Rare Paleolithic Site Filled With Animal Bones Uncovered at Israeli Quarry

The large pit, settled 170,000 years ago, contains bones of rhinos and an extinct species of wild cattle.

Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi
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The prehistoric pit near Ramle.
The prehistoric pit near Ramle. Credit: University of Haifa
Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi

Archaeologists have found a rare and large prehistoric site dating back around 170,000 years, a funnel-shaped pit, 30 meters deep and about 100 meters in diameter, containing an unusually large number of well-preserved animal bones, discovered accidentally in the course of quarrying in the center of the country.

It marks the second time in a decade that the Nesher quarry outside Ramle has yielded an exceptional archaeological discovery. The last time, in 2006, it was a cave with small prehistoric creatures unique to the site.

The newest finding is an enormous quantities of auroch bones – an extinct species of large wild cattle that is the ancestor of domestic cattle – which were found, together with the bones of other large mammals such as horse, rhinoceros and fallow deer, and of smaller animals including gazelles and land turtles. They were uncovered in 2010 and 2011 in rescue digs carried out by Yossi Zaidner of the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology. Researchers believe the funnel-shaped pit was formed when the cave’s ceiling collapsed.

Zaidner presented his findings yesterday at his institute’s annual research conference, and published them in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

The findings at the site are associated with the Mousterian period, a hunter-gatherer culture from the Middle Paleolithic Period (from 250,000 to around 40,000 years ago). No human remains were found at the site.

The researchers concluded that the site was settled around 170,000 years ago and was an important gathering place for around 40,000 years after that.

“From our acquaintance with the Mousterian culture in the Mediterranean region, it appears to be the first time that remains from this culture have been found in such an unusual manner,” Zaidner said, adding that members of this culture generally lived in caves, into which they brought their stone tools, parts of animals they hunted and other resources.

The Nesher site is unique, Zaidner said, because it combines cave living with open-air settlement.

“The discovery was a complete surprise to us and we’re still not certain what the site was used for, perhaps for hunting, perhaps as a meeting place; another avenue of investigation is that the pit might have been used as a giant trap.”

According to Zaidner, a small number of sites that can be associated to the Mousterian period have been found, but they tend to contain small numbers of remains in a layer only a few centimeters deep. Such sites are assumed to be hunting sites or way stations rather than sites of long-term habitation, he said, noting that such a site was discovered in recent years on the banks of the Jordan River.

Prehistoric animal bones found at the pit near the Nesher quarry. Credit: University of Haifa
A find from the prehistoric pit at the Nesher quarry.Credit: University of Haifa

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