Back When Elephants and Lions Divided Jerusalem ...

Long before the partition or unification of Jerusalem became an issue, local residents were concerned about fundamentally different matters, like the strength of available flints, the ferocity of local lions and the chances of killing an elephant for dinner.

Jerusalem house
Antiquities Authority

A unique archaeological excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem's German Colony neighborhood recently unearthed some clues to how our prehistoric ancestors lived in the Jerusalem area about one million years ago. The dig uncovered hundreds of roughly chiseled flint tools, used by Jerusalemites long before God took up residence there.

Digs aimed at the prehistoric period are tough work in Jerusalem. The city is densely built, and intense human activity throughout the last 3,000 years has left few hunting grounds for archaeologists concerned with the earliest period of human existence.

Nevertheless, archaeologists have known for well over a century that the southern neighborhoods of Emek Refaim and the German Colony include a large site that has yielded findings from the Paleolithic period. The recent development of a large urban park along the route of the city's old railway track has allowed access to this site, and a glimpse of life in Jerusalem one million years ago.

The latest dig is only the fourth to take place in the area over the last 113 years. The first person to discover prehistoric findings at the site was a monk from the nearby Notre Dame monastery, who in 1897 arranged an exhibition of the flint tools he found on walks in Emek Refaim.

In 1933, when the area was settled by the Templer community, a layer of flints was found at the southern end of Emek Refaim Street. Moshe Stekelis, recognized as the father of Israeli prehistoric research, carried out an excavation and found chiseled flints.

Then, in the 1960s, when the Baka neighborhood's housing projects were being built, two of Stekelis' students - Ofer Bar-Yosef and Baruch Arensberg - found the same layer of flints.

Several months ago, when work on the railway park began, the Antiquities Authority carried out a survey of the area, followed by a two-meter dig. The dig was conducted by Dr. Omri Barzilai and Nuha Aja, who collected several hundred stones. It was later covered over so work on the site could continue, but its findings remain in the Antiquities Authority's laboratory in the Har Hotzvim industrial park.

To a layman, all the stones laid out on the laboratory's long tables look alike. Nevertheless, it is clear that someone chiseled and shaped them, however roughly. "No natural process could have done that," Barzilai said.

Each stone has a pointed end, used for cutting, skinning or even as a weapon, and a blunt end, used as a handle. The creators of these tools were Homo erectus, the dominant humanoid species from about 1.5 million to 250,000 years ago. Barzilai said he can roughly place the Jerusalem site in the earlier part of that period, based on the unsophisticated chiseling of the stones.

Until very recently, it was unclear how large the Paleolithic site in Jerusalem was, or where precisely the stones originated. The question was resolved when the locations of all four of the digs of the last 113 years were placed on a single map. The sites appear to be located along a riverbed now buried under buildings and roads.

The river started in Ramat Rachel, and a 2006 dig established that this was where the flints originated as well. Barzilai said he believes the flints may well have been used closer to Ramat Rachel and were later carried downstream.

The Jerusalem mountains were greener at that time, Barzilai said, and their valley may well have contained swamps. The humans of the period had to avoid lions and hunt elephants and hippopotamuses that shared the area with them to survive. Soot stains on the stones indicate that fire had already been domesticated. The humans were hunter-gatherers, migrating in search of food, water and shelter.

"The site where the flint was hewed may well be on the group's regular route," Barzilai said.

In a city like Jerusalem, bursting with archaeological sites from Biblical to modern times, it may be difficult to understand just why an archaeologist would concentrate on such an early period. During the interview, a colleague who specializes in Biblical archaeology passed by and pounced on the chance to tease Barzilai. "Just rocks," he taunted.

"Obviously, the emphasis in this country is on Biblical archaeology," Barzilai concurred. "But we're definitely on the prehistoric map as well, because this bridge between Asia and Africa experienced some key events in human history."