The Negev bloomed 1.6 million years ago, scientists say

“The Negev did not look like [it does] today,” said Hanan Ginat, an earth scientist at the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center.

An Ibex stands on a cliff-edge above the Ramon Crater in southern Israel's Negev desert March 5, 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
An Ibex stands on a cliff-edge above the Ramon Crater in southern Israel's Negev desert March 5, 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
About 1.6 million years ago, a large freshwater lake stood in the middle of the Negev, surrounded by plentiful vegetation, a study by Israeli and international scientists revealed.
The lake was several meters deep and, based on dozens of extremely primitive tools discovered on its ancient shores, provided resources to prehistoric humans, Hanan Ginat, an earth scientist at the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center and a co-author of the paper published in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science last month, explained to The Jerusalem Post.
“In the past few years, climate change has become a very central topic,” Ginat said. “Around 2007, I started to be interested in looking into the most arid zones in the world, where rainfall is already extremely limited and I realized that very few people seemed to be researching this issue.”
A resident of a kibbutz in the Negev himself, Ginat also noticed how acacia trees were withering and began to wonder whether there could be a correlation between the trees dying and more intense phenomena of flash floods.
His studies into how the area changed and was affected by different climate situations over millions of years originated then.
“During the last few million years there were at least three periods of times when the Negev was much wetter than today, with precipitations that were about four times higher: about three, one and half and half a million years ago. The evidence we have is represented by the traces of several, extremely ancient lakes,” the researcher explained.
In his research, Ginat focused on the Zichor lake, located in the center of the Negev.
The lake was filled with water both in summer and winter. Its maximum size was around 80 sq.km. A vast amount of fossils, mostly of ostracod valves, were uncovered in the area, proving that the water was fresh. Also fossils of some small fish were found, as well as many roots indicating the presence of a lot of vegetation in its surroundings.
“The Negev did not look like [the Negev of] today,” Ginat pointed out.
“Probably there were also animals around the lake, but in the desert it is very difficult to find remains,” he said. “However, what we did find are about 60 artifacts indicating that ancient humans, from the species of Homo erectus, most likely lived along the shores of the lake.”
The species is believed to have appeared on the planet two million years ago. A site from roughly the same age inhabited by these archaic humans exists also not far from the Kinneret, and it is among the earliest evidence of the slow migration of Homo erectus from Africa to Eurasia.
The artifacts uncovered are quite large, 30 cm. long and more, made in chert, and were probably used for activities such as hunting and digging.
The Zichor lake sediments could have more to reveal. However, Ginat explained that so far they have not excavated the site, but only studied what is already exposed.
“We are considering doing it in the future, but it is not simple,” he said.
“Today we often talk about global warming and how it is influenced by human beings, but it is also worthwhile to remember that climate is not stable and has always changed,” he said.
Other authors of the paper include Juan Cruz Larrasoaña from the Instituto Geológico y Minero de España at the Unidad de Zaragoza, Spain, Nicolas Waldmann from the Department of Marine Geosciences at the University of Haifa, Steffen Mischke from the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland and Yoav Avni from the Geological Survey of Israel.