Europe’s Prehistoric Cave Painters Had Roots in the Middle East, Archaeologists Say

Dating of prehistoric layers in Manot Cave, northern Israel supports theory that early human culture developed in the Middle East more than 45,000 years ago before expanding to Europe

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A view of Manot cave, a prehistoric site in northern Israel
A view of Manot cave, a prehistoric site in northern IsraelCredit: Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David

The early prehistoric culture that left us spectacular cave paintings, exquisite statuettes and expertly-crafted bone tools across western Europe does seem to have sprung from an earlier, similar human culture of the Middle East, based on evidence in a cave in Israel that has been occupied for tens of thousands of years.

The Ahmarian culture of the Levant and Aurignacian culture of Europe certainly coexisted for thousands of years. But did one predate the other? Did the advanced Aurignacian culture stem from the primeval Ahmarian culture, or did it develop independently?

Ahmarian and Aurignacian were not identical. Both cultures involved morphologically modern humans, but the primeval Ahmarians continued to make tools chiefly from stone, while Aurignacians began making tools from bone.

Also, all the prehistoric cave art found to this day has been in Europe, created by Aurignacians. None is known from Ahmarian stomping grounds.

Now precise dating of archaeological layers in Manot, northern Israel, shows that the cave housed Ahmarians who lived thousands of years before the advent of the Aurignacians, in fact they predated most other known Ahmarian sites in the Levant too.

The finding supports the theory that the Aurignacian culture arose from the Ahmarian, which began spreading from the Middle East toward Europe some 45,000 years ago.

In other words, there is a breadcrumb trail of progressively younger sites from the Levant that suggests the Ahmarians moved out of the Middle East and slowly evolved into the Aurignacians on their way to Europe.

There and back again

There is also evidence that while expanding through Europe, some Aurignacians returned to the Middle East some 38,000 years ago. In some cases they reoccupied the same caves their ancestors had used thousands of years before, including Manot Cave itself, according to the study published last month in the journal Science Advances.

Horse heads from Chauvet cave, France, over 30,000 years oldCredit: Claude Valette

“Think of it like this: they went to northern Europe, made a U-turn and came back,” jokes Omry Barzilai, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority and one of the lead excavators at Manot Cave, a site near Israel’s border with Lebanon.

Modern human skull found at ManotCredit: Rami Shllush

Manot Cave, discovered by chance in 2008, contains layer upon layer of flint tools, animal bones, hearths and other remains of human habitation spanning tens of thousands of years. Specifically, it seems to have been occupied from about 55,000 years ago to at least 30,000 years ago.

Now, using the charcoal remains from the ancient hearths, scientists from the Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, known as D-REAMS, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot were able to radiocarbon date the archeological layers with rare precision.

The scientists dated levels containing tools typical of Aurignacian culture, as well as remains belonging to the Ahmarian, says Elisabetta Boaretto, director of the Kimmel Center for Archeological Science at Weizmann.

According to the archaeologists, the Ahmarian levels in Manot date to between 46,000 and 42,000 years ago, which predates the earliest Aurignacian sites in Europe.

This supports the idea that the Aurignacian grew out of the Ahmarian as humans migrated out of the Middle East through Lebanon, Turkey and the Balkans – areas which also host Ahmarian and early Aurignacian sites that are progressively younger in age.

“Once we see a sequence from the Levant to Europe, from the older to the younger, we can confirm that the dispersal model of the Ahmarian-Aurignacian is right,” says Barzilai. “If in the Levant this culture is 46,000 years old and in Europe it’s 40,000 then it makes sense to say that the direction is from the Levant to Europe.”

The clear chronological sequence from Manot cave, he added, weakens the competing theory according to which the Ahmarian and Aurignacian developed contemporaneously and in parallel without any direct contact, similarly to how agriculture was established independently in China and the Levant, or how pyramids were designed in both Egypt and Mesoamerica.

As the glaciers moved south

Aurignacian flute, around 35,000 to 40,000 years old, made from vulture boneCredit: Marco Ciaramella

Aurignacian layers in Manot dated from 38,000 to 34,000 years ago, confirming that the Levantine form of this culture occurred later than the full-blown Aurignacian in Europe. The archaeologists explain this as the likely result of a back-migration from Europe.

We cannot know with certainty whether this return of the Aurignacian to the Middle East was caused by contact between neighboring groups of people, or actual migrations of entire populations, since we don’t have enough human remains in the Middle East with well-preserved DNA to conduct genetic tests, Boaretto says.

However, looking at the archaeological record, it is safe to assume that this back-migration did occur, given the strong similarities between the European and Levantine Aurignacian finds, says Barzilai, the IAA archaeologist.

“The tools they created are exactly like the tools the Europeans make,” Barzilai told Haaretz in an interview. “They used a lot of bone tools, especially from deer antlers. In all of prehistory in the Middle East, only the Aurignacians use it, and it’s a material that is very common in northern Europe, where there are many deer.”

Such population shifts were likely triggered by climate fluctuations during the Ice Age, which in turn changed the migratory patterns of the animals that humans hunted. “As the glaciers moved southward, they pushed down with them the animals, and the people followed,” Barzilai said.

Paintings of lionesses from Chauvet cave, France, dated to more than 30,000 years ago - and definitely made by humans.Credit: HTO

Spears vs. arrows

The Ahmarian and Aurignacian were the first distinctively modern human cultures. They slowly developed after Homo sapiens made their last big exodus from Africa some 60,000 years ago, on the way to populate the entire planet.

Both these cultures were vastly different from the so-called Mousterian technological complex, which was used indistinguishably by Neanderthals, Denisovans and early Homo sapiens who had left Africa in previous migratory waves.

“The Aurignacians are the people who begin the sequence of cultures of modern humans in Europe, who develop cave paintings and elaborate jewelry,” Barzilai explains. “They are completely different from the Neanderthals and their toolkit is very distinguishable from the Mousterian.”

The newcomers from Africa and the Middle East developed thinner blades and smaller, finer points (made with flint by the Ahmarians and bone by the Aurignacians), which could be used as arrowheads. “Neanderthals used spears to hunt, while the Ahmarians and Aurignacians also used projectiles,” Barzilai noted.

Aurignacian Venus from Hohlefels, mammoth ivory, approx. 35-40,000 years.Credit: Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons
Lionheaded figurine from Stadel im Hohlenstein cave in Germany: At between 35,000 and 40,000 years old, it is the earliest known zoomorphic figurine.Credit: JDuckeck

In fact, he added, this change in hunting technology is the focus of one of (many) theories that attempt to explain why the Neanderthals went extinct just as Homo sapiens reached their European heartlands around 40,000 years ago. Projectiles could have given our ancestors an edge in lean times, allowing them to hunt smaller game, like rabbits and birds, which are harder to catch with a spear, the archaeologist says.

But the Aurignacians – so named by modern scholars after the southwestern French village of Aurignac, where remains from this culture were first identified in the 19th century – are remembered not just for their brush with the Neanderthals, but for their extraordinary artistic talent.

Neanderthals too may have had a symbolic culture, possibly burying their dead. They may also have used ochre to paint. But it was the European Aurignacians who produced the perfectly preserved scenes of animal life in Chauvet cave in France, the ivory sculpture of the Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel and the corpulent figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fel in Germany, as well as some of the earliest musical instruments ever found.

For many researchers, these works represent evidence of abstract thinking and of what could possibly be the earliest forms of religious belief and cultic practices, making the Aurignacian culture, and its Middle Eastern precursor, a key turning point in the evolution of modern humans.



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