Israel's Atlantis

Four hundred meters off the coast of Atlit lies a submerged 9,000-year-old village.

Atlit-Yam 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy, Israel Antiquities Authority)
Atlit-Yam 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy, Israel Antiquities Authority)
The bay of Atlit, about 10 kilometers south of Haifa, is a quiet, picturesque stretch of beach. Sheltered by the promontory and the Crusader castle, the inlet looks as if it were scooped out with an ice-cream server. Between the unpaved road leading to the bay and the beach, wildflowers were already blooming on the cold windy day Metro investigated the mystery under that sea. Dr. Ehud Galili, a marine archeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, lives in Atlit and is passionate about this small town that is unfamiliar to most Israelis. Born in Haifa, Galili has been enraptured by the sea from childhood. A fourth-generation sabra, his grandmother's parents came from a fishing family who lived at the Kinneret. He actively campaigns against the encroachment of marinas and the high-rising construction that threatens the beauty of the ridges on this historic coastline. Galili's findings over the past 25 years have made him even more determined to preserve the area as a heritage site. Galili details the various historic eras of the artifacts and human remains along this stretch of coast. At Kfar Samir and Kfar Galim, between Atlit and Haifa, the earliest-known evidence of olive oil was found - dating from the Late Neolithic era, some 7,500 years ago. A Phoenician harbor and the battering ram from a Hellenistic Greek warship were discovered just north of the Crusader castle. But in 1984, during an underwater archeological survey, Galili and his colleagues discovered the Atlit-Yam village - some 400 meters offshore. The submerged village, he says, is the largest and best-preserved prehistoric settlement ever uncovered off the Mediterranean coast. In an area of 40,000 square meters eight to 12 meters below sea level, the archeologists found remains of human habitation dating back 9,000 years to the late Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. Putting together the jigsaw puzzle of their findings, the architecture of the dwellings and the radiocarbon dating sets the scene for what is thought to have been the earliest-known agro-pastoral fishing community, a claim that has gone undisputed by archeological authorities. Marine discoveries from the site are published in professional journals worldwide. THE ATLIT site is the only one in the world to have uncovered such a complete submerged village, and is also the only one known to contain undisturbed burials. The inhabitants were buried, placed in a flexed position on their sides or backs, sometimes in group graves. This appears to have been a common practice of that time, although the reason is not known. Perhaps the positioning indicates a return to the fetal position. Evidence of rituals suggesting ancestor worship, such as burying the dead close to or within the dwellings, has also been found. The burial sites also contained offerings to the dead, such as an axe for a male and a grinding-stone for a female. Floral and faunal remains suggest that the village sustained itself on hunting, herding, farming and fishing. Evidence of maritime activity, domestication of animals and plants, and the use of the water tables on the stone-built wells show a sophisticated level of civilization. The condition of the human remains shows that although health was generally poor, many male inhabitants had lived to beyond 50, relatively long compared to other Neolithic communities. The average heights of the village's inhabitants, based on skeletons, were 144 cm. for women and 164 cm. for males. Many skeletons showed evidence of dental disease and a condition associated with using the teeth in making fishnets, as well as vertebrae disorders, elbow abrasion and specific muscle markings typical of boat rowers. Galili and Prof. Israel Herskovitz, senior lecturer in Physical Anthropology at Tel Aviv University Medical School, discovered anomalies in the ears of some of the skeletons which indicated that the villagers dove for fish. Galili is convinced that 9,000 years ago, Atlit-Yam was a thriving maritime community in a location rich in resources - fish, barley, lentils and wheat grown on the fertile drained swampland and freshwater springs. The inhabitants of Atlit-Yam appear to have had a healthy diet of meat, fish, legumes and grains, as well as fruit. In addition, the distance between the remains of domesticated animals (with a high percentage of pigs and goats) from those of wild ones suggests that farming methods at that time included raising animals. Evidence of pollen from olive trees has also been found, but the lack of pits at Atlit-Yam indicates that it took another millennium before olives were pressed for oil - whereas exploration at the later Neolithic Period at Neveh Yam, just round the bay from Atlit-Yam, as well as at Kfar Samir, Kfar Galim and Megadim on the coast south of Haifa, has revealed thousands of olive pits and evidence of waste from olive-oil production. Recently, researchers identified signs of tuberculosis in the skeletons of a mother and child at the site. Mycobacterum tuberculosis, the principal agent of human TB, is believed to have evolved over the millennia. A multi-disciplinary team from Tel Aviv and the Hebrew Universities in Israel and Centers for Infectious Diseases in the UK together with the Israel Antiquities Authority put together the tests, including DNA. TB was generally held to have been transferred to humans from cattle, but there were no cows at Atlit-Yam. This led to the suggestion that the high density of the fishing village's population had facilitated the transmission of the disease. According to Dr. Helen Donoghue, the infected organism is "definitely the human strain of TB, in contrast to the original theory that human TB only evolved from bovine TB later on in history, after the domestication of animals." Dr. Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at the English Heritage Center for Archaeology, says that the Atlit TB findings "predate the discovery of the only other convincing case of TB from Italy by about 6,000 years." "There are many lessons to be learned from this discovery," says Galili. "It is the earliest known case of TB of this kind in the world... what we found here shows that it is a different virus than what is found today in humans. This TB didn't come from cows; it's a completely different type." HOW DID the village come to be submerged? "There are several theories," Galili explains. Some say the site was hit by a tsunami, an effect of Mt. Etna's eruption and landslide from Sicily 8,000 years ago, but this was not generally accepted. Galili is convinced that the process was slower. "There isn't the typical damage to artifacts and structures that one would expect from a sudden disaster," he points out. Also, he notes, most of the animal bones bear cut marks, indicating that they were consumed, rather than killed by a tsunami. He also points out a number of changes that suggested that the villagers were aware of the rising sea levels. In what appears to have originally been a well, archeologists discovered a wealth of refuse and concluded that as the sea rose and the water became increasingly saline, it was turned into a trash pit. According to current estimate, when the well was built 9,000 years ago, it was five meters above sea level, several hundred meters from the shore - which would put the sea level at about 16 meters lower than it is today. Some 20,000 years ago, the Ice Age reached its peak and soon after, melting ice caused sea levels to rise. Still, at the beginning of the Holocene Period, about 10,000 years ago, the Mediterranean's level was about 30 meters lower than at present. Tectonic tilting and climate change dried up some of the swampland on the Carmel coast, making conditions more favorable for coastal settlement. However, over the next two millennia the sea continued to rise and Atlit-Yam was eventually submerged. Standing on an observation platform in what was once part of a British Army camp, Galili points out the panorama of Atlit. In front of us is the modern Salt Works, founded in 1919, and he explains how the topography of the Carmel Coast between Atlit and Dor has made this a center of salt collection through the ages. Natural troughs in the landscape hold the sea water and the summer sun causes the brine to evaporate. Galili explains that the area links the various periods of history through topography and natural resources, each one a fascinating story on its own. His interest in Atlit is not confined to 9,000-year-old findings. With Rina Tirosh, he wrote Shvil Hareches (Ridge Path), a guide to the more recent, as well as ancient, history of Atlit. He has inspired a group of local schoolchildren to clear up a historical site in the heart of the town and create a park, complete with a wildflower garden and ancient quarries. Moving through Atlit, he picks up every piece of litter he sees. TOWARD THE end of winter, after the only heavy rainfall of the season, the Oren River outlet - whose source is high in the Carmel - is visible as a narrow stream pouring into the sea. Usually, the beach sand blocks whatever flow might remain. But 9,000 years ago, the Oren River was a raging flow of water during the winter and Atlit-Yam's inhabitants built a wall of baked clay bricks 20 meters long, one to two meters thick, to protect the village from river floods. Other construction included storage holes for firewood and raised stone platforms for cooking (by steaming or smoking). A large concentration of flint artifacts, including fishhooks and stone sinkers - similar to those used today - gives away the "industrial" nature of Atlit-Yam. Adding to the intrigue of the ancient community, a megalithic circle of upright stones, reminiscent of Stonehenge, points to a center of ritual gatherings. Nothing more is known about ritual life in Atlit-Yam, but Galili says that the researchers have identified dozens of "cup-marks" (round cavities cut in stone slabs) on the megalith, as well as traces of spring water in the center of the structure, which led his team to conclude that the stone circle was associated with some kind of water ritual. Galili notes that similar cup marks near a water spring were found in a Chalcolithic-era shrine site near Ein Gedi. "There are other possible options for the use of this structure, but we can't be sure about them," he muses. As to whether the site might have served some sort of astronomical purpose, Galili notes that any connection between the site and the sun, stars or moon would be "somewhat speculative." "One should also take in consideration that the position of the stars, the moon and the sun was not the same [when the village existed] as it is today. Hopefully, future studies will shed light on this issue." Galili stresses that the work at Atlit-Yam is "the window of opportunity." "For thousands of years, this submerged village has been preserved under the sand. After the severe storms of the early 1980s, the sand shifted and revealed the hidden village. Before the sea rises more and the sand shifts again, we have to complete the rescue of Atlit-Yam. "If we don't finish this project now, all will be lost," he laments. "With global warming and the possible rising of sea levels, Atlit-Yam will not be protected any more by those sands and any structures or artifacts that we have not discovered now will be lost." Whether this is the site of the Biblical flood, another theory of the submersion of the city, or there is a story similar to Atlantis can only be explored with more under-water surveys.