Study of Garbage on 23,000-year-old Hut Floor Reveals Dietary Secrets of Prehistoric Israel

Bones inside the oldest brush hut in the world at Ohalo II, near the Sea of Galilee, reveals a diverse diet. But why did these folks eat anything that moved?

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Excavating the floor of Brush Hut 1 at the Ohalo site
Excavating the floor of Brush Hut 1 at the Ohalo siteCredit: Dani Nadel
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Around 23,000 years ago, people living on the shore of the Sea of Galilee built themselves nice brush huts. These aren’t the earliest ex-cave domiciles; that honor goes to huts made of mammoth tusks found in Siberia. But the Galilee structures are the earliest brush huts known so far, and it’s a marvel that traces of these flimsy creations have survived all these millennia.

But survive the traces did, ensconced in the muddy lake bed. Much has been identified, including prehistoric bedding, giving us a rare glance at life during the Late Glacial Maximum – when ice sheets stretched far and wide in Europe – in what is today Israel.

And now the researchers studying the site have cast their attention on the eating habits of the people at Ohalo on the Sea of Galilee: what they ate and why they chose to eat it.

The conclusions by Tikvah Steiner and Rivka Rabinovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Rebecca Biton of Ben-Gurion University, Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa and Florent Rivals of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleocology were published Wednesday in PLOS One.

Paradise by the Galilee lake

Let’s go back to 1989, when the level of the Sea of Galilee – also known as Lake Kinneret – dropped precipitously, by several meters, thanks to a combination of drought and over-pumping. This was alarming for practically everybody in Israel except the archaeologists who discovered the prehistoric campsite known as Ohalo II on the newly revealed lakeshore. In fact, they discovered six brush huts, oval in shape, dating to the Last Glacial Maximum.

Rabinovich points out that the Last Glacial Maximum wasn’t a point in time, it was thousands of years from about 26,000 years ago, involving much climatic fluctuation. So the huts at Ohalo dating to 23,000 years ago were within the time period in question.

It seems, however, that the climate in the Levant was barely affected, if at all. “It was paradise,” she says.

What actually were brush huts, anyway? They were flimsy affairs like sukkahs, built of branches but with no central pole. At Ohalo the huts were constructed of local wood: oak, tamarisk, willow, Nadel says.

There is no evidence of cementing with mud, he adds, but it’s theoretically possible that the people used animal hides to reinforce the “walls” and create a sort of roof.

The site of Ohalo by the sea of GalileeCredit: Gil Eliahu

How could traces of the huts, and much else, survive for 23,000 years until Steiner et al. arrived on the scene? The answer is rapid inundation, which deposited fine silt on the campsite.

It’s not known why the site was suddenly flooded, Nadel says; possibly because of climate change during the waning of the Ice Age, or due to an earthquake – the Sea of Galilee sits smack on a giant fault line. Also, at the time, the Jordan River outlet, which today empties the lake to the south, didn’t exist. “The lake was closed,” Nadel says. “Streams went in but not out. All you need is one winter for the water to rise and flood the site.”

The campsite was also a few dozen meters from the mouth of the Yavniel stream, Nadel adds. When water did start flowing out of the lake after the Ohalo period, that’s where it went – out through Yavniel. The Jordan River outlet leading to the Dead Sea would only develop much later.

So, 23,000 years ago, much of Europe was a howling frozen wasteland, Israel was a paradise, the lake level was low and the campsite arose. The largest of the six huts is called Brush Hut 1, and was 4.5 by 3 meters large. The preservation even enabled the archaeologists to identify three layers of floor in that hut, indicating three periods of occupation. Very short occupation, to be sure.

“Nobody was sedentary at the time,” Nadel notes – people roamed. This was not a village, characterized by sedentarism. This was a temporary domicile.

Animal remains on the floor of Brush Hut 1Credit: Dani Nadel

“Each floor could not represent more than a year or two at the most, so altogether a very short period of time,” he says. “Each brush hut would exist for just a few years. Some were contemporaneous. It can’t be that each was occupied at a different time because the minimum size of the group [postulated at 20 to 40 people] suggests they used a few brush huts together.”

When a fish passes from this vale of tears

Other previous finds at Ohalo include open-air barbecues, flint and bone tools, a man’s grave, grass bedding, this and that, and garbage. The detritus included flint tools, and a lot of bones.

Now the team reports that analysis of about 20,000 faunal remains found at Brush Hut I shows that the people fished and ate a wide range of birds and animals, not just big ones. They also ate wild wheat, oats and barley, harvested with stone-toothed sickles and processed using grinding stones found at the site.

Apropos the fish, the archaeologists note the difficulty in distinguishing between bones left from meals and bones left from fish dying at the spot – “natural fish death.”

The floor of a 23,000-year-old brush hut, where the people ate insideCredit: Danny Nadel

Nadel tends toward the opinion that most of the fish bones found at Brush Hut I were from meals, not fish that swam into the inundated hut, flopped over and died. Steiner believes that the bones from fish that taste terrible died there naturally and most of the rest were meals.

