Cheetahs, Mammoths and Saber-toothed Lions: The Prehistoric Savanna of the Holy Land

Desert and swampland between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? A pioneering study finds that present-day Israel was once a thriving savanna, where elephants, lions and giraffes roamed. But then humanity appeared on the scene

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An illustration of prehistoric animals.
Credit: Itay Bekin
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

What do archaeologists look for in the Holy Land? In the vast majority of cases, they want to find the remains of the cultures that existed here in the biblical period, as well as before it and afterward. An archaeologist may discover a palace from the period of King Solomon, inscriptions from the time of the Second Temple, or perhaps a Mamluk treasure.

But in some cases, the finds are of a different sort. Elephants, say. That’s what occurred in a dig carried out by the British field researchers Elinor Wight Gardner and Dorothea Bate in a pit near Bethlehem in 1934. Across a lengthy period, approximately three million years ago, remains of animals had accumulated at the site; they apparently fell into a prehistoric pond that once existed there. Their remains piled up on the floor of the site and were eventually buried there, only to be unearthed in modern times.

The British scholars – Gardner was a geologist, Bate a paleontologist – found a fossilized elephant tooth 8 centimeters (3.14 inches) long. And as they continued to excavate they discovered the remains of an astonishing diversity of creatures: rhinos, a giraffe, a kind of early horse, a wild bull and some sort of extinct primeval leopard. It’s hard to believe, but all these animals, and many others, roamed about freely right here, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Bethlehem pit was where Palestine’s first elephant remains turned up. The discovery was one of the earliest in the rich field of archaeozoology – the archaeological study of the remains of ancient animals. Since then, remains of dozens of other animal species that existed here over a period of millions of years have been discovered in a range of archaeological sites. With these finds, it’s possible to reconstruct the rich animal world that flourished here in prehistoric times.

Two local scholars undertook the task and have now published a book devoted to the subject. In “Extinctions and Changes: Wildlife in the Land of Israel in the Distant Past” (Hebrew), the zoologist Yoram Yom-Tov, from Tel Aviv University, and the archaeologist Guy Bar-Oz, from the University of Haifa, provide a glimpse of other eras, when elephants and rhinos trundled across the land. Their book maps the vanished worlds of fauna on the basis of all the information that has been collected over more than a century of excavations, through the use of advanced techniques of dating and of reconstruction of ancient climatic conditions.

Among their discoveries is that humans have been eradicating local animal species since prehistoric times. And the scholars also have a grim warning to our generation: Within a short time, we are liable to bring about the extinction of additional species that have succeeded in surviving here for more than a million years.

It’s no secret that Israel’s natural animal world is in danger. The leopards are extinct, the otters have almost disappeared, and the striped hyenas are being run over on the highways. Those engaged in preserving nature are endeavoring to protect species that existed here long before us. All that is well known. But even the animals that were here a hundred years ago, just before the push of Zionist settlement, are only a remnant of a far richer zoological diversity that inhabited this land in ages past.

One of the country’s last leopards, at Ein Gedi, in 1979.Credit: Giora Ilani

It’s not well known that a range of large wild animals, some of them predators, resided in the area of today’s Israel and the territories until recently. The last leopards were spotted in the Judean Desert and the Negev a decade ago. In the 1980s, female leopards on whom were bestowed names like names Babatha, Humbaba and Shlomtzion, made the headlines and had their exploits reported upon in newscasts.

Earlier, in the 1950s, cheetahs still prowled the Arava desert. In December 1959, a truck driver reported that a peculiar animal had appeared on the highway there, north of Yotvata, on the road to Eilat. From that sighting and other reports, it became clear that the animal was a cheetah, although apparently that species became extinct in these parts a short time later. Lions flourished in the land up until Crusader times; the charter of the order of Templar knights (which was founded in 1119) even stated that lions should always be killed. A few of the animals apparently survived for several hundred years more, and the last one was hunted near Megiddo at the end of the 16th century.

Syrian bears survived until the start of the 20th century. In his memoir, the local zoologist Israel Aharoni described taking part in a hunt for four bears on Mount Hermon in 1916. Thus, as the era of Zionist settlement was launched in the north, bears were still a familiar sight in the region.

