better to flat and open landscapes. However, the findings from Ein Qashish prove that Neanderthals inhabited sites in diverse topographic and ecological contexts.

Another contentious topic concerns the causes for the disappearance of the Neanderthals.

One of the most widely accepted explanations offered is that it was difficult for Neanderthal groups in the Levant to cope with the environmental outcomes of an increasingly drying climate that was characteristic of the time period.

“The unique find from Ein Qashish indicates that Neanderthal groups repeatedly returned to the open-air sites during this time,” Barzilai said. “Our study suggests that Neanderthals were a resilient population that successfully existed in the north of Israel at the time that modern humans arrived from Africa some 60,000 years ago.”

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