NATUFIANS (12,500-9500 B.C.)

NATUFIAN CULTURE (12,500-9500 B.C.)

Natufian art

The Natufian culture refers to mostly hunter-gatherers who lived in modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria approximately 11,500 to 15,000 years ago. They were among the first people to build permanent houses and cultivate edible plants. The advancements they achieved are believed to have been crucial to the development of agriculture during the time periods that followed them.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica: the Natufian culture is a “Mesolithic culture of Palestine and southern Syria dating from about 9000 B.C.. Mainly hunters, the Natufians supplemented their diet by gathering wild grain; they likely did not cultivate it. They had sickles of flint blades set in straight bone handles for harvesting grain and stone mortars and pestles for grinding it. Some groups lived in caves, others occupied incipient villages. They buried their dead with their personal ornaments in cemeteries. Carved bone and stone artwork have been found. [Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica ]

A study, published in Nature Scientific Reports by a team of scientists and archeologists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rechovot and the University of Copenhagen, rejects the long-held “core region” theory that argues that the Natufian culture spread from the Mount Carmel and Galilee region and suggest instead the Natufian’s had far more diverse and complex origins. Daniel K. Eisenbud, Jerusalem Post, December 7, 2017]

Daniel K. Eisenbud wrote in the Jerusalem Post: “According to the researchers, the study is based on evidence from a Natufian site located in Jordan, some 150 km. northeast of Amman. The site, called Shubayqa 1, was excavated by a University of Copenhagen team led by Dr. Tobias Richter from 2012-2015. The excavations uncovered a well-preserved Natufian site, which included, among other findings, a large assemblage of charred plant remains. The botanical remains, which are rare in many Natufian sites in the region, enabled the Weizmann-Copenhagen team to obtain the largest number of dates for any Natufian site yet in either Israel or Jordan.

Utilizing an accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS), that can reveal the amount of carbon-14 in a sample as small as a single atom, Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto of the Weizmann Institute, was able to accurately date the charred remains. “To ensure the highest accuracy, the team selected only samples from short-lived plant species or their parts – for example, seeds or twigs – to obtain the dates. “Over 20 samples from different layers of the site were dated, making it one of the best and most accurately dated Natufian sites anywhere,” the Institute continued. “The dates showed, among other things, that the site was first settled not long after the earliest dates obtained for northern Israel.”

Natufian skull

Based on the findings, the researchers concluded that either Natufians spread very rapidly into the region, or, more probably, that the settlement patterns emerged more or less simultaneously in different parts of the region. “The early date of Shubayqa 1 shows that Natufian hunter- gatherers were more versatile than previously thought,” said Richter. “Past research had linked the emergence of Natufian culture to the rich habitat of the Mediterranean woodland zone. But the early dates from Shubayqa 1 show that these late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers were also able to live quite comfortably in more open parkland steppe zones further east.” Richter noted the researchers determined that a portion of the Natufians’ subsistence appears to have relied heavily on the exploitation of club rush tubers as well as other wild plants, and the hunting of birds, gazelle and other animals.

According to Boaretto, the “core area” theory may have come about, in part, because the Mount Carmel sites have been the best preserved and studied – until now. “In addition to calling into question the idea that the Natufians originated in one settlement and spread outwards, the study suggests that the hunter- gatherers who lived 15,000 to 12,000 years ago were ingenious and resourceful,” said Boaretto. The authors concluded that their findings support the view that there were many pathways to agriculture and “the Neolithic way of life” was a highly variable and complex process that cannot be explained on the basis of single-cause models.