Going back further, we discover far larger and far more exotic animals. Overall, the truly exciting animals can be said to have disappeared shortly before the advent of human civilization, around the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. Until then, there were giant sloths (the Megatherium) and mastodons, both relatives of the mammoths, in America; in Australia, there were giant kangaroos; in Europe, hairy rhinos. Most of these great herbivores became extinct at the end of the last ice age, coinciding with the beginning of the agricultural revolution. The world in which human civilization developed was already a depleted place, while the megafauna – large animals – survived primarily in Africa.

The mammoths – the terrifying hairy elephants of the northern lands – endured a little longer, until 4,000 years ago. Theoretically, the ancient Egyptians could have encountered a mammoth, but they would have had to make their way to Archangelsk, in northern Russia, to do so, as that’s where the last mammoths apparently spent their time.

Elephants and mammoths disappeared from our region hundreds of thousands of years ago, long before the advent of developed human civilization. But hippopotami, which arrived here from Africa, inhabited today’s Israel until relatively recently – apparently until 3,000 years ago. They may even be what the writers of the Bible were referring to when they mentioned “behemoths.”

“There are hippopotami finds that turned up near today’s Nordau Boulevard in Tel Aviv,” Bar-Oz says. “There were hippos in the Yarkon River and in the Sharon region. The farthest north they got was Acre. Hippos still existed in the Canaanite period, and they were also used as food – you find bones of young individuals with signs of slicing on them.”

A woolly mammoth.Credit: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock.com

Mammals, not dinosaurs

The United States, China and other countries take pride in dinosaur remains, which they exhibit in natural history museums. Israel was not especially blessed in this regard – mainly because during most of the age of the dinosaurs, until some 65 million years ago, this part of the world lay beneath the primeval Tethys Ocean. “Large parts of Israel were under water,” Bar-Oz explains. “You won’t find dinosaurs here, and if you do, it will usually be of the maritime variety.”

According to Bar-Oz, most of the archaeozoology findings in Israel are, rather, of animals that were hunted by early humans – from elephants, whose skulls that were shattered by hominids, to pigs, which were eaten by the Philistines. “You enter the domain of archaeozoology only from the moment that humans appear. Until then the findings are very limited. You don’t have humans creating these pockets of fossils. Human beings left us piles of bones – sometimes in caves, sometimes in open spaces. Most of the finds in Israel derive from humans devouring animals – whether they themselves killed them, or stole them from other predators.”

The information about the animal world becomes richer when we come to the Pleistocene – a geological epoch that began 2.5 million years ago and ended 11,000 years ago. That’s also the main period covered by the new book. The niche of the dinosaurs, which had long since become extinct, was filled by the mammals. It was also across most of the Pleistocene that human evolution occurred. It is sometimes called the Ice Age, though in fact, throughout this epoch there were alternately cold ages and warmer, interglacial periods.

At the height of the last of the ice ages, which was also the coldest one, about a quarter of the planet was covered in ice. The icecaps didn’t reach the Middle East, but as a result of the accumulation of ice, sea level was 120 meters lower than it is in our time. The eastern littoral of the Mediterranean Sea was dozens of kilometers west of its present location. In various parts of the world, the sea’s recession created intercontinental bridges that enabled animals to wander from place to place.

Around 40 million years ago, the sea receded. It was a period in which an African climate prevailed in today’s Israel. “When the Land of Israel emerged from the Tethys Ocean, we were part of Africa,” Bar-Oz says. “At that time, the whole region was African – giraffes in Greece and monkeys in Germany. The landscape here was largely savanna, with rivers along which there was denser vegetation. You find a kind of baboon that originated in Ethiopia, and an African macaque monkey in the Jordan Valley. Add to that elephants and giraffes, and you get a safari zoo next to Lake Kinneret.

“But that singular animal world also has European elements, such as deer and bears, which have their origins in Europe,” he continues. “That fusion will become more of a mix afterward. This is the point of departure, from which will emerge the distinctive animal world of the Land of Israel.”

