The culinary mystery behind shaped stone balls in Paleolithic Israel

The Qesem Cave was inhabited between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago.

Shaped stone ball from Qesem Cave (photo credit: PAVEL SHRAGO)
Shaped stone ball from Qesem Cave
(photo credit: PAVEL SHRAGO)
Ancient communities populating Israel between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago already understood that high-quality utensils were crucial for successful dishes.
New research by a team led by Tel Aviv University scholars has pointed out that the groups of hunter-gatherers living in the area of the Qesem Cave, located in the Samaria Hills, were able to identify shaped stone balls as the best tool to extract bone marrow, one of the most important sources of nutrients in their diet.
Shaped stone balls started to be produced around 2 million years ago and have been unearthed by paleontologists in several sites across Africa and Asia but their function has so far remained a mystery.
As explained by Dr. Ella Assaf, a post-doc at Tel Aviv University and co-author of the paper on the topic that was published last week in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, the new project might help shed light on the issue.
“It all began during excavations at the cave, where I have been working since 2009,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “Every now and then, in specific areas of the cave, we came across these strange tools.”
The Qesem Cave, as the researcher pointed out, is a very special site. It was inhabited between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago; after this period, it was sealed and not accessed until the year 2000 when it was uncovered by chance. For this reason, it offers a range of really well-preserved artifacts and traces of Paleolithic life distributed in 11 meters of archaeological layers.
Assaf explained that they found 29 shaped stone balls, mostly in areas where a lot of bones were also unearthed and whose use can be dated back to 300,000 years ago and earlier.
“We began to ask ourselves if there was a connection,” she said.
The team started to work with the DANTE—Diet and Ancient Technology Laboratory at Sapienza University of Rome, whose Associated Professor Emanuela Cristiani co-authored the study.
“They started to study the stones. We were very lucky since they were able to identify residues of bone marrow, despite the fact that it is very rare to find traces of organic material after such a long time,” Assaf highlighted, adding that the residues were detected on several stones.
The researchers did not stop there. In order to further validate their hypothesis that the objects where indeed used to crush bones and extract bone marrow, they created a replica of the stones and used them in a similar way.
“We found out that they were extremely efficient compared to other instruments they could have employed: they extracted the marrow in a very clean way, without leaving parts of bones in it and they could be used multiple times. Moreover, the signs that were left on the modern replicas of the stones were very similar to the signs on the ancient ones,” the scholar explained.
If it is not clear yet how many individuals made up the communities that live in Qesem across time, the cave was definitely a popular site, since groups kept on coming back to it.
As explained by Assaf, the period around 400,000 years ago represented an era of very significant changes: different species of humans populated the planet, the use of fire began to spread and likewise many technological changes occurred.
The cave clearly presents signs of these changes. The bones of many animals, small and big – including fallow deer, wild horses, tortoises and birds – were found, some of them burned, likely to facilitate to extract the marrow. A variety of utensils including knives were also found.
The material used to manufacture the utensil also represents a mystery surrounding the shaped stone balls found in Qesem: while most of the other artifacts found in the cave are made of flint, the vast majority of the balls where made in carbonate rocks.
This element, together with the fact that the stones are surrounded by a patina that preceded their use in the cave, suggests that they were not produced by the inhabitants of Qesem, but rather collected by them somewhere else and brought home because they were considered valuable.
“The patina accumulated on the stones is different from the one on other items in the cave. We also did not find the waste involved in the process of making them,” Assaf pointed out, adding that in order to understand better where the carbonate rocks that the shaped stone balls are made of come from will require further research which will necessarily damage some of the artifacts. “It is going to be our next step.”
If the current study does not cover the reason why the artifacts were created in the first place, in Israel or elsewhere, the TAU scholar believes that further research will also help to solve the mystery surrounding ball-shaped rocks from all over Africa and Asia at large.
“Our hypothesis is that they were all produced for the purpose of extracting bone marrow, but we still cannot confirm it yet. I hope that after studying other samples from different sites we will be able to,” she concluded.