Good Websites Archaeology News Report ; : ; Archaeology in Europe ; Archaeology magazine ; HeritageDaily; Live Science ; Food Timeline, History of Food ; Food and History

Natufian Settlements

Natufian sites

Laura Anne Tedesco of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Natufians were the first people of the eastern Mediterranean area to establish permanent villages. Prior to the Natufians, bands of people had moved seasonally, to follow animals for hunting and to gather available plants. The Natufians, while still hunters and foragers, settled in villages year-round, relying on the natural resources of their immediate area. These resources included gazelle, wild cereals, and marine life. The latter, abundant in the region, was used for food as well as for making tools, art, and body ornamentation. Shells collected from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea were commonly used for jewelry and headdresses, typical status markers. [Source: Laura Anne Tedesco, Metropolitan Museum of Art , October 2000 \^/]

“After the last Ice Age, as the climate became warmer and rainfall more abundant, the nomadic population of the eastern Mediterranean began to establish the first permanent settlements. The site of Eynan/Ain Mallaha, situated between the hills of Galilee and Lake Hula in the Levant, was inhabited from 10,000 to 8200 B.C., during the Natufian period. Eynan (in Hebrew)/Ain Mallaha (in Arabic) is one of hundreds of Natufian settlements known from the eastern Mediterranean, where remains of a rich and dynamic artistic tradition have been discovered.” \^/

“Excavations in the Levant, including at Eynan/Ain Mallaha, were undertaken with great enthusiasm by European and American archaeologists in the years following World War II. During this period of scientific exploration, hundreds of sites were uncovered, not just Natufian but from preceding and succeeding periods. These archaeological activities contributed enormously to our current understanding of the prehistoric record of this region. Jericho, well known for its defensive walls described in biblical accounts, is another important Natufian site that was discovered at about the same time as Eynan/Ain Mallaha.” \^/

Natufian settlements were generally found in open woodland areas with oak and Pistacia trees and underbrush with large amounts of grain-carrying grasses. They tended to stay away from the high mountains of Lebanon, the steppe areas of the Negev desert in Israel and Sinai, and the Syro-Arabian desert in the east, presumably because of limited food resources and competition from other groups of foragers who exploited this region. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Natufian dwellings were semi-subterranean, often with a dry-stone foundation. The frame was probably made of brushwood. No traces of mudbrick have been found, which became common later in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) period. Their round houses have a diameter between three and six meters, and contain a central round or subrectangular fireplace. In Ain Mallaha traces of postholes have been identified. Villages covering over 1,000 square meters have been found. Smaller settlements have been interpreted by some researchers as camps. Traces of rebuilding in almost all excavated settlements seem to point to a frequent relocation, hinting of a semi-nomadic rather than settled existence. Settlements have been estimated to house 100–150 people, but there are three categories: small, medium, and large, ranging from 15 square meters to 1,000 square meters. There are no definite indications of storage facilities. +

Natufian Tools and Burials

Natufian burial

The Natufian microlithic industry centered on short blades and bladelets. They used the microburin technique to make these tools. Geometric microliths include lunates, trapezes, and triangles. There are backed blades as well. Sickle blades appear for the first time in the Natufian periodlithic industry. The characteristic sickle-gloss shows that they were used to cut the silica-rich stems of cereals, indirectly suggesting the existence of incipient agriculture. Shaft straighteners made of ground stone indicate the practice of archery. There was a rich bone industry, including harpoons and fish hooks. There are heavy ground-stone bowl mortars as well. A special type of retouch (Helwan retouch) is characteristic in early Natufian stone tools. In the late Natufian, the Harif-point, a typical arrowhead made from a regular blade, became common in the Negev.

The Ain Sakhri lovers, a carved stone object held at the British Museum, is the oldest known depiction of a couple having sex. It was found in the Ain Sakhri cave in the Judean desert. Natufian grave goods are typically made of shell, teeth (of red deer), bones, and stone. There are pendants, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and belt-ornaments as well. Stone and bone were worked into pendants and other ornaments. There are a few human figurines made of limestone (El-Wad, Ain Mallaha, Ain Sakhri), but the favourite subject of representative art seems to have been animals. Ostrich-shell containers have been found in the Negev. +

