HU: Evidence of advanced human life half a million years earlier than previously thought

HU Evidence of advanced

bnot yaacov archaeology 248.88 (photo credit: Gonen Sharon/HU)
bnot yaacov archaeology 248.88
(photo credit: Gonen Sharon/HU)
Fish and crab bones, stone tools and pieces of wood used for fuel dating back to 750,000 years ago have been found by Hebrew University of Jerusalem archeologists in the Bnot Ya'acov Bridge area in the northern Jordan Valley - providing evidence, they claim, of "advanced human behavior" 500,000 years before it was previously believed to have existed. A study by researchers at HU's archeology institute that discusses the find has just appeared in the prestigious journal Science. They describe an Acheulian (an early stone-tools culture) layer with numerous flint and other stone implements, animal bones and botanical remains. The research collaborators are Dr. Ella Werker, Dr. Nira Alperson-Afil, Dr. Gonen Sharon, Dr. Rivka Rabinovich, Dr. Shosh Ashkenazi, Dr. Irit Zohar and Rebecca Biton of HU; Prof. Mordechai Kislev and Dr. Yoel Melamed of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan; Dr. Gideon Hartman of the Max Planck Institute in Germany; and Prof. Craig Feibel of Rutgers University in New Jersey. Gesher Bnot Ya'acov is located on the shores of Lake Hula in the Dead Sea Rift. The Early to Middle Pleistocene period sediments, maintained the researchers, "document an oscillating freshwater lake and represent some 100,000 years of hominin occupation." Fourteen archeological areas, they said, repeatedly occupied the lake margins where primitive man skillfully produced stone tools, systematically butchered and exploited animals, gathered plant food and controlled fire. When the archeologists analyzed the spatial distribution of what they found, they said they discovered a specific pattern in which activities were carried out, rather than haphazard evidence. This kind of designation, they wrote in the paper, "indicates a formalized conceptualization of living space, requiring social organization and communication between group members. Such organizational skills are thought to be unique to modern humans." Until now, attempts to trace the origins of such behavior at various prehistoric sites in the world have concentrated on spatial analyses of Middle Paleolithic sites dating back only to some 250,000 years ago, the authors maintained. The high density of fish remains at Gesher Bnot Ya'acov indicated that the processing and consumption of many fish were carried out in this area - "one of the earliest evidences for fish consumption by prehistoric people anywhere." In a second area, they saw evidence of more varied domestic activities, "all of which took place in the vicinity of a hearth. The many wood pieces found in this area were used as fuel for the fire. Processing of basalt and limestone was spatially restricted to the hearth area, where activities indicate the use of large stone tools such as hand axes, chopping tools, scrapers and awls. The presence of stone hammers, and in particular of pitted anvils (used as nutting stones), suggest that nut processing was carried out near the hearth and may have involved the use of nut roasting. In addition, fish and crabs were probably consumed near the hearth." However, some doubts about the team's conclusions have already been published on the Internet. The Web site "Your Lab Data" - a free web-based Laboratory Information Management System and resource center - titled its reaction: "The fishy spaces of the Middle Pleistocene." "The story in the news is about how ancient humans knew how to 'keep house.' "They're selling it as a major breakthrough in cognitive evolution. But the reason why we rarely have archeological evidence about spatial patterning is that an archeological horizon doesn't have very good temporal resolution. "Here's an alternative scenario to account for the spatial pattern of remains in this horizon: One day, some people came, made tools and ate some fish. "Three weeks later, some other people were in the same area, and they stayed for a few days, made a fire and did a bunch of other stuff. That's pretty much the spatial pattern that I would find if I went back home to Kansas and checked out campsites around the shore of the local reservoir. "Few campsites are occupied for very long, and different people use them over time, sometimes with a fire, often not. Sure, we're cognitively advanced. I'm just not convinced that the spatial distribution of our campsite trash is very good evidence about it," the unnamed critics wrote. The online skeptics added that "archeology is poor evidence about the formal conception of living space, and it's not obvious that there's anything very unique about it... Any animal that can make a structure must have some capacity to pattern spatial activities; if they don't, there's going to be poop everywhere. "Conditioned on the fact that a human social group is sharing a single space, and group members are doing more than one activity, I don't see how you would ever expect to find a uniform scatter of evidence of these activities. There will always be some kind of spatial pattern from the mere fact that two people can't occupy the same space at the same time."