Early Modern Human Tools Found in the Negev Support Theory of Exit From Africa via Arabia

The discovery in Dimona of a Nubian Levallois technique of tool manufacture, associated only with modern humans, supports the theory that humans left Africa via Saudi Arabia, then Jordan and Israel

Ruth Schuster
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Tools featuring Nubian Levallois technique found in situ by Dimona, in the Negev
Tools featuring Nubian Levallois technique found in situ by Dimona, in the NegevCredit: Emil Eladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster

A flint tool technology apparently unique to early modern humans has been found in the Negev desert, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Monday. The site next to the city of Dimona is the most northern occurrence of tools made using the “Nubian Levallois” knapping technique to date, the archaeologists say.

How old the Negev site is remains to be elucidated: efforts to date it are in progress, IAA archaeologist Talia Abulafia tells Haaretz. But assuming it’s from about the same time period as the specific Nubian Levallois manufacturing technique was used in East and North Africa, then the Negev site is about 150,000 to 100,000 years old.

If the Nubian Levallois technique was indeed used only by early anatomically modern humans, then the discovery shores up the hypothesis that Israel and the Negev were on the early modern human route out of Africa – via Saudi Arabia.

Say it in Nubian Levallois

“Nubian Levallois” is a late subset of a broad range of Levallois tools, named for the Parisian suburb Levallois-Perret, where the evidence of the sophisticated knapping technique was first found.

To be frank, there’s no archaeological consensus on what actually constitutes Levallois.

One generally takes a rock and knocks flakes off one side, flips the rock, knocks more flakes off the other side; the midpoint product is a rock with shelled edges. Already by this point the maker has produced a number of useful chips. Then with a skilled, precise mega-whack at the end, one knocks off the classic Levallois flake, which has sharp edges from the shelled edges of the previous flaking.

Thus, one can make multiple tools from a single core, as demonstrated by the reconstruction of the rock from which a host of handy flakes were made in Boqer Tachtit, a site in Israel from 40,000 years ago.

Reconstruction of a core reassembled from blades for illustration purposes, Boqer Tachtit, Negev, Israel, from about 40000 B.C.E.
Levallois technique: Reconstruction of a core reassembled from blades for illustration purposes, Boqer Tachtit, Negev, Israel, from about 40000 B.C.E.Credit: Gary Todd

The specifically “Nubian” branch of Levallois involves shaping a sharper, better stone tip. The difference between classic Levallois and Nubian is subtle but unmistakable, archaeologists say.

Now, the odd stone tool found in the Negev – and in Jordan and elsewhere in the Levant – have been claimed to be “Nubian,” Mia Oron of the Israel Antiquities Authority tells Haaretz. But the newly announced discovery in the Negev is the first time the whole Nubian enchilada has been found in this region.

“We found all the stages of the knapping from the beginning to the final blanks. In other sites we found only the blanks,” Abulafia explains. And they were found in situ, where the ancient manufacturer was working.

So it seems that early modern humans leaving Africa brought this Nubian twist as far north as Israel, and then went extinct.

It has been becoming clearer that modern humans were leaving Africa much earlier than had been thought – note the modern jaw found in Israel’s Misliya Cave and remains on Naxos Island in Greece, both from 200,000 years ago. (Not all agree these remains represent Homo sapiens sapiens per se.)

In any case, the early exiters apparently died out, and we lot arose from humans who left Africa about 60,000 years ago. No clear evidence of the Nubian subset of Levallois has been found north of Israel: none has been found in Europe, at least so far.

The origin conundrum

Now, Levallois knapping is advanced compared with the previous technique, the crude Acheulean hand axes. Not that making Acheulean tools was a snap, but many believe Levallois represents a significant advancement in predetermination, cognition and even possibly linguistic capacities – how else could they teach each other this fine technique, goes that last argument. For instance, a 2012 paper in Plos ONE explains and supports the view that “Levallois knapping relied on a cognitive capacity for long-term working memory,” at least.

