Prehistoric Nuts Shed Light on Ancient Israelis

The discovered nuts were fruits of an aquatic plant that is extinct in Israel but can be found in India.

Yaron Kaminsky

An archaeological dig near the Daughters of Jacob Bridge has revealed a raft of retails on the lives of the people in prehistoric Israel over 750,000 years ago. The archaeologists, headed by Hebrew University’s Naama Goren-Inbar, have discovered evidence of the earliest use of fire by man outside Africa, not to mention details on prehistoric people’s food and daily lives.

Roughly 20 years ago, archaeologists there found the remains of hitherto unknown nuts; since then archaeological, botanical and anthropological research has finally made headway.

Goten-Inbar, winner of the 2014 Emet Prize for Science, Art and Culture, along with her Israeli colleagues Yoel Melamed and Irit Zohar, and Indian researchers Kumar Akhilesh and Shanti Pappu, have published the results of their labors in the journal Internet Archaeology.

It turns out the ancient nuts were fruits of an aquatic plant that is extinct in Israel but can currently be found in India, where locals harvest and process the nuts. The way prehistoric man processed the nuts has led to conclusions on the people’s cognitive and social capabilities.

The dig at the Daughters of Jacob Bridge is considered one of the most important prehistoric sites in Israel. The artifacts found there belong to the Acheulean culture, one of the longest prehistoric periods, lasting over 1.5 million years until about 250,000 years ago.

The site is unique in that its layers were very rich in moisture and relatively devoid of oxygen, which preserved many natural and organic artifacts. Aside from stone tools, archaeologists found many items that shed light on the diet of prehistoric man, including bones of fish, elephants, rhinoceroses, rams, horses and crabs, as well as nuts and fruits.

Melamed from Bar-Ilan University, an expert in identifying ancient organic material, realized that the nuts were derived from a freshwater plant called Euryale ferox. Relatives of the plant survived in Israel, though the closest modern specimen can be found on the Indian subcontinent.

In the past, under different ecological conditions, the plant was common in the Middle East and Europe. Goren-Inbar says the nuts from the plants are very nutritious, but eating them requires extensive knowledge of the plant, as well as a complex method for processing the nuts.

To learn about the nuts, researchers traveled to Bihar, India, where locals harvest and market the Euryale nuts. “We needed to go just as the harvest began,” said Goren-Inbar.