A vast city that may have had as many as 1,500 to 3,000 inhabitants in its heyday 9,000 years ago was part of a sprawling Neolithic network of barter. Fresh findings in the mega site at Motza, the Jerusalem foothills, include an obsidian blade that came from Anatolia; a simple but beautiful, thin-walled bowl made of serpentine stone, originating in northern Syria; and large alabaster beads made in ancient Egypt, archaeologists associated with the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed on Tuesday.
The alabaster beads, each about an inch long, had been part of a necklace found resting on the chest of a body.
A pierced pendant bead found on another female body was made of mother of pearl, which came from the Red Sea – the southernmost part, excavation co-director Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily points out.
On the same body the archaeologists found a bracelet made of stone, which seems to have been broken and repaired back then. The two ends of each bracelet fragment had paired holes, meaning the three pieces could all be tied together.
Even the mortars used to grind grains and, it turns out, meat as well, originated from afar. They were made of sturdy basalt rock, which doesn't exist in the chalky Jerusalem hills. The nearest source is the Golan Heights.
How the exotic items reached this inland Neolithic city is anybody's guess. We do not know if or how people sailed 9,000 years ago. Nor is it particularly likely that early traders set out on such long distances and brought these exotic goods directly from their source.
The best guess of excavation Khalaily suggests is that these exotic foreign objects reached the town through diffusion.
In other words, the obsidian blade, smaller than one's pinkie but extremely sharp, had probably been made where it was found, in Anatolia, and passed from community to community and from hand to hand around the Mediterranean basin until ultimately reaching this town.
Obsidian is black volcanic glass that was favored in tool-making because of its sharp edges. In support of the diffusion thesis, the closer one gets to the source of obsidian, the more such pieces – and waste from obsidian tool-making – one finds. In Jerusalem there is zero waste from making obsidian tools: they were quite clearly made elsewhere.
The heavy-duty basalt mortars also probably reached the Jerusalem hills by a process of diffusion, as they passed from generation to generation, Khalaily postulates.
Although the bracelet pieces weren't glued, the villagers did have a type of glue: viscous bitumen, which also came from far away, specifically the Dead Sea area. Traces of bitumen were found on the obsidian blade. It had been used to glue the blade to its handle which had probably been made of bone.
The dawn of the hamburger
Existing well before the conventional wisdom thought such large towns had the cultural potential to form, the Motza mega site was found serendipitously during infrastructure works in 2018. It began around 10,500 years ago and by its peak in the 8th millennium B.C.E., it featured gathering places, public buildings and densely crowded homes, which was the norm in Neolithic times, it seems.
In Catalhöyük, Turkey, archaeologists are confident that the residents of another 9,000-year-old town entered and exited their extremely crowded houses through the roof, with the help of ladders, because the houses are so dense that there's no other option. Here that cannot be said.
Streets going back 9,000 years were cut between the houses, which were made of mud-brick that has long since disintegrated, but the construction foundations made of large stone bricks can still be seen. The structure of the town smacks of order, which in turn suggests city planning, Khalaily suggests.
"The leaders of the settlement planned the city's development," he postulates. Apropos of planning, in contrast to modern Israel which maintains only very small food emergency stocks, the ancients evidently had grain put away for a rainy day.
Agriculture was in full sway by the time this settlement at Motza arose. It seems that the first stabs at cultivation began as long as 23,000 years ago, by the Sea of Galilee. By the time the Motza settlement was humming 9,000 years ago, the villagers had settled down into sedentary subsistence farming lifestyle. They were growing wheat, barley, legumes such as lentils, broad beans (ful) and chick peas, using stone sickles for the harvest. Use-wear analysis of the serrated flint sickle blades shows they were indeed used to cut grain stalks, Khalaily says.
"They grew surpluses," he adds: the archaeologists have even found a silo containing grain. Possibly they bartered some of their extra yields for obsidian volcanic glass, gorgeous beads and so on.
The town apparently featured other innovations – such as the domestic goat.
Different crops and animals were domesticated in different times and places, and the domestication of the goat from the wild bezoar ibex is a controversial matter – the where and when. It has been postulated that goats (and some other animals) were domesticated more than once.
Genetic analysis had suggested that the goat was first to be domesticated from the bezoar in central Persia around 11,000 years ago. It remains entirely possible that the goat was indeed domesticated in central Persia – and in what is today Israel too. Khalaily’s theory is that the Neolithics separated the cute kids and, simply, raised them up in the home. Once the wild baby goats identified people as mommy, they would be more amiable.
