Prehistoric People in Israel May Have Had Trading System 15,000 Years Ago

Prehistoric inhabitants of the Levant carved giant mortars out of the local bedrock, but the pestles at El Wad turn out to be volcanic rock that didn’t exist on Mount Carmel

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A pestle seen from above.
A pestle seen from above.Credit: El Wad Terrace Excavation
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

From about 15,000 to 11,000 years ago, northern Israel and the Levant were the fief of a culture known as the Natufians, who emblemize the process of transition from a life of hunting and gathering to sedentarism.

These Neolithic people buried their dead in cemeteries – sometimes with heaps of dead animals and elaborate grave goods – and they seem to have been among the earliest producers of beer. They even began to experiment with baking proto-pita on open fires, and at least some of them hunted gazelles and other animals for their dinner with the help of dogs.

Quaffing and hunting aside, one of the hallmarks of Natufian culture was giant mortars. Some were stand-alone specimens that could be moved around, but most were fixed in place, carved out of the dolomite bedrock of the region. That's how we know what rock the giant mortars were made of, and when they were carved out of the local bedrock.

The pestles, however, are another story. It was clear they were made of volcanic basalt, but where was the rock sourced from? This is mainly of interest for the light it could shed on Natufian mobility and social mores.

El Wad Terrace caves, on Mount Carmel.Credit: R Yeshurun

A new paper published by Prof. Danny Rosenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, with colleagues at the University of Haifa and University of Mainz, dives into the source of the pestles – and it was not local at all.

Geochemical analysis of 54 of the basalt pestles from the site of el-Wad Terrace dating from about 15,000 years to 11,700 years ago found that they came from a wide area around the Sea of Galilee – as far as 60 to 120 kilometers (37 to 75 miles) away from the terrace.

The range of the Natufians ran at least as far south as Jericho, and spanned today's northern Israel and parts of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. El Wad Terrace, on Mount Carmel, is one of the biggest known Natufian hamlets. The most commonly found item at El Wad, Rosenberg tells Haaretz, is the pestles – which had all been shattered. The useful end is always missing, he adds, which is quite the mystery, but it isn't addressed in this article. Meanwhile, we do not know where the material for the mobile mortars came from, because that hasn't been investigated yet, Rosenberg explains.

As the Natufians settled down – we know they built huts and created villages – they would have become more territorial, and, the team believes, a large area around the Sea of Galilee remained unclaimed. Thus, the Natufians don't seem to have had settled intensely in the areas where the basalt pestle material originated, Rosenberg and the team say.

Pestle fragments from the El Wad Terrace, on Mount Carmel.Credit: El Wad Terrace Excavation

Having elucidated that the pestles originated from 60 to 120 kilometers away from the terrace, the next question was how the horseless and wheel-less Natufians obtained the source material.

The team postulates two models: the "exchange obtaining model" and the "direct procurement model." Did the Natufians living on the terrace actually go that far afield personally and obtain the rock, worked it in situ and brought home pestles, or was the rock traded along a chain? Of course, they point out, both could have applied.

Elucidating which, if either, was employed more for the basalt pestles of the terrace will require more research. But the paucity of Natufian base camps and vague dating mean that it is difficult to nail down inter-community relationships at the time. They may never be able to confidently demonstrate links between certain Natufian sites and favorable basalt outcrops, the team qualifies.

Meet the Natufians

To be clear, the people of the Natufian culture weren't the first to invent huts or grow grain. In one area, at least, their predecessors had been living beyond the cave for over 20,000 years: Indications of what can only be called primordial huts have been found by the Sea of Galilee. It also seems that sporadic attempts at cultivation began that long ago and more, going by the changing nature of wheat and flint sickle blades from 23,000 years ago.

Excavating El Wad.Credit: El Wad Terrace Excavation

But the Neolithic revolution in Israel, characterized by the Natufian culture, is believed to be the period when settlement, and then agriculture, became more mainstream. Natufians began the period roaming far and wide, and would likely periodically settle down somewhere for a time and move on if conditions or the neighbors became inconvenient.

As they gradually exchanged a nomadic existence of hunting and gathering to settlement, they would have needed to ensure their subsistence and to protect what they had. Ergo the implications of nascent sedentarism would likely have included preoccupation with production and territoriality, and the emergence of a sense of possession.

"As groups became more closely attached to a certain place and invested in their immediate surroundings, they probably began cultivating prefatory claims of ownership," the team writes.

When one group "owns" a place, that implies that others are denied access; among the implications of that development are war and/or trade.

At the terrace, the Natufians exploited what the site had to offer, from animals to eat to flint for stone tools. Some things, such as ocher and mollusks, came from within a reasonable distance of up to 12 kilometers (7.5 miles). But the pestles came from much farther off, which suggests "a mechanism that encouraged outreach and mobility" – long-distance trade.

Co-author Mina Weinstein-Evron had previously studied the basalt pestles of the El Wad Terrace and concluded they were made of rock dating to the Pliocene and Pleistocene – of which there is zero on Mount Carmel, but it does exist in the Galilee, Golan Heights and some areas east of the Jordan Valley.

The new study dives deeper, and concludes that the pestles' material had multiple points of origin around the Sea of Galilee, exploiting an area of at least 1,200 square kilometers (463 square miles). Whether the Natufians on the terrace traded for the rock or obtained it themselves remains unclear.

Pestle fragments, El Wad Terrace Credit: El Wad Terrace Excavation

Researchers have not found evidence of basalt processing on the Carmel, leading to the theory that they brought the items back already finished, Rosenberg says. He adds that volcanic basalt is a monster to carve and shape; it is simultaneously very hard and liable to break while being chipped, and making the symmetrical, slim pestles – around 50 to 60 centimeters (up to a couple of feet) in length, he tells Haaretz – would have required skill.

The bottom line at this point is that the disconnect between the existence of wondrous basalt artifacts and nonexistence of signs of processing in Natufian sites suggests, to the researchers, that the model of direct procurement is more likely: a diffused and decentralized network that lacked specialized nodes for procurement, production, transport or consumption. Some Natufians would wander far and wide and bring home processed pestles, they suggest.

One oddity is that the geochemical analysis concluded that the Natufians didn't necessarily tap suitable high-quality basaltic rocks that were available nearer by. "As this is unlikely to have been due to economic considerations or incognizance, socio-territorial constraints are probable," the team writes. Again, territorialism and possessiveness potentially raised their hairy heads. Or maybe it was happenstance. It's hard to know 15,000 years after the event.

This is an apposite moment to wonder what the monster mortars were used for. Grinding food mostly, Rosenberg says. There is a theory that the pounding noise was used to summon the tribe – Rosenberg points out that pounding a rock mortar with a basalt pestle for any purpose would have been a noisy activity in any case. The tribe would have heard.

One last point: There are no active volcanoes in Israel today, though the Golan and Hula Valley are riddled with extinct ones. One of the most famous is the twin-peak volcano called the Horns of Hattin, where Saladin crushed the Crusaders in 1187, but they pose no danger of eruption in Israel today.

El Wad.Credit: El Wad Terrace Excavation

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