Israeli cave: World’s first factory?

Archeologists say Paleolithic production line made cutting tools by the 1000s; Qassem’s inhabitants were possibly early form of Homo sapiens.

Cave TS (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Cave TS
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
In a cave not far from where thousands of Israelis work in hi-tech companies in the Afek Industrial Zone, their Paleolithic ancestors were engaged in some of their own cutting-edge innovation and manufacturing.
Indeed, the people who produced the thousands of knives and other tools in Qassem Cave between 200,000 and 400,000 years ago may have been the world’s first industrial workers, says Ran Barkai, who with two other Tel Aviv University archeologists, Ron Shimelmitz and Avi Gopher, has been excavating the site.
Their findings, based on the examination of more than 19,000 stone implements produced and used by the cave’s inhabitants, appear in the October issue of The Journal of Human Evolution.
The people of Qassem Cave not only developed what appears to be the earliest system of mass production but engaged in other activities that Barkai and his colleagues describe as modern, such as parceling off their limestone habitation into areas dedicated to specific activities like butchering and eating. That pushes back the date for many practices by tens of thousands of years.
"We must be a bit cautious, but if what we found is what we think it is, it means modern human behavior and modern Homo sapiens appeared earlier than anyone thought before,” Barkai told The Media Line. “Tool production, the use of fire, hunting and meat-sharing practices – these are behaviors that are practiced usually by modern humans.”
Man’s ancestors were making simple stone tools in Africa at the time, but in Qassem Cave the inhabitants set up stone age production lines, as evidenced by the huge number of implements found by the archeologists. Until now, the earliest instances of mass production date back to no more than 40,000 years ago.
“For many years, archaeologists linked the systematic production of blades to the Late Paleolithic period in Europe 30,000 or 40,000 years ago, and to Homo sapiens, and to such practices as cave paintings,” Gopher said in a statement issued by Tel Aviv University. “This gives us a glimpse into the daily life of the earliest cave people.”
Located about 12 kilometers (8 miles) east of Tel Aviv in the Samarian foothills, Qassem Cave is typical of the area, where caverns are created as acidic water dissolves the limestone rock that predominates the area’s geology. Originally an underground cavern, geological shifts created an opening that enabled the cave to be inhabited for 200,000 years before closing up again.
The cave and its industrial secrets remained lost to the world, the technology employed in it over the millennia never again used or replicated, as far as archeologists know. The cave was revealed again when construction workers accidentally re-opened it 10 years ago it as they were widening a highway.
Barkai said the mass production of tools was facilitated by the technology developed by Qassem’s inhabitants. They developed cutting techniques that made very efficient use of their raw material, flint blocks, to produce tools with very little waste. They also turned out semi-finished products that could be turned into a completed tool with very little additional work.
The tools they made were highly specialized, designed for the various stages of hunting and butchering. Barkai said that long before place settings were invented, Qassem’s inhabitants may have been using knives as personal implements for eating. But the cave men (and women) of Qassem also had shared the use-and-throw-away culture of the modern era as well. 
The tools they made were of very high quality – Barkai says examples he has in his lab look as sharp as new – but Qassem’s inhabitants didn’t trouble to reuse them or sharpen them as their peers did. That could be the reason that Qassem’s denizens needed to produce so much, he speculated.
“It appears they used these knives as expendable tools. They used them for a very short while for a very specific purpose, then for the next stage of work they would produce more,” said Barkai. “We know that the cave was surrounded by very rich outcrops of flint, so they had constant supply of raw material around them and they had very good tools to produce cutting tools quickly and efficiently.”
Who were Qassem’s inhabitants?
Barkai and his colleagues aren’t quite sure, but they speculate that they may have been a very early form of Homo sapiens, that is modern man. If true, that would push back the earliest known evidence for Homo sapiens, which now has records up to 200,000 years ago - at the tail end of the Qassem era.
The only direct evidence of who the cave’s people were is some teeth that have been uncovered and show a resemblance to those of modern humans. But the technology itself provides indirect evidence of how they had advanced intellectually and technologically.
“They had the capability of transmitting knowledge and technical skills, which were quite sophisticated,” Barkai said. “I have no doubt they used language.”
The team is by no means done with Qassem Cave. Barkai estimates there is another decade’s worth of excavating to do at the site, with their top goals of finding skeletal remains of the inhabitants that would give them more insight into who the inhabitants were and to better understand how different functions were assigned to different places in the cavern.