Giant Village From 12,000 Years Ago Found in Galilee Overturns Theories

Scholars had thought climate stress in the late Natufian period forced humans in the Levant to revert to nomadism. Evidently, not so.

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A large rounded structure in the Ein Gev village, cut by stream erosion. The curvature of the walls suggests that the structure was about 5 meters in diameter.
A large rounded structure in the Ein Gev village, cut by stream erosion. The curvature of the walls suggests that the structure was about 5 meters in diameter. Credit: Plos ONE

A huge prehistoric village dating back 12,000 years discovered by the Sea of Galilee has overturned the theory that because of subsistence stress, people in the Levant had largely reverted to a nomadic existence of hunting and gathering. Many did, but evidently not all.

The site found by the Ein Gev stream in the Jordan Valley does not conform to current perceptions of the Late Natufians as a largely mobile population coping with reduced resources caused by climate stress, says a Hebrew University archaeological team headed by Leore Grosman in their paper, published in Plos ONE, "A Late Natufian Community by the Sea of Galilee".

The Natufian period, named after a local creek in Israel, began around 15,000 years ago. It was at around that time that people began to transit from nomadic to settled life, even if only partially, says Grosman. They apparently didn't have agriculture yet – the earliest categorical proof of faming is about 9,000 years old.

Yet towards the end of the Natufian period, about 12,000 years, archaeological evidence shows that peoples in the Levant had been abandoning that settled lifestyle, reverting at least in part to a nomadic lifestyle, involving hunting and gathering.

"Their settlements became smaller, and weren't permanent," Grosman explains. "From that period we find graveyards, in caves, but no settlements."

Decorated stone items found at 12,000-year old village.Credit: Plos One

Some scholars link the reversion to nomadism to intense aridification in the Levant in the late Natufian. Others think it connected to a period of intense cold in the northern hemisphere, called the Younger Dryas, (after an alpine flower that thrived and spread in the cold weather produced by sudden, drastic drops in average temperatures).

Yet now the big village by the Sea of Galilee shows that at least some people stayed firmly settled down. Maybe that Dryas cold completely skipped over this region of the Jordan Valley, which is part of the Great Rift Valley, Grosman suggests.

At 1,200 square meters in area, the village is big. It also shows signs of continuous fixed settlement throughout the period by a relatively large community, at least 100 people. " We now postulate that settlement before the Neolithic was a gradual process," Grosman told Haaretz.

An intriguing find in the village was works of art that were typical in style to the early Natufian – and also to the later Neolithic styles, she says. The site "encapsulates cultural characteristics typical of both Natufian and Pre Pottery Neolithic traditions and thus bridges the crossroads between Late Paleolithic foragers and Neolithic farmers," write the archaeologists.

Other finds at the site aside from structures and remains of animals - and a cemetery with human bones, many flint objects, beads, shells and items of art.

A perforated item of unclear use found in Ein Gev village.Credit: Plos ONE

Many objects with holes were found, some of them decorated, whose purpose is unclear. Among the animal remains are those of a barbell fish from the Sea of Galilee. Grosman surmises that some of the perforated objects may have been associated with fishing technology, for example, as weights for a primitive fishing net.

“There is a model that claimed that what pushed people to agriculture was climate crisis and scholars tried to match up rainfall graphs with cultural change. But at least in the African Rift, it does not seem that there was such great distress, and this changes the picture somewhat,” Grosman said.

The site of a prehistoric village in a valley east of Kibbutz Ein Gev in northern Israel.Credit: Austin (Chad) Hill / Leore Gros