Calling someone a "Neanderthal" is an insult -- to the Neanderthals, says Haifa University archaeologist, Prof. Daniel Kaufman, sitting on a stone where Neanderthals likely once sat tens of thousands of years ago.
At least 80,000 years before Jews, Christians and Muslims settled in the hills of Haifa, Neanderthals and early modern humans lived there, using advanced survival skills. The cave dwellers lived in harmony with nature and perhaps even coexisted with each other, the prehistoric expert said.
However, at the caves of Nahal Me'arot/Wadi el-Mughara in the Mount Carmel Nature Reserve -- where these prehistoric men, women and children once thrived -- their history has remained largely unknown to tourists and locals, who generally prefer biblical sites, like Megiddo or Caesarea.
But since the caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July, they have also joined the World Heritage tourism trail, spots generally flocked to by tourists who want to see the world's most important cultural heritage sites.
Archaeologists from Haifa University, who have been excavating there for 40 years, together with the regional council of Hof HaCarmel, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the Israel Antiquities Authority, worked for six years to get the site inscribed on UNESCO's list, hoping to raise awareness about the prehistoric peoples who lived tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years before contemporaries of today.
"There is more interest in our more recent history," says Kaufman. "It is much easier for people to relate to biblical and later periods because there are some direct links between the historic past and modern times."
But prehistory allows the study of the evolution of human populations and their adaptations to physical and social environments through the longest possible timeline, he says. "If we are really interested in knowing who we are as human beings, we must go back to our origins...millions of years into the prehistoric past."
Research has been ongoing there for nine decades and "further excavation and archaeological research is far from exhausted," the UNESCO committee said.
Looking down from the site to the Mediterranean Sea, Kaufman says it is logical that prehistoric and later humans settled there: Caves protected people from the elements, plants with edible roots and seeds grew wild, marshes were present on the plain below and streams once ran through the valley. There was also an abundance of wood from trees to make fire, flint to make tools, and wild animals to hunt.
Ancient human fossils have been found elsewhere across the Middle East, central Asia and Europe, but the four caves and their terraces are the only site in the world where Neanderthals and early modern humans lived in such close proximity and had such similar day-to-day lifestyles.
Both Neanderthals and early modern humans hunted and ate the same animals -- gazelle, deer, wild pig, rabbit, tortoise and wild cattle -- made similar tools from the native resources, gathered fire wood and roots and vegetables, and cooked over an open fire, used also at night for warmth and warding off animals as they slept, perhaps on animal skins.
Inhabited for the last half a million years
The site is also extremely rare for having continuous inhabitation for half a million years. The archaeological evidence spans from at least 500,000 years ago through the Paleolithic (Stone Age) and Neolithic periods and the later Bronze, Roman, and Byzantine periods. There is also evidence of inhabitation from the late 19th and early 20th century, when local Arab shepherds used the site to keep their flocks.
The earliest artifacts found there dating to at least half a million years ago are relatively crude axes, knives and scrapers carved from flint. Through the years, the carving technology became more refined and flint was also used as spear- and arrowheads and sickle blades. Later tools, made by the people known as Natufians during the Epiopaleolithic period approximately 10,000-15,000 years ago, were not only made of flint but also of bone, including needles, spatulas and sickle hafts. The Natufians also carved decorative beads, pendants and carvings of animals from bone and collected marine shells for making jewelry.
The oldest human remains, Neanderthal and early anatomically modern humans, date from 80,000-120,000 years old. They are distinguished from each other by anatomical differences, such as that Neanderthal bones were much more massive.
The Neanderthal was found in Mount Carmel’s Tabun Cave in the early 1930s by British archaeologist, Dorothy Garrod. According to diaries from the expedition, Garrod apparently joked that it was a feminist excavation, led by a woman, with women doing the serious work; the Neanderthal they excavated was also female.
Archaeologists and paleoanthropologists around the world have been studying the Neanderthal remains in an effort to understand whether Neanderthals and early anatomically modern humans interbred.
"It was long thought that the Neanderthals preceded modern humans; some scholars even held that moderns evolved directly from the Neanderthals," Kaufman explains. "We now know that here, in the Levant, early moderns are earlier and possibly contemporary with the local Neanderthals, which precludes the possibility that moderns evolved from Neanderthals."
Yet many questions remain, he says. "Did they live together? We may be able to answer that. There is some very interesting research on the basis of what was found here."
Europeans are somewhat Neanderthal (really!)
It turns out that many living Europeans and Asians -- but not Africans -- have one to four percent Neanderthal DNA, Kaufman says. "Some of that interbreeding may have happened here in the Levant."
Found buried in rock-hard sediments of the Skhul Cave, adjacent to the Tabun Cave, early modern human remains -- the contemporaries of the Neanderthals -- seem to be descendents of the earliest modern humans that evolved in Ethiopia 180,000 years ago, according to their skeletal characteristics.
Remains found on-site from the animals the Neanderthals and early modern humans hunted included local species as well as wild animals like elephants and rhinoceros that also migrated from Africa and Europe.
Because the Levant -- Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and southern Turkey -- was an important corridor between Africa and Europe in prehistoric times, there are probably hundreds of local prehistoric sites in the Levant today, Kaufman says.
The El-Wad Cave, the biggest of the four caves, was home to one of the largest and most documented camps from the Natufian culture, 10,000-15,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers started the transition to an agricultural, non-nomadic lifestyle, a period archaeologists call "The Neolithic Revolution."
The large number of human burials, mortars carved from bedrock stone, architectural remains and other artifacts found there show that inhabitants were for the first time settling down. Unlike earlier hunter-gatherers, they created heavy tools to grind wild barley, wild wheat, and seeds into flour, and were domesticating dogs.
"[The artifacts] help us understand the processes leading to the domestication of plants and animals," Kaufman says. "All of human evolution took place within the context of an economy based on hunting and gathering; it was a very successful adaption -- the question is, if it worked so well, why shift to an economy that, especially in the beginning, was less reliable and considerably more risky?"
Agriculture was less reliable in those days, especially before irrigation because of the risk of drought.
Kaufman, and his colleagues, Prof. Mina Evron and Dr. Reuven Yeshurun, have been digging in the Natufian terrace since 1995 and have hundreds of thousands of artifacts to catalogue and date. In the ongoing excavations there, they are also hoping to learn more about the culture, after they reveal the lower layers, where 15,000-year-old architectural remains of a stone foundation for brush huts show distinct living quarters.
In addition to the significant cultural heritage, spanning 500,000 years, the caves are also interesting geologically. "Carmel Mountain is a result of tectonic action sixty million years ago," Kaufman says, pointing out marine fossils in the soft sediment walls of the El-Wad Cave, which was once an underwater coral reef.
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee called the site "an archive of early human life in South West Asia...it testifies to at least half a million years of human evolution."
There is much to be learned from prehistoric humans, Kaufman says. "Whether it was Neanderthals or Natufians, they lived pretty much in harmony with their environment."
And they were not as different from humans today as we think, he says. They walked to the beach to collect shells. They were emotionally attached to the people they buried. As Kaufman says, "We are getting a very different picture of these people."