In 2008, the grave of a seemingly important 12,000-years-old Natufian woman was discovered in a ceremonial pit in Hilazon Tachtit cave in northern Israel. Media reports referred to this person as a shaman. She was buried with remains of at least three aurochs and 86 tortoises, all of which are thought to have been brought to the site during a funeral feast. Her body was surrounded by tortoise shells, the pelvis of a leopard, forearm of a wild boar, wingtip of a golden eagle, and skull of a stone marten. +

Natufian Art

Ain Sakhri lovers

Laura Anne Tedesco of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Natufians are also the first documented Levantine group to have produced artistically decorated utilitarian objects such as pottery and ostrich-egg vessels. These objects have been found in scores of Natufian sites. Their decoration of geometric motifs almost surely served as a form of visual communication, perhaps to demonstrate ownership of the objects by an individual or to indicate affiliation with a particular group or geographic area. [Source: Laura Anne Tedesco, Metropolitan Museum of Art , October 2000 \^/]

Natufian art, while it follows some of the same representational conventions of the European Paleolithic in its naturalistic and sensitive portrayal of animals, reflects a new awareness of individual identity and social life. Natufian burials, often placed in close proximity to the homes of the living, contain elaborate jewelry made of bone, shell, and stone. These materials, readily available in the Mediterranean landscape, were fashioned by skilled artists and marked the social standing of the Natufians' buried ancestors. At Eynan/Ain Mallaha, for example, an exquisite headdress made from hundreds of delicate, tusk-shaped dentalium shells was found in a woman's burial. \^/

Natufian representations of humans are both schematic and naturalistic. The stone head from Eynan/Ain Mallaha illustrated here was carved from limestone using flint knives and chisels. Traces of the artist's tool marks are still visible. The eyes, formed by three concentric curving lines, dominate the lower portion of the face, which has been bisected by a broad horizontal band across the center of the stone. The eyes are disproportionately large and yet there was no attempt to delineate pupils. The nose and forehead are exceptionally broad. The upper portion of the head, slightly damaged, is incised with diagonal lines, which may represent hair or ornamentation. The base is flat, indicating that it was probably intended to sit upright. \^/

Natufian art, it is believed, was linked to the practice of rituals and ceremonies. In their newly settled hamlets, the Natufians may have used their superbly carved sculptures, animal figurines, and jewelry to represent beliefs commonly held across communities, and to differentiate status among individual community members. The emergence of Natufian art in the Levant, where previously almost none had existed, appears to indicate a shared ideology and visual culture that probably derived from the Natufians' shared environment and newfound life as settled hunters and gatherers.

Books: Treasures of the Holy Land: Ancient Art from the Israel Museum. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986; Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700. 4th ed.. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Natufian Proto-Agriculture and Dog Domestication

Natufian holes

The Natufian people lived by hunting and gathering. The preservation of plant remains at Natufian sites is poor because of the soil conditions, but wild cereals, legumes, almonds, acorns and pistachios may have been collected. Animal bones show that gazelle (Gazella gazella and Gazella subgutturosa) were the main prey. Deer, aurochs and wild boar were hunted in the steppe zone, as well as onagers and caprids (ibex). Water fowl and freshwater fish formed part of the diet in the Jordan River valley. Animal bones from Salibiya have been interpreted as evidence for communal hunts with nets. A pita-like bread dated to 12.500 B.C. has been attributed to Natufians. This bread is made of wild cereal seeds and papyrus cousin tubers, ground into flour. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to one theory, a sudden change in climate — the Younger Dryas event (c. 10,800 to 9500 B.C.) — inspired the development of agriculture. The Younger Dryas was a 1,000-year-long interruption in the higher temperatures prevailing since the Last Glacial Maximum, which produced a sudden drought in the Levant. This could have threatened wild cereals, which were out-competed by dryland scrub. It is presumed that local population had become largely sedentary. To preserve their sedentary way of life they cleared the scrub and planting seeds obtained from elsewhere, originating agriculture. This theory is controversial and hotly debated in the scientific community.

