4 Mount Carmel caves nominated to join UNESCO

Committee members are expected to vote on nominations to the World Heritage List this weekend.

Mount Carmel 311 (photo credit: WikiCommons)
Mount Carmel 311
(photo credit: WikiCommons)
A series of adjacent caves in the Mount Carmel region are slated to be named to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List this weekend for their fossilization of human evolution.
At the 36th session of the World Heritage Committee, which began this week and runs through July 6 in St. Petersburg, committee members are expected to vote on nominations to the World Heritage List this Friday and Saturday.
The four Mount Carmel caves clustered along the southern side of the Nahal Me’arot/Wadi El-Mughara Valley – Tabu, Jamal, El-Wad and Skhul – as well as their terraces, received nominations based on three criteria in two separate categories, “natural” and “cultural.” The sites are “located in one of the best preserved fossilized reefs of the Mediterranean region” and contain cultural deposits filled with 500,000 years of human evolution, from the Lower Paleolithic era to the present day, said a summary document that the World Heritage Committee printed in May.
The Nahal Me’arot caves provide “a definitive chronological framework at a key period of human development,” according to the summary document. Archeological evidence found in the region indicates the appearance of modern humans who conducted deliberate burials and who were exploring early stone architecture, as well as transitioning from hunting and gathering to agricultural processes.
The caves feature excavated artifacts and skeletal material, remains of stone houses and pits – all “evidence of the Natufian hamlet,” the document said.
In terms of integrity, all of the caves are intact and in good condition, except for Skhul Cave, which has been defaced with graffiti and invaded by eucalyptus trees growing along the riverbed.
The document therefore recommends removing the invasive eucalyptus trees, downsizing or concealing the water pumping station at the cave and cleaning the graffiti there. In addition, the document suggests including Skhul Cave on the main tourist circuit for the region, as well as evaluating potential future erosion of rock-cut basins on the El-Wad cave’s terrace and perhaps considering adding a protective cover.
Ultimately, based on evaluations both internally and from outside sources, the World Heritage Committee document recommends that the caves be added to the World Heritage List based on two of the three criteria for which they were nominated.
Those two, both in the culture category, are sufficient to qualify the sites for inclusion in the list.
The first, criterion (iii), requires bearing “a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared,” according to an evaluation by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a non-governmental international organization focused on preserving the world’s sites. The Nahal Me’arot caves match this criterion, as they represent “one of the longest prehistoric cultural sequences in the world” and are a “key site” to human evolution in general, particularly to the prehistory of the Levant region, the ICOMOS assessment said.
The second criterion, criterion (v), demands that the site “be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use” and be representative of a culture or human interaction with environmental factors, “especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change,” the ICOMOS document stated. This applies to the Carmel caves, it said, as the area demonstrates the transition from the Paleolithic to Neolithic ways of life – “from nomadic to complex, sedentary communities,” from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists.
However, criterion (viii) of the nature category, which requires the sites to be pivotal to the Earth’s history and geological figures, does not apply to the Carmel caves, as the sites predominantly demonstrate evolutionary changes for a single genus, according to an evaluation by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest conservation network.
While the caves document the evolution of life at a very narrow level, “the intent and principle application of criterion (viii) is to recognize the whole of the record of life, and not evolution at the species level,” IUCN said.
In Tabun Cave, the westernmost cave of the group, archeologist Dorothy Garrod uncovered the complete skeleton of a Neanderthal woman from 60,000-50,000 BP – a unit meaning “before present,” a scale used in radiocarbon dating, with the origin year for “present” being 1950 – and others have discovered cultural finds ranging back to 500,000 BP, according to ICOMOS.
Next door, to the east, is the single-chamber Jamal Cave, where excavations from the 1990s yielded artifacts from 400,000-250,000 BP.
A bit more northeast, the El-Wad Cave – the largest, deepest and most visible of the four caves – has an entrance chamber that leads to five further chambers, the ICOMOS document said.
These chambers boast stonebuilt house remains and a cemetery area containing a large group of skeletons, as well as skeletal fragments of more than 100 individuals, some of whom were elaborately ornamented. The terrace beside the cave featured art and decorative items as well as plant remains during excavations, indicating agriculture.
El-Wad discoveries range from 60,000-6,000 BP.
The Skhul Cave – dubbed the Cave of the Kids – is further up in the valley around a curve, approximately 100 meters east of the other caves. There, archeologists have found a rock shelter, as well as fossils from between 150,000-120,000 BP, which include 11 skeletons of anatomically modern humans, according to ICOMOS.
All of these findings indicate that humans first occupied the area around 500,000 years ago, the document said.
The majority of the sites throughout the Carmel have not yet been excavated, and some other sites that have been researched – such as the Kebara, Misliya, Sefunim, Nahal Oren and Rakefet caves on Mount Carmel, as well as the submerged town of Atlit Yam near Atlit – may eventually be nominated as an addendum to the current sites, known as a future national serial nomination, the ICOMOS document said.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) has managed the caves since 1971, and in preparation for the nomination, a steering committee of all the caves’ stakeholders was assembled, including members from the INPA, the Israel Antiquities Authority, Haifa University, the Carmel Drainage Authority, Kibbutz Ein Hacarmel, Moshav Geva Carmel, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, the Carmelim Tourism Organization and the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council, according to the World Heritage Committee document.
If approved, the Carmel caves will join six other Israeli sites already on the World Heritage List in the cultural category: the Bahá’i holy places in Haifa and the Western Galilee (2008), the biblical tels – Meggido, Hazor, Beersheba (2005), the Incense Route – Desert Cities in the Negev (2005), Masada (2001), the Old City of Acre (2001) and the White City of Tel Aviv – the Modern Movement (2003), according to UNESCO data.
The Foreign Ministry told The Jerusalem Post that it was not providing a reaction prior to the weekend vote, but that the office viewed the nomination as a “positive” element and was “looking forward to tomorrow.”