Meet the people who fished on the Jordan River 20,000 years ago

A crucial aspect that characterizes Dureijat is that it was used for such a long time, albeit not in a continuous way

Epipaleolithic site of Jordan River Dureijat (photo credit: GONEN SHARON / TEL HAI COLLEGE)
Epipaleolithic site of Jordan River Dureijat
About 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the Ice Age persisting on the planet, small bands of hunter-gathers wandered around present-day northern Israel. Some of those prehistoric humans found themselves at the southern edge of Paleolake Hula, where they identified a good spot for fishing and hunting.
As documented by a major research project whose first findings were just published in the latest issue of the Paleoanthropology Society journal, the site would remain in use for the following 10,000 years, bearing an extraordinary testimony on how the climate, vegetation, animals and, above all, ancient inhabitants of the land lived and changed over the course of millennia.
Currently known as Dureijat and located on the banks of the Jordan River in the Hula Valley, the site was first discovered following a drainage operation in 1999, archaeologist Gonen Sharon, director of the MA Program in Galilee Studies at Tel-Hai College and the director of the excavation, explained to The Jerusalem Post.
“We carried out a small dig in 2002, which offered very promising results. But it would take us another 14 years to start excavating in a more extensive way,” he said. “One of the elements that makes this place very unique is that researchers often study and explore sites where ancient people were living – caves, buildings. The opportunity to understand more about what they were doing when they were outside their dwellings is very rare. This spot provides us with insights on what they did when they fished, hunted and even barbecued.”
Another crucial aspect that characterizes Dureijat is that it was used for such a long time, albeit not in a continuous way, Sharon said.
“The period around 10,000 years ago, when the site stopped to be visited, witnessed the transition between the hunter-gathering lifestyle and the first permanent settlements,” he said. “Moreover, it marked the beginning of the interglacial period, when temperatures raised.
“Differently from regions located higher north in the hemisphere, we know that in Israel there was no actual ice and glaciers, and this makes it much harder to understand what the climate and therefore the environment were like in this area. This site offered us an incredible opportunity to explore these questions.”
Indeed, the richness of findings presented by Dureijat is especially remarkable. Covered and preserved by the mud, a vast assemblage of vegetation remains, including pollens, wood, seeds and fruit, and branches and coals have also been found – a rare achievement.
“By analyzing the trees – which species grew, which disappeared – we will be able to find many answers,” Sharon said. The research project, which involves more than 20 academic institutions in Israel and abroad, including in the US, Italy and Iceland, has just started.
Also, the richness of findings presented by Dureijat bearing testimony of human activity on the shores is especially remarkable. Archaeologists uncovered stone tools made of several different materials, such as flint, limestone, basalt and quartz, as well as hundreds of animal and fish bones, bearing evidence of having undergone a cooking process but also naturally deposited. A number of incredibly modern-looking fishing hooks were also unearthed.
The fishing techniques developed by the ancient humans visiting the site were especially impressive, Sharon said.
“They had very sophisticated tools, which improved over time,” he said. “We have evidence that they used fishing nets and that they knew which hooks and instruments were more fit to capture different species of fish.”
Among the fish were species that are still present in the fresh waters in the region, such as catfish, tilapia and carp – some of which measured over two meters. But there also were species that are not found there anymore, like trout. Some of the stone tools might have been used to process the fish.
Animals that lived and were hunted in the area included cows, deer, turtles, rodents, birds and snakes. Mollusks also were very common, and the inhabitants used their shells to produce tools, possibly to fish, as well as ornaments and beads.
“By analyzing the changes of the material culture of the site, we can follow the evolution of its visitors,” Sharon said.
If the recently published paper presents the preliminary findings of the first four years of excavations between 2014 and 2018, the material collected offers many more opportunities for further analysis, and the site has still a lot to be excavated.
“This year we won’t go back because of the coronavirus emergency, but we will continue to dig later on,” he said.
“This is a very special spot. But the truth is that there are many amazing sites on the banks of the Jordan River, and we are not protecting them adequately for many reasons, from agriculture to security needs,” Sharon said. “I think it would be important to increase public awareness on the issue, since we are talking about one of the most exceptional and crucial areas in the world.”