At Natufian sites is some of the earliest archaeological evidence of dog domestication. At the Natufian site of Ain Mallaha in Israel, dated to 12,000 B.C., an elderly human and a four-to-five-month-old puppy were found buried together. At another Natufian site, the cave of Hayonim, humans were found buried with two dogs. +

Earliest Evidence of Bread: From a 14,000-Year-Old Natufian Site

In 2018, it was reportedly that tiny pieces of bread were found in fireplaces used by hunter-gatherers 14,000 years ago, predating agriculture by thousands of years. Nicola Davis wrote in The Guardian: Charred crumbs found in a pair of ancient fireplaces have been identified as the earliest examples of bread, suggesting it was being prepared long before the dawn of agriculture. The remains – tiny lumps a few millimetres in size – were discovered by archaeologists at a site in the Black Desert in north-east Jordan. Using radiocarbon-dating of charred plant materials found within the hearths, the team found the fireplaces were used just over 14,000 years ago. [Source: Nicola Davis, The Guardian July 16 2018]

“Bread has been seen as a product of agriculturist, settled societies, but our evidence from Jordan now basically predates the onset of plant cultivation … by at least 3,000 years,” said Dr Tobias Richter, co-author of the study from the University of Copenhagen, noting that fully-fledged agriculture in the Levant is believed to have emerged around 8,000 BC. “So bread was being made by hunter-gatherers before they started to cultivate any plants,” he said.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Richter and colleagues from Denmark and the UK describe how during excavations between 2012 and 2015 they found the crumbs in the fireplaces of a site used by hunter-gatherers known as Natufians, who foraged for wild grains. Among the remains, the team unearthed small, round tubers of a wetland plant known as club-rush, traces of legumes and plants belonging to the cabbage family, wild cereals including some ground wheat and barley – and 642 small charred lumps.

“Analysis of 24 of these lumps revealed they are bread-like – with the others expected to be similar. “They are charred breadcrumbs, sort of what you might find at the bottom of your toaster at home – the sort of stuff that falls off when you put it on high power,” said Richter. Further analyses revealed that 15 of the 24 crumbs contain tissues from cereal plants – probably, says Richter, from barley, einkorn wheat or oats. Some of the crumbs were also found to contain ingredients from other plants, with the team saying club-rush tuber is the most likely candidate. What’s more, the analysis of the crumbs suggests the flour used to make the bread might have been sieved, while the team say the lack of an oven means the bread was probably baked in the ashes of the fire, or on a hot stone. The team say the crumbs appear most likely to be from a sort of unleavened flat bread.

While the newly discovered crumbs are now the earliest bread remains found so far, taking the title from remains found at the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and dated to about 9,100 years ago, the team say the food might have emerged even earlier. “Food remains have long been ignored in archaeology, and therefore have not been sufficiently studied,” said Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, first author of the study from the University of Copenhagen. “I’m sure that if we look at older sites, we may find bread-like cereal products during the Paleolithic [for example] 25,000 years ago.”

Richter said it is unlikely the bread found at the Natufian site was consumed as a staple, given it would have been very labour intensive to gather and process the grains. While the team suggest the bread could have been made by the hunter-gatherers for their onward journey, they say other evidence adds weight to the idea it could have been part of a feast or ritual event. “[The older fireplace] also had a number of gazelle [bones] in it from at least a dozen or more animals as well as water birds and hare,” said Richter. “So it looks like a bit of a meal [shared] between a larger group of people, like a little feast that was then discarded in the fireplace.”

Amy Bogaard, professor of Neolithic and bronze age archaeology at the University of Oxford and who was not involved in the research, described the study as fascinating. “We previously knew that these communities were grinding and preparing plants in various ways, but this study is the first to identify actual bread-like remains of this early date,” she said. “ In terms of food history, it suggests that preparation of flatbread-like foods long predates the establishment of agriculture, and that farming in this region emerged within a pre-established culture of grinding and baking.”