The site where the Nubian Levallois tools were found in the Negev
The site where the Nubian Levallois tools were found in the NegevCredit: Emil Eladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Maya Oron of the Israel Antiquities Authority at the excavation site
Maya Oron of the Israel Antiquities Authority at the excavation siteCredit: Emil Eladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

We don’t know when classic Levallois was first “invented,” though it was apparently in Africa and may have been as much as half a million years ago – about the very start of evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens (us).

The rub is that Neanderthals had command of basic Levallois, too. So who invented Levallois and how clear can we be that Nubian Levallois was solely the fief of modern humans, as opposed to multiple hominin species?

One speculative possibility is that the core of Levallois technique began with Homo erectus, the joint ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. That could explain a great deal. Alternatively, its development by Neanderthals and Homo sapiens may be a case of convergence, and Levallois technique arose independently in multiple places at different times.

Or, possibly very early humans left Africa a lot earlier than we know, brought Levallois-level knowledge with them and taught it to the indigenous Europeans, the Neanderthals.

In Africa, it’s possible that classic Levallois technique dates back half a million years. In Eurasia, the oldest known Levallois tools include ones found in Georgia and Armenia that date to over 330,000 years; finds in Italy date to almost 300,000 years. That is deep in early Neanderthal timeline and far, far before modern humans arrived.

In Israel, fully-fledged Levallois tools were also found in the famed Misliya Cave dating to the Early Middle Paleolithic.

So what have we? Classic Levallois may go back half a million years; it was used by Neanderthals and us; Nubian Levallois is a sophisticated side-branch of classic Levallois used exclusively by Homo sapiens as far as we know, and may go back about 150,000 years to Africa. They brought it to Arabia and Israel. And stopped here, insofar as we know.

Sometimes classic Levallois and Nubian Levallois tools are found at the same site. Acheulean too. It isn’t a stretch to think that a group of hominins, whatever species, would fashion more than one type of tool at the same time. Maybe Og was good at making Acheulean handaxes and Zog had a knack for knapping Levallois blades, and so on. It isn’t that the new technology made the last one obsolete.

Tool found in the Negev with sharpened tip typical of Nubian Levallois technique
Tool found in the Negev with sharpened tip typical of Nubian Levallois techniqueCredit: Emil Eladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

Asked if the Nubian Levallois “factory” found in the Negev could theoretically have been Neanderthal, who certainly existed further north in today’s Israel at the time – and definitely coexisted with modern humans in today’s Israel at the time – Abulafia shrugs.

Neanderthal remains haven’t been reported south of Mount Carmel, she points out, nor have Nubian-type tools been found in association with known Neanderthal sites. Of course they could be one day. For all we know, Neanderthals also lived in what is today Dimona; and it’s also true that modern human remains haven’t been found in Dimona either, or anywhere around there either.

However, the possible early origin of Levallois half a million years ago is speculative, and in Africa Nubian Levallois is associated with early modern humans, Abulafia sums up. And that’s what we know so far. If we assume that the Nubian Levallois flint factory belonged to modern humans and existed at the same time as that sort of technology in eastern and northern Africa, then modern humans were wandering the Israeli desert 150,000 to 100,000 years ago, putting it solidly on the modern human route out of Africa.

Out of Saudi Arabia

So Israel was clearly on the Homo sapiens path out, but via where? Oron argues that the Negev find shores up the case of exit via the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula.

The human exit from Africa is like a puzzle in which we’re missing almost all the pieces, she laughs. Each new find adds to the big picture, though. And among the discoveries in the last 15 years are early human sites in Arabia, including hand-axes of the older Acheulean type.

To be clear, what the archaeologists are finding in Saudi Arabia is flint, stone tools, not human remains. The only skeletal prehistoric evidence so far is a finger bone dating to 85,000 years ago.

Dating stone tools is quite the conundrum, but thanks to physics and chemistry some advances have been made, Oron says. The Saudi finds have been dated to about 120,000 to 85,000 years ago.

It seems early-ish modern humans did cross from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and meandered on toward the Jordanian plateau and onward into the Negev. Others likely took the so-called Nile route, which would have taken them Eurasia-ward via the coasts. But, as Oron points out, the coastal route wouldn’t have taken them through the Negev to Dimona.