It doesn’t get more historic than Israel, from the Bronze Age to the Bible and on down. Not only has this tiny country been the stage for momentous events, but for thousands of years marauders and merchants crossed it as the only navigable land bridge between the great early civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The well-trampled highroads of antiquity followed the water sources and the towns and villages that had grown up around them. The alternative – crossing the Arabian Desert – was near-suicidal; but along the so-called Fertile Crescent you could find safe lodgings, a chance to recoup your strength, and an opportunity to replenish supplies.
The land bridge is far older than that, however. It's prehistoric. In fact, very prehistoric. Open a map of the region and note how Israel links Africa on the one side and the great continental mass of Asia and Europe on the other. The oldest known remains of our human ancestors were discovered in East Africa, and the comfortable migration route north and east was across this country. Prehistoric evidence abounds, from the 1.5-million-year-old stone axes of Ubeidiya in the Upper Jordan Valley, to the stout 10,000-year-old city walls of Jericho, and a great deal in between. The Israel Museum, for example, boasts a tiny engraved pebble, dated some 230,000 years ago, and believed to be the oldest art piece ever found.
Among the really old prehistoric sites in the country is Ma’ayan Baruch, a kibbutz at the northern-most tip of the Hula Valley, where the panhandle thrusts up toward Lebanon. The elongated valley is part of the enormously long Syrian-African Rift that slices down the eastern edge of Israel, through the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, the Arava Desert and the Red Sea, and a few thousand miles down to Mozambique. For primal humans, this was Route Number One; and Ma’ayan Baruch, located on a rushing stream in a vicinity teeming with animals, fish and birds must have felt like fast-food heaven to them.
Meet Amnon Assaf, aged somewhere in his mid-80s. A veteran member of the kibbutz. Chatty (at least in Hebrew). He is what Israelis call “meshuga la’inyan” – passionate about something. In Amnon’s case, his passion is for prehistoric artifacts.
It all started back in the 1940s, in the heady but dangerous days leading up to Israel’s independence. Amnon’s Palmach (commando) unit of farmer-fighters was assigned to the area, clearing rocks to expose fields for agriculture. His keen eye soon spotted the tell-tale characteristics of stone-age flint tools, worked to a point or a blade. His collection began overflowing the crates under his bed until, ultimately, he was able to establish a small museum in a wooden hut in the fledgling community. Word got around, and professionals, academics and the simply curious beat a path to Amnon’s door to examine his finds. He himself had no academic background at all, learning as he went along, and participating in organized archaeological digs.
The collection grew and grew. By the time it moved to its current permanent home, Amnon had amassed an assemblage of 8,000 artifacts from burial caves and surface sites covering an area of 75 acres within and around the kibbutz, with the oldest dated to about 780,000 years ago. A variety of human skulls are witness to the evolution of the species; different flint tools tell of the area’s cultural development; and piles of animal bones testify to the hunter’s skill and his protein-rich diet way back when.
Among the entire skeletons unearthed, the most interesting – and curious – was of a woman buried with her dog. It is believed to be the oldest canine burial in the world.
Prehistoric Man Museum
A guide-sheet in English is available at the ticket desk, corresponding to the labels around the three small galleries. Open daily, 9 A.M. - 12 noon
Cell: 052-379-1649 (keep this number handy, in case the museum seems closed)
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