While the team have yet to recreate the recipe, Richter says they have tried bread made with club-rush tubers, offering a clue as to how the ancient bread might have tasted. “It tastes a little bit salty, so it is probably not to our particular tastes in the present,” he said.

12,500-Year-Old Natufian Barley Bread

Natufian mortars and grinding stones

There is strong evidence that groat meals and fine flour were produced from wild barley by the Natufians (who lived 12,500–9,500 B.C. in Palestine, the Levant and Syria) around 12,500 years ago, two to three millennia before the appearance of domesticated grains, and perhaps made into a kind of pita bread and this is perhaps linked to thousands of mysterious cone-shaped hollows carved into the bedrock throughout the Southern Levant. The issue is being examined by a team led by Prof. Mordechai Kislev, an expert in archaeo-botony at Bar-Ilan University involved in excavating the Natufian site of Huzuq Musa, Dr. David Eitam, also from Bar-Ilan University, the physicist Adiel Karty and Prof. Ofer Bar-Yosef, a member of Harvard University’s Department of Anthropology.[Source: Bar-Ilan University, August 26, 2015,]

Prof. Bar-Yosef, an expert on the origin of modern humans and early farming societies in the ancient Near East, says “that the the Natufians – although subsisting as a hunter-gatherer society – used sickles to harvest wild, almost-ripe cereals, and were capable of producing large quantities of groat meals from roasted, “half green” barley grain. Moreover, the technological advance from wide-to narrow-cone mortars represented a major dietary change, because de-husked flour made it possible to produce the fine flour needed for what has become the Western world’s most widespread staple food: bread. With the development of a new agro-technological system, including threshing floors, peeling utensils and milling devices, the Natufians bequeathed to their Neolithic successors a technical advancement that contributed to the establishment of agricultural societies.”

Prof. Kislev points out that the barley-processing “facilities” found at the site indicate that stone-utensil-produced flour could have been a significant part of the local Natufian diet. “Huzuq Musa is estimated to have had a population of about a hundred people,” he says. “If we assume that the historical 35 liters of grain given to a Roman worker during the winter corresponds to a reasonable level of nutrition, the four large threshing floors discovered near the site – and its accompanying tools – could have produced a sufficient quantity of processed barley for its estimated inhabitants.”

“Producing food from wild barley grain was not easy, but the biggest challenge may have been the challenge of not harvesting all the wild grain in the field, and ensuring that there would be something left to eat the following year,” he says. “This Natufian advance was a bridge to the Neolithic revolution, when sedentary farmers developed the discipline needed to plan for the successful planting – and reaping – of domesticated grains.”

According to Dr. Eitam, the majority of scholars agree that Natufian culture was characterized by the first communities that inhabited permanent settlements. “Our discovery of this sophisticated agro-technological system indicates that Natufian society made the shift from hunting-gathering to an agriculture-based economy, which was possibly extant 3,000 years before the domestication of cereal,” he says.

Recreating 12,500-Year-Old Natufian Barley Bread

mortars in Raqefet Cave

Bar-Ilan University reported: Using 12,500-year-old conical mortars carved into bedrock, Prof. Mordechai Kislev’s team “reconstructed how their ancient ancestors processed wild barley to produce groat meals, as well as a delicacy that might be termed “proto-pita” – small loaves of coal-baked, unleavened bread. In so doing, they re-enacted a critical moment in the rise of civilization: the emergence of wild-grain-based nutrition, some 2,000 to 3,000 years before our hunter-gatherer forebears would establish the sedentary farming communities which were the hallmark of the “Neolithic Revolution”. [Source: Bar-Ilan University, August 26, 2015,]

The research team, consisting of independent researchers as well as faculty members from Bar-Ilan and Harvard Universities, conducted their study in the Late Natufian site of Huzuq Musa, located in Israel’s Jordan Valley. Their findings were published in the journal Plos One on July 31, 2015. Prof. Kislev said: “Assuming they were mortars used for the processing of plant food, my colleagues – under the direction of archaeologist Dr. David Eitam – decided to use these ancient stone tools, along with period-appropriate items such wooden pestles, sticks and sieves, to reconstruct how the work was done.”

