The 200,000-year-old Barbecue

According to University of Haifa researchers, these activities show that as early as the middle period of the Early Stone Age - about a quarter of a million years ago - people with modern hunting capabilities lived in the Carmel region.

The ability to hunt large animals, choose the most suitable cuts of meat for consumption and grill them is behavior that serves to differentiate between Homo sapiens and earlier forms of human life.

It is possible that one of the most ancient testimonies to the existence of a human population with modern behavior patterns has been found in the Misliya caves of the Carmel. Researchers Reuven Yeshurun, Dr. Guy Bar-Oz and Prof. Mina Evron, from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, reached this conclusion after a detailed examination of the remnants of animal bones found at a dig held on site.

Avalanches abounded

The Misliya cave is situated in the western slopes of the Carmel, some 12 kilometers south of Haifa and 90 meters above sea level. About seven kilometers south of it, near Nahal Hama'arot, a large number of remnants of human activity from the Stone Age have been uncovered at the Tanur cave, the Gedi cave and the Nahal cave.

Since 2001, a team headed by Evron and Prof. Israel Hershkowitz of the department of Anatomy and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University has been excavating at the Misliya cave. The team's work is being financed by the Dan David Foundation, the Leakey Foundation and the Irene Levi-Sala Care Archaeological Foundation.

The remains found at the Misliya cave include numerous flint tools such as knives, scraping instruments, sharp points and tools for working with meat.

All the flint tools belong to the material culture that was prevalent in the region in the middle of the Early Stone Age. Also found at Misliya were a number of sites where fires had been lit, around which there were numerous indications of meat having been grilled. The cave covered a large area and its size can be estimated today with the help of the sediment and fossilized earth.

Several layers of rock avalanches offer proof that, at some stage, the cave's roof, and some of its walls, collapsed. Remains of human activity were found on three steps in the cave. All the animal bones that were examined by Yeshurun and Bar-Oz, both experts in archaeology and zoology, were found on the top step of the cave.

According to the remnants unearthed, researchers identified the types of animals and cuts the ancient cave dwellers ate, as well as the age of the animals that had been hunted. They also conducted microscopic examinations of the marks on the bones. A detailed examination of this kind makes it possible to find out how exactly the animals had been killed, who ate their meat and how it was prepared for consumption.

The findings were clear: Almost all the bones that were examined were those of the animals that had been hunted by man, and it was clear that the cave dwellers preferred cuts that had plenty of flesh on them, such as the thigh, while they left in the field parts of the animal's body, such as the head and the hooves, which did not satisfy their hunger.

After slaughtering and cutting up the animals, the cave dwellers grilled cuts of meat on fires, many remnants of which were found at the site. The researchers know that early Carmel humans grilled his meat from the fact that very few burnt bones were found in the cave - but many burnt joints were found.

Deep diagonal scratches on the bones' surface, some of which can only be seen under a microscope, indicate cutting by flint knives to take meat off the bones after grilling. The long bones of the limbs were cracked by stone hammers to get to the marrow, which apparently had extreme nutritional importance for early humans.

The ancient palate

In an article which they published last month in the Journal of Human Evolution, Yeshurun, Bar-Oz and Evron write that, after examining the bones and remains of the teeth that were found at the site, they concluded that most of the animals that the cave dwellers ate were killed in their prime.

In addition to the fallow deer and the gazelle, which were the main sources of food for the Misliya cave dwellers, remains were also found of wild cattle (a large animal weighing one ton, also the ancestor of domesticated cattle), wild boars, wild goats, red deer, roe deer and even hyrax and tortoises. Shells from ostrich eggs prove that the ancient palate found this delicacy tasty as well.

From the remains of the various species found in the cave, it is also possible to learn about the fauna that grew in the area in those days. Three types of deer lived in the dense forests on the mountain while the giant cattle roamed the open pastures.

Since they were skillful hunters, it is reasonable to assume that the humans who lived in the area lived in sparse bands that were too scattered to be able to have a significant influence on the population of wild animals.

According to the researchers, the cave dwellers' preference for adult animals belonging to species, such as the fallow deer and the stags, and for certain organs (not to mention signs of cutting and grilling meat) indicate behavior similar to modern hunters and collectors.

Less developed humans preferred to hunt smaller animals, to trap prey that happened to approach, or to concentrate on the weaker members of a herd - the young, elderly or ill.

In contrast, the Misliya cave dwellers would systematically hunt the strongest large animals and would carry the most nutritious, delectable body parts to the central living quarters so that they could be cut and grilled on a fire and their bone marrow extracted for consumption.

The decision-making skills required for this kind of behavior ascribe to the cave dwellers advanced patterns of human conduct. Evidence of such behavioral patterns has been found at other sites in the Levant, but most of them dated to later periods.

Testimony to such modern behavior - dating back some 200,000 years - is compatible with the hypothesis of Evron and Hershkowitz: This site is home to the most ancient remains of modern man, i.e. Homo sapiens. Remains of this type - that is, human skeletons and bones - have not yet been uncovered at Misliya and therefore the researchers do not yet know for certain what kind of man left his food remnants in the cave.

At the same time, the patterns of hunting and the modern methods of processing the meat, uncovered in the research , indicate that humans behaved in a modern way at least in this sphere, regardless of which biological species they belonged to.