New excavation has researchers revising chronology of Near East's last hunter-gatherers

"Some of their subsistence appears to have relied heavily on the exploitation of club rush tubers, as well as other wild plants," researcher Tobias Richter said. "They also hunted birds, gazelle and other animals."
By Brooks Hays  |  Dec. 5, 2017 at 2:33 PM
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Dec. 5 (UPI) -- New excavations in Jordan have revealed a well-preserved Natufian site, home to some of the Near East's last hunter-gatherers. The discovery has archaeologists reconsidering the chronology of the Natufian Culture.

The Natufian Culture is the name given to a group of semi-sedentary people living in the Levant -- an area including present-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria -- between 14,500 and 11,500 years ago. The hunter-gatherers were the earliest people of the Near East to construct houses and tend to edible plants prior to the development agriculture.

Scientists believe the Natufian Culture set the stage for large scale farming and permanent settlements.

The newly excavated settlement, the Shubayqa site, was found among the steppe of present-day eastern Jordan. Until now, researchers thought the region was too hot and dry to host a permanent settlement.

Scientists also previously hypothesized that Natufian Culture began among Mount Carmel and the Galilee region of Israel before spreading outward into Syria and Jordan.

However, dates measured during the latest excavation suggest the site is nearly as old as those found in Israel.

"We dated more than twenty samples from different layers of the site, making it one of the best and most accurately dated Natufian sites anywhere," lead excavator Tobias Richter, an archaeologist at the University of Copenhagen, said in a news release. "The dates show, among other things, that the site was first settled not long after the earliest dates obtained for northern Israel, 14,600 years ago."

"This suggests that the Natufian either expanded very rapidly, which we think is unlikely, or that it emerged more or less simultaneously in different parts of the region," Richter said.

The discovery of the settlement site -- detailed in the journal Scientific Reports -- also suggests the people of the Natufian Culture were more adaptable and resourceful than previously thought.

Settlements excavated in Israel linked the culture with a lusher Mediterranean climate, but the latest findings prove Natufian Culture populations could also survive in more arid regions.

"Some of their subsistence appears to have relied heavily on the exploitation of club rush tubers, as well as other wild plants," Richter said. "They also hunted birds, gazelle and other animals."

The revelations from the latest excavation challenge the "core theory" of the Natufian Culture, which posits the culture formed centrally and spread outward. Richter and his colleagues argue hunter-gatherers during the time period were simply more resourceful, and that the path from hunter-gatherer to farmer didn't follow a straight line that can be traced back to a central settlement.

"The 'Neolithic way of life' was a highly variable and complex process that cannot be explained on the basis of single-cause models," researchers wrote.

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