Archaeologists discover massive tsunami hit Israel during Neolithic era

The research team suggests that what may have happened to cause the tsunami was a reverberation effect of an earthquake occurring along the Dead Sea Transform.

Tel Aviv beach in the summer. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tel Aviv beach in the summer.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israeli and foreign archaeologists have discovered evidence that a massive tsunami struck Israel and the surrounding area during the Neolithic era, according to a report by Gizmodo last Wednesday.
Gilad Shtienberg, the geomorphologist who made the discovery after digging on an Israeli beach in August 2018, inferred that a tsunami hit the Levantine region, because he found seashells deep in the ground.
Digging as deep as 30 feet below the surface of the sand, Shtienberg, who works at the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology in California, initially was excavating at an area called Tel Dor, close to Haifa.
The unusual discovery was due to the fact that some 10,000 years prior, the area was engulfed as a wetland that extended over a kilometer inland, making the finding of seashells highly unlikely. The evidence of the tsunami came from a strip of soil that was taupe-colored with marine life, unlike the typical amber soil that typifies the Neolithic era Levant.
“A borehole is like a peephole to the past, because we can use the sediments that are acquired inside of these plastic tubes to get an understanding of how the environment changed over time,” said Shtienberg, the main author of the paper revealing the findings, which can be found in the open-access journal PLOS One.
As part of the study, Shitenberg and his team dug 60 holes in the Tel Dor area, where they found more cored sediment samples with the seashells, suggesting that an unusual force, most likely a tsunami, brought the marine life far inland.
“By the fifth core, I was sure that we had something,” Shtienberg said to Gizmodo.
THE RESEARCH was carried out with help from the Koret Foundation, and done in conjunction with archaeologists from the University of California, Utah State University, and the University of Haifa. They utilized optically stimulated luminescence technology in order to date the mineral deposits found at the excavation sites.
The rationale for using this technology, as opposed to carbon dating, is because it doesn't work well with sandy areas, whereas stimulated luminescence is better able to date the sediment. In this case, it was found to date at least to the eighth millennium BCE.  According to the research team, the tsunami that brought the seashells was likely 50 feet high, and went as far as two miles inland. 
“The study is very exciting because it adds another example of physical evidence of a paleotsunami event along the Israeli coastline,” marine geoarchaeologist at the University of Haifa Beverly Goodman told Gizmodo, adding that “The more events that are added to the catalogue, the more complete our understanding of tsunami risk in this region becomes.”
Despite her commendation of the discovery, Goodman said to Gizmodo that more work needs to be done in order to prove that a tsunami did indeed hit the Levantine area, how far it went, and whether it also struck Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip. Similarly, she remained uncertain as to whether the tsunami impacted humans living in the Levantine during the Neolithic era.
“The suggestion that it was a ‘mega-tsunami’ will require further work,” Goodman said.
The uniqueness of the discovery and its unexpected nature is also driven by the fact that the eastern Mediterranean does not have a history of tsunamis, as it is not close to fault lines nor does it experience regular shifts in tectonic plates.
“Societies were transitioning from over a million and a half years of being foragers and hunters in the Middle East; they were experimenting with this village-based, sedentary lifestyle,” UC San Diego archaeologist Thomas Levy, one of the co-authors, told Gizmodo.
“These communities along the Carmel coast were wiped out, essentially, and their ecosystem right along the coastal plain was destroyed and disrupted by the tsunami,” Levy said.
The research team suggests that what may have happened to cause the tsunami was a reverberation effect whereby an earthquake occurred along the Dead Sea Transform, which follows along the Jordan River Valley and separates it from the African tectonic plate. In this event, an earthquake at the Dead Sea Transform caused smaller ones along the shore faults, leading to an underwater landslide and creating a massive tsunami.
It remains unclear as to the human impact, due to the unknown settlement patterns of Neolithic era humans along the coast, as well as the fact that known artifacts from that era didn't show up in the sediment.
“The communities living around Dor on the coastal plain that were affected by this – they’re emblematic of some kind of settlement process,” Levy suggested.
“By the Middle Neolithic, pre-pottery Neolithic, there’s an explosion of settlements in the inland areas of the southern Levant,” he said.