“The animals moved from East Africa to here,” says Bar-Oz’s colleague, Prof. Yom-Tov. “Today, an elephant that sets out from Ethiopia won’t get as far as Eilat, because it has no savannah or forest along the way. But in the past it wasn’t like that. There were occasional rainy periods, for hundreds or thousands of years. That’s enough time for a forest to grow, and for a wave of animals to wander along the length of the Syrian-African Rift northward.”

Guy Bar-Oz and Yoram Yom-Tov. “Yoram is not too optimistic,” says the former. “I’m a little less pessimistic. There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a crisis, and extinction is painful, it’s for all time. But... We’re adept at inventing solutions, and crises create opportunities.”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Hence the local elephants. “As long as we were part of Africa, there were elephants all the time,” Yom-Tov says. “But in periods of dryness, when the desert spread and shut off the ecological corridor to Africa, only those that had migrated from Africa in rain-rich periods remained here.”

According to Yom-Tov, “what is singular about the Land of Israel is that it’s a transit region between continents, and that accounts for the great diversity of flora and fauna. Even today, the Land of Israel consists of a mixture of animals of completely different origins. Most are of northern origin, but about 20 percent, including hyraxes, are of tropical descent. We are on the edge of both Europe and Africa, and it’s on the edges that the interesting things happen.”

These conditions make Israel a paradise of archaeozoology such as hardly exists anywhere else on the planet. Besides which, Israel has been the site of an unusually large number of archaeological excavations. “About what other region could we have written a book like this?” Bar-Oz avers. “Israel is the most suitable region, because archaeologists have already been digging here for 150 years. The density of sites here is one of the highest in the world.”

Still, for many years, the remains of fauna that were unearthed in excavations stirred little interest. “The archaeologists’ curiosity was aimed mainly at ceramic finds,” Bar-Oz says.

But there is another reason for Israel’s importance in this sphere: This region was a strategic junction in the early history of the human species. “This is where humanity passed through upon emerging from Africa,” Bar-Oz notes. “And much later, this is also where the agricultural revolution occurred.”

Early remains of human activity, dating from 1.5 million years ago, were discovered at the Ubeidiya site in the Jordan Valley – one of the earliest such sites outside Africa. “The departure from Africa took place in a number of waves,” Bar-Oz says. “The first to leave Africa was Homo erectus, who ended up everywhere – their remains are found from the Caucasus to Spain. They were a type of human who could already control fire and work in a group, and also possessed hunting ability.”

A cheetah.Credit: Vac1/Shutterstock.com

‘Levantine overkill’

The early hunters were great fans of the large herbivores. At the Gesher Benot Ya’akov archaeological site, north of Lake Kinneret, the skull of an elephant that was shattered by humans around 780,000 years ago, was found. It was a straight-tusked elephant, a species long since extinct, like many of the primeval animals that have been discovered in Israel. And it was probably our ancestors who caused their annihilation.

“Homo erectus was fond of the large animals,” Bar-Oz says. “They were also able to trap the individuals that were the hardest to catch. That attests to developed hunting skills.”

How do you hunt an elephant?

Bar-Oz: “They probably chased the elephant into a marsh and wore it down until it grew weak.”

Was that a significant component of their diet?

Yom-Tov: “It was something occasional. I think there were no more than a few hundred elephants here at any given time. I don’t think the size of the elephant population in this country made it possible to subsist only on them.”

When did animals start to become extinct because of human activity?

Yom-Tov: “The human impact on the animal world increased gradually. Humans have been here for about 1.5 million years. But in the early periods, they were a very minor hunting factor. They were very few in number, so they didn’t have a large impact on the animal world. The farther we progress in time, the greater the human factor becomes.”

A saber-toothed tiger.Credit: Vac1/Shutterstock.com

Bar-Oz: “The impact of humanity is apparent over the last 50,000 years. Hunting methods improved, from the use of spears to the bow-and-arrow. We start seeing arrowheads 12,000 years ago. That made hunting far more efficient.”

Yom-Tov: “The impact became especially significant when animal species began being domesticated. So there was an abundance of calories, and more resources, and humanity multiplied accordingly.”

Bar-Oz: “The domestication of animals created a new style of life that heightened food security in human societies. Abundance was accompanied by greater density. Hunting was no longer an existential need, but precisely then it became uncontrolled, and took place on a large scale.”

