New research challenges origins of ancient Middle East Natufian culture

A new study by a team of scientists and archaeologists now proposes the Natufian’s had far more diverse and complex origins than originally believed.

December 7, 2017 17:19
3 minute read.
A recently excavated Natufian hearth in Jordan

Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto and Dr. Tobias Richter stand near a recently excavated Natufian hearth in Shubayqa, Jordan. (photo credit: COURTESY WEITZMAN INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE)

The hunter-gatherers of the Natufian culture – spread over modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria approximately 11,500 to 15,000 years ago – were among the first people to build permanent houses and cultivate edible plants.

These innovations were likely crucial to the subsequent emergence of agriculture during the Neolithic era which followed.

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While previous research suggested that the center of this culture spread from the Mount Carmel and Galilee region, a study by a team of scientists and archeologists now proposes that the Natufians had far more diverse and complex origins than originally believed.

The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports by a team of scientists and archeologists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rechovot and the University of Copenhagen, challenges the long-held “core region” theory.

According to the researchers, the study is based on evidence from a Natufian site located in Jordan, some 150 km. northeast of Amman. The site, called Shubayqa 1, was excavated by a University of Copenhagen team led by Dr. Tobias Richter from 2012-2015.

The excavations uncovered a well-preserved Natufian site, which included, among other findings, a large assemblage of charred plant remains. The botanical remains, which are rare in many Natufian sites in the region, enabled the Weizmann-Copenhagen team to obtain the largest number of dates for any Natufian site yet in either Israel or Jordan.

Utilizing an accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS), Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto, head of the Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (D-REAMS) lab in the Weizmann Institute, was able to accurately date the charred remains.

“This is one of the few labs in the world that works with the technology and methods that can analyze even the smallest organic remains from a site and precisely date them,” the institute said Thursday.

“With the lab’s specially-designed spectrometer, Boaretto was able to reveal the amount of carbon-14 in a sample as small as a single atom. Based on the half-life of the radioactive carbon- 14 atoms, the dating done in her lab is accurate to around 50 years, plus or minus.”

To ensure the highest accuracy, the team selected only samples from short-lived plant species or their parts – for example, seeds or twigs – to obtain the dates.

“Over 20 samples from different layers of the site were dated, making it one of the best and most accurately dated Natufian sites anywhere,” the Institute continued. “The dates showed, among other things, that the site was first settled not long after the earliest dates obtained for northern Israel.”

Based on the findings, the researchers concluded that either Natufians spread very rapidly into the region, or, more probably, that the settlement patterns emerged more or less simultaneously in different parts of the region.

“The early date of Shubayqa 1 shows that Natufian hunter- gatherers were more versatile than previously thought,” said Richter.

“Past research had linked the emergence of Natufian culture to the rich habitat of the Mediterranean woodland zone. But the early dates from Shubayqa 1 show that these late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers were also able to live quite comfortably in more open parkland steppe zones further east.”

Richter noted the researchers determined that a portion of the Natufians’ subsistence appears to have relied heavily on the exploitation of club rush tubers as well as other wild plants, and the hunting of birds, gazelle and other animals.

According to Boaretto, the “core area” theory may have come about, in part, because the Mount Carmel sites have been the best preserved and studied – until now.

“In addition to calling into question the idea that the Natufians originated in one settlement and spread outwards, the study suggests that the hunter- gatherers who lived 15,000 to 12,000 years ago were ingenious and resourceful,” said Boaretto.

The authors concluded that their findings support the view that there were many pathways to agriculture and “the Neolithic way of life” was a highly variable and complex process that cannot be explained on the basis of single-cause models.

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