“The experiment began by collecting spikelets – the coated grains of a cereal ear – from wild barley, the most common wild cereal in the Levant both in prehistory and today. After ripening on the ground to prevent them from scattering in the wind, the grains were then separated from the stalks, first by beating against the threshing floor with a curved stick, and subsequently, by sifting them through a large-holed sieve.

“At this point, the conical mortars were used to complete the transformation of wild grain into groats and flour that could be used for food,” says team member Adiel Karty, explaining that the different-sized mortars served specific agricultural purposes. “Filled with a measure of the raw grain and beaten with a wooden pestle, the wider cones were used for hummeling – removal of the bristle that extends from the edge of the seed,” he explains. “The narrower cones came into play during the next stage, when the same wooden pestle was used to remove the grain husk; the Natufians invented a peeling-milling machine long before the invention of machinery!”

“After de-husking, the grain was scooped out of the conical mortar by hand then placed into a small cup cut in the adjacent bedrock. From there, it was transferred for filtering in a small-gauge sieve. “We found that de-husking – and the later milling into flour – was significantly aided by the presence of these cup-like depressions, which could be used to deposit material produced in the mortar by repeated hand-scooping from its bottom,” says Dr. Eitam. “This was a kind of labor-saving device, making it easier to transfer the grain and waste material to a sieve or other vessel.”

Raqefet Cave entrance

Between the Natufians (12,500-9500 B.C.) and Halaf Period (6500–5500 B.C.)

The Khiamian Period (c. 10,200 – c. 8,800 B.C., also referred to as El Khiam or El-Khiam) is a period of the Near-Eastern Neolithic, marking the transition between the Natufian and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. Some sources date it from about 10,000 to 9,500 B.C., The Khiamian is named after the site of El Khiam, situated on banks of the Dead Sea, where researchers have recovered the oldest chert arrows heads, with lateral notchs, the so-called "El Khiam points", which has served to identify sites in Israel, (Azraq), Sinai (Abu Madi), and to the north as far as the Middle Euphrates (Mureybet). [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Khiamian is regared as a time without any major technical innovations. However, for the first time houses were built on the ground level, not half buried as was previously done. Otherwise, members of this culture were still hunter-gatherers. Agriculture was still rather primitive. Relatively new discoveries in the Middle East and Anatolia show that some experiments with agriculture had taken place by 10,900 B.C. and wild grain processing had occurred by 19,000 B.C. at Ohalo II. According to Jacques Cauvin, the Khiamian was the beginning of the worship of the Woman and the Bull, found in later following periods in the Near-East, based on the appearance of small female statuettes, as well as by the burying of aurochs skulls.

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN, around 8500-5500 B.C.) is the name of the early Neolithic Period in the Levantine and upper Mesopotamian region of the Fertile Crescent. The domestication of plants and animals was evolving at this time, possibly triggered by the Younger Dryas drought (See above). The Pre-Pottery Neolithic culture came to an end around the time of the 8.2 kiloyear event, a cool spell that lasted several hundred years and peaked around on 6200 B.C.

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN, around 8500-5500 B.C.) Period is divided into three periods 1) Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA 8500 B.C. - 7600 B.C.); 2) Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB 7600 B.C. - 6000 B.C.) and 3) Pre-Pottery Neolithic C culture (culture continued a few more centuries at 'Ain Ghazal in Jordan).

Around 8000 B.C. during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) the world's first town Jericho appeared in the Levant. PPNB differed from PPNA in showing greater use of domesticated animals, a different set of tools, and new architectural styles.

Image Sources: Wikipedia Commons and Cambridge University (1st image) and Columbia University (2nd image)

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2022

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