So it can be seen clearly that over the course of time, the number of large species diminishes.

Yom-Tov: “Among the herbivores, there is a constant decline in the number of species. Their population was meager to begin with, because they were a marginal group that migrated here. When the passage from their region of origin was closed, a small, isolated population remained, which was susceptible to the influence of environmental factors. And they became extinct.”

For years a controversy raged over what caused the extinction of the large mammals in the Pleistocene. Scientists attributed the development to climate change or to other environmental influences. Today, however, there is a growing consensus that the principal cause of the extinction of the great mammals was humanity.

According to a study published this year by zooarchaeologist Jacob Dembitzer and other researchers from Tel Aviv University, the large species have been subject to a constant tendency to extinction by the actions of humans during the past 1.5 million years – a phenomenon they term “Levantine overkill.”

In the first stage, humans extirpated animals possessing the greatest mass, before going on to hunt and eradicate the middle-sized and smaller species. As Yom-Tov notes, “the larger the animals, the smaller the population and therefore they are more sensitive to climate change and to hunting. And if they lack a source to renew the population, they die out.”

A Syrian bear.Credit: dima shiper/Shutterstock.com

When the herbivores went extinct, the predators that fed on them, such as the saber-toothed tiger, also suffered the same fate.

Yom-Tov: “There were several species of saber-toothed tiger here. They had huge fangs, utterly grotesque, which enabled them to prey on rhinos and young elephants by splitting the cervical spine. But once the large mammals became extinct, they did, too.”

So humanity can be said to have been an annihilating creature almost from the moment it appeared on Earth?

Yom-Tov: “The animals were eradicated as a result of growing competition between them and humans. More people need more resources, so other animals are deprived of those resources. It wasn’t even necessary to shoot them. It was enough for humans to take control of, or wipe out, the resources from which the other animals were nourished.”

Were the early humans aware that they were bringing about species extinction?

Yom-Tov: “I doubt that they cared very much. I don’t think that awareness of preserving nature existed in the distant past. The Bible expresses admiration for natural phenomena, but I doubt that anyone back then thought that humans were ‘destroying nature.’ The feeling was that you’re in an endless space. It’s only now that we understand that it’s finite. Similarly, when African tribesmen hunt chimpanzees or other animals today, I don’t think they care. They don’t know that these are the last tigers or lions. That awareness belongs to Americans, Europeans – people who have enough to eat.”

A lion.Credit: kapona/Shutterstock

Grim warning

The book’s final section, which is devoted to present-day extinction, is primarily the work of Yoram Yom-Tov, who has been involved in nature preservation in Israel for decades. Now he voices a grim warning: Although an astonishingly rich diversity of wild animal species remain in Israel even after hundreds of thousands of years of extinction, the process of extinction is now taking place here at record speed, unprecedented in history.

Species extinction is a natural process, one that has occurred throughout the course of evolution. But today it is occurring at a lethal pace. Says Yom-Tov: “At the start of the Pleistocene, there were 20 species of herbivores here, and it took almost two million years for that number to decrease to 10. But now it’s like a speeded-up movie. In the past 150 years, about 10 species of mammals have become extinct; within 150 years, that is, about a quarter of the mammal species have died out. The pace is accelerating.”

“It’s very clear,” says Bar-Oz. “The more we move ahead in time, the higher the frequency and speed of the processes becomes. The processes are taking place on a completely different scale, and are becoming more intense.”

Some have termed our era the “sixth extinction,” paralleling, for example, the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Do you accept that definition?

Bar-Oz: “We are in the sixth extinction. Unfortunately, we are unable to determine whether we are at the peak of the process or whether that is still to come.”

Yom-Tov: “There is mass extinction even of insects. Insects are at the base of the food chain, and if that base doesn’t exist, then clearly species that are higher up on the food chain will also become extinct.”

Even so, there are species that are succeeding in surviving. One of them is the Palestine mountain gazelle. At one time it was widespread throughout the Middle East, but today there is a significant population only in Israel.