But were the Motza Neolithics really the first? He says yes. “We have the smoking gun,” says Khalaily: bones. DNA testing of the goat bone fragments found around the garbage-strewn town shows them to be the most ancient domestic goat found in the region, he claims. “It was completely domesticated,” he adds, not some halfway hybrid.
The town also featured domestic cows and pigs, these people living around 6,000 years before Judaism with its revulsion for the swine would start to develop them. (In fact pigs were eaten all over the Levant, including in Jerusalem, until the later prohibition on pork.) Pig domestication from boars is a knotty conundrum: they too seem to have been tamed and subsequently husbanded more than once in prehistory, in the Levant area and in China, around 9,000 years. Anyway, the people living in Neolithic Israel had and ate them, again leaving their bones scattered around.
Among the finds at the site are mortars made of basalt rock, a type found throughout the region. One assumes the mortars were used to pound wheat into flour, or chickpeas into submission, and so on. Khalaily says however that use-wear analysis indicates that at least one was used to manually pound or grind tough meat – as is done to this day in the region.
Possibly this proto-hamburger or goat burger or whatever it was, may have been prepared for the elderly or young children, i.e., the toothless. Many of the bodies found so far were of children, which suits the time (high child morbidity) and the nature of the town (a growing town would have lot of children, many of whom would die). But the oldest person found so far was apparently 62 years of age, Khalaily says.
Pre-pottery, poison arrows and red floors
Nothing with the hallmarks or ritual or worship was found – and that said, the archaeologists did find “very simple” anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines, excavation co-director Dr. Jacob Vardi says; strange tiny clay vessels, and two small figurines of faces, which could have been prototypes of “plastered skulls,” which many suspect signal ancestor worship. Or veneration of leaders: once the people stopped wandering and settled down, they would have needed leadership to guide them in times of tension, for instance squabbles over land and property.
Anyway, one of the zoomorphic figurines, about the size of a finger joint, looks like an ox or a dog, depending on the angle of squint. Certainly both animals had been domesticated by this time.
Like other Neolithic people, the inhabitants of prehistoric Motza buried their dead, or at least some of their dead, under the floor of the home. Some of the bodies were found to be missing their skulls, begging the thought that maybe they were dissociated from the body and plastered. Meaning, the flesh was replaced by clay, and stones put in for the eyes. This was a common practice in the Levant and is thought to be associated with ancestor worship.
There is no telling whether the people of prehistoric Motza worshipped animals, their ancestors, something else or just liked making animals out of clay.
Clay? These people were pre-pottery, belonging to what the archaeologists call the pre-pottery B period. They didn’t fire their clay in kilns to harden it into ceramic, Khalaily explains. They were left in the sun to dry out, creating leather-like pottery: it keeps its shape but if you drop it, or it gets wet, its story is over. In short, neither the exquisitely shaped if simple vessels, nor the figurines, were usable in any real form. Peoples elsewhere in Turkey and Asia had developed fired pottery thousands of years earlier, but that at least didn’t make it across the Mediterranean.
The existence of the unusable vessels could argue that they had a votive purpose, however.
Also possibly arguing in favor of ritual, at least some of the buildings’ flooring was plastered. Making plaster was a protracted, expensive and onerous process. The archaeologists even found strange stone circles with pink plaster inside, that would turn reddish in wet weather, Vardi adds. Again that may argue for ritual purposes.
Could those buildings with pink plaster floors have been temples of some type? Maybe. The archaeologists also found small rooms that had unusual artifacts inside, and those could also attest to ritual. Proof is nonexistent, though.
Speaking of unusable, some of the flint arrowheads found at the site were too flimsy to have killed anything bigger than a rat. Or a fur-less neighbor. But use-wear analysis indicates that the locals would apply poison to the arrow tip, and didn’t need to do more than scratch the hide of their prey, Khalaily says.
It is impossible to know today why exactly this city – it’s more than some little village or town – subsided after just 300 or 400 years from its peak. No signs of violence were found on the bodies. It could be that their early farming practices depleted the soil to the point that agriculture couldn’t sustain their large settlement any more: pulses in particular require frequent crop rotation.
Alternatively, or in addition, as seems to have happened to the people of Catalhöyük, and like modern civilization – they befouled their own nest.
“Trash was everywhere,” Khalaily says, “on the floors of the homes and in the streets.” That’s just begging for flies and bacteria, fungal infection and whatnot. Recent research even proved that the people of prehistoric Catalhöyük were ridden with parasites: there is no reason to think the people of prehistoric Motza weren’t, especially as they lived in close quarters; probably shared water sources with their newly domesticated animals, which isn’t hygienic; and didn’t take out the trash and bury it somewhere far, far away.