Moving on from fish: The people dwelling in Brush Hut 1 ate of the gazelle and animals of similar size, fallow deer and animals of similar size, and also small animals – hare and wee beasties such as hedgehogs. They also ate turtles and tortoises, which it bears adding are easy to hunt once found: Bend over, pick up.

Naturally, the Ohalo inhabitants didn’t scorn aurochs (tentative identification of bones), boar and roe deer. The deer were of course hunted in the environs and lugged back to the site; the researchers add that it seems the Ohalo people hunted mostly full-grown specimens.

Rabinovich and Steiner explain that elsewhere in Israel during the Late Glacial Maximum people clearly preferred deer when they had the choice, but here they ate everything that moved and didn’t evince a clear preference for venison, which is odd.

There is something of a mystery about fox remains found inside the hut, of which there were many. Were the people eating them or did they hunt them for their fur? There are no cut marks on the bones indicating consumption, Steiner says, however, neither are there signs of de-fleshing, as would likely have been done if the people wanted the fox pelts.

Hyraxes: If it moved and they caught it, the people at Ohalo would eat itCredit: יעקב בן בונן
Fallow deer, at the top of the Paleolithic menuCredit: Branislav Cerven / Shutterstock.

The question is why they ate that wide range of animals. Small animals, let alone speedy ones, tend not only to be hard to catch and don’t have much of the fat we crave. A buck offers more bang for your spear than a hedgehog. So why did the inhabitants have such a diverse diet?

The fly factor

Over eons, the range of the animals in the Old World changed drastically. Separate research has shown that in the last 1.5 million years, the average body mass of animals shrank by 98 percent, likely because humans hunted so many to extinction. The great lumbering elephants and any other giants have long since disappeared from the Levant.

By the period this paper examines, the largest animal available for hunting in northern Israel was the fallow deer.

But if deer were still common at the time of Ohalo, and so were gazelle, why would the people eat animals like hedgehogs, turtles and foxes? Was it a choice or did they have to?

Tortoises and turtles don't have much meat on them but were on the menu tooCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

The “had to” hypothesis suggests that there was a paucity of resources; the optimal foraging theory suggests that when a favorite prey disappeared, the humans had no choice and had to branch out. They ate smaller and fleeter animals, and plants too.

“The appearance and proliferation of ground stone tools for plant processing point to the growing importance of plant food during the Upper Paleolithic and especially during the Epipaleolithic,” the team observes. It bears adding that improved technology would help catch the speedier of the small animal set – it’s easier to hunt a hare with arrows than spears, for instance.

Another possibility is the “because it fell into the trap” theory: The site was so rich in animal life that the humans could have their deer and also take what came. This is known as the niche construction theory: abundance leading to diversification of resources.

In other words, if there are toothsome ungulates or swine about, would you eat a lizard if it fell onto your spear, or a sinewy, skinny hare if it hopped into your trap?

The team concludes that even though the mega-fauna had largely gone extinct by that time, following the Last Glacial Maximum, the Levant thronged with delicious animals big and small. The consumption habits of the people in Brush Hut I were driven by abundance, not stress. They liked a nice deer for dinner but the habitat was rich and they also ate “expedient” prey.

Neither the tortoise nor the hare won that race. In short, this argues for the niche selection theory at Ohalo.

But if this was such a paradise, why were the huts on the lake shore used so briefly, each one a year or so?

Gazelles are smaller than fallow deer but were a favoriteCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Nobody was sedentary at the time; people roamed. Nadel explains. On the other hand, the place heaved with animals and edible plants – the people didn’t have to go far to forage, hunt and fish.

“Hygiene may have been an issue,” Nadel adds drily. “They didn’t remove their garbage.” Just imagine the flies.

Lead author Steiner sheds more light on the trash. It turns out that the good people of Ohalo did have concentrated garbage disposal, yes, consisting of bones and tools. They may also have eaten outside the huts as well; the hearths were outside.

But it’s patently clear that they dined inside, spitting the bones onto the floor. And leaving them there. Thousands of bones were found inside Brush Hut I, but they were all broken; none were whole, Steiner says.

“It indicates highly intensive exploitation of the whole animal. They would break some bones to access the marrow,” she says. And, she suspects, some were broken because they were thrown on the floor, as one does, and they got trampled.

High water in the Sea of GalileeCredit: Ruth Schuster

Some bones were converted into tools, supporting the thesis of maximal exploitation of the hunt.

Meanwhile, to the general relief of everybody except the archaeologists investigating this and other sites around the lake, a few winters have brought blessed rains; impressive storms have refilled the lake. Ohalo II is underwater again.

“It’s gone,” Nadel says bleakly. “We were very lucky, but now we can’t excavate it underwater at the same resolution.” Still, however brief the hiatus above water was, prehistoric people of Ohalo – we started to come to know ye.

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