“Gazelles have lived here for two million years,” Yom-Tov notes, “and the same species survived across that entire time. They existed over the entire region, but today, only 5,000 Palestine [also called “mountain”] gazelles are left, with a few hundred more in Turkey. If the nature conservation laws in Israel were annulled, within 20 years, not one gazelle would be left. The species would be extinct, as happened in Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia.”

Which is why you argue that conserving wild animals in Israel is especially important.

Yom-Tov: “The State of Israel has a very important part to play in preserving world nature, not only the local variety. Between Mauritania and India, nowhere does the effort to conserve nature exist as it does in Israel. My teacher, the zoologist Prof. Heinrich Mendelssohn, was able to get legislation enacted to protect wildlife that is unique in the world. The law stipulates the need to preserve all species, other than pests, such as two species of rats and one of mice. All the rest need to be conserved.

“That is a tremendous thing,” he continues, “but if you just loosen the reins, remove the inspectors – it won’t take more than a few weeks for the gazelles to disappear from the Galilee. There are around 3,000 licensed hunters and a few more illegal ones. Without supervision, nothing will remain.”

You depict Israel as making a positive contribution to nature. But this country also has overcrowding and development that is more intense than in any other place in the region.

Leopards.Credit: Bianca Botha/Shutterstock.com

Yom-Tov: “True, the rate human reproduction in Israel is abnormal. It’s the highest of any of the OECD countries, and all these people want to live in apartments, own cars and have their sewage disposed of. All those things require territory, and the natural territories are diminishing every year. Each year, nature is deprived of 50 square kilometers [19.3 sq. miles] of land.”

But that sort of growth is part of the state’s ideology.

Yom-Tov: “In my opinion, the state needs to stop encouraging population growth. I’m not talking about castration – it’s enough to deny subsidies to anyone who has more than two children. I promise you that within three years the birthrate in this country would fall to less than half [of what it is now]. Have you ever heard of a country that encourages women over 40 to have children – another in vitro fertilization and another fertilization at the state’s expense – even though it can be harmful to their health? But the Jews have an ethos – and they have a psychosis – both about life and about death. Death and memory are also cultivated in Israel.”

There are animals that enjoy the spread of human communities, something that actually makes them multiply – jackals and boars, for example.

Bar-Oz: “That attests to the system’s becoming unbalanced. If there are no natural predators, the population grows and there are consequences.”

Yom-Tov: “They are local invasive animals [local species that multiply as a result of a human presence]. On the face of it, there’s no problem with that – until you read in the paper that a Haifa resident was on the way to visit his parents and was attacked by a boar. The man photographed himself lying on the ground, and the boar thrust a tusk into him and ripped into his leg. If it were me in place of that man, I wouldn’t have been so calm. And as the boars multiply, this will become more and more frequent.”

What do you suggest? Hunting them?

Yom-Tov: “No. The simplest way is to give everyone who feeds a boar or a cat in any place other than in his home, a fine of 2,000 shekels [$580]. That will reduce the boar population within a few weeks.”

Do people who feed cats also cause damage?

“Of course. Across the Western world, studies have shown the damage that cats cause to nature. Cats are predatory even when they are sated, and we are talking about tens of millions of birds and the rodents they feed upon. Anyone who wants to raise a dog or a cat – that’s fine, but leave it in the house and don’t feed cats in the street.”

In an interview with Haaretz two decades ago, your teacher, Prof. Mendelssohn, called for the extermination of Israel’s stray cats. The headline was “Death to the cats.”

Yom-Tov: “That’s exactly what he bequeathed me. There must be no stray cats in nature. They prey on a great many wild animals.”

What about the prevention of cruelty to animals?

Yom-Tov: “I am not eager to kill animals, but I am not a vegetarian, either.”

Do you think there Is a chance that the wild animals will survive?

Yom-Tov: “If humans persist in what they are doing, the wild animals will have it good. Humans will become extinct, and evolution will create a new world. That will take a few tens of millions of years.”


Bar-Oz: “Yoram [Yom-Tov] is not too optimistic. I’m a little less pessimistic. There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a crisis, and extinction is painful, it’s for all time. But as for what will happen to human society and what changes will occur – that’s an open question. Technology generates solutions. We will eat less meat. We’re adept at inventing solutions, and crisis creates opportunities.”

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