Natufian Life and Culture (14,500-11,500 Years Ago)

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What a Natufian might have looked like based on a Jericho skull

The Natufians were mostly hunter-gatherers who lived in modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria approximately 15,000 to 11,500 years ago. Merging nomadic and settled lifestyles, they were among the first people to build permanent houses and cultivate edible plants. The advancements they achieved are believed to have been crucial to the development of agriculture during the time periods that followed them.

Natufians made fine stone tools and jewelry. Matti Friedman wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Anna Belfer-Cohen, an authority on the era from the Hebrew University, has argued that their jewelry says something important about social change: For the first time, people were living not in family groups but in much larger societies. That may have led to a desire to differentiate themselves from their neighbors and signal their status, which is most easily done with clothing and ornamentation—a necklace of gazelle-bone beads, for example, or a headdress of shells. Such jewelry appears in Natufian settlements with a frequency not known earlier. Taken together, Belfer-Cohen writes, these findings suggest that Natufian culture “constitutes the first deviation from the traditional way of prehistoric living.” [Source: Matti Friedman, Smithsonian magazine, July-August 2023]

The Natufians also offer glimpses of how day to day life for them was not so different than ours today, albeit in a different environment with different technology. "From the Natufian Ein Gev site, we can see that prehistoric people like our Natufians had to get up every morning to hunt gazelle, haul water, spin thread and grind grains, all while fending off wild animals and burying their 3-year-olds. They had more than enough to do. [Source: Matti Friedman, Smithsonian magazine, July-August 2023]

Of the finds I saw at Ein Gev, the most striking was one that would never become the subject of an academic paper or have any bearing on the weighty questions at play. It was an ordinary flint stone the size of a key. Hundreds like it turn up every season, and this one, too, would find its way into the permanent obscurity of a little cardboard box. To Leore Grosman, an archaeologist at Hebrew University, however, the stone was significant, the kind of human fingerprint in which archaeology becomes poetry—a window into the life of another person in another time.

It seemed to her that someone from the village tried to fashion this rock into a tool, chipping off one side to form a blade, but then threw it away mid-task. It lay unfinished for 12,000 years and was now in my palm, relating an unmistakably human moment in an ordinary life. You could imagine this man or woman standing by the round stone houses and the strange white cemetery, framed by the oval expanse of the Sea of Galilee, which had some other name in some unknown tongue, holding the botched tool in one hand, turning it over, then dropping it, picking up another rock and never thinking about it again.

Good Websites Archaeology News Report ; : ; Archaeology in Europe ; Archaeology magazine ; HeritageDaily; Live Science ; Food Timeline, History of Food ; Food and History

Natufian Village

Temporary tents used in Natufian era

Matti Friedman wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Twelve thousand years ago, long before the beginning of recorded history, a group of perhaps 200 people lived in a small village by a stream flowing into the Sea of Galilee, in what today is northern Israel. The villagers hunted gazelle and hares, fished for carp, built stone houses, and buried their dead in a cemetery next to their homes. When I hiked to the site early one morning, it was easy to imagine them: A few figures setting off with nets to the lakeshore, others walking toward the hills with bows and arrows to look for game, and more down by the riverbank, spinning thread or crushing barley, shooing children out of the way—a community waking up together and getting to work, unaware of their position at the dawn of a new age. [Source: Matti Friedman, Smithsonian magazine, July-August 2023]

Every summer this village yields a wealth of new artifacts that bring the place and its ancient residents more vividly to life. Leore Grosman, an archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and her colleagues have found hundreds of flint sickle-blades bearing the telltale sheen of an implement used to cut stems, evidence that residents harvested plants. They found a stone-lined food-storage pit, about a yard across, suggesting the villagers were not only harvesting as needed but also managing surpluses. They’ve uncovered tools for spinning thread, little stone sculptures of people and animals, and lime plaster that required advanced technical knowledge to produce. While I was there, they found a flat granite stone that weighed 200 pounds and was used to grind grains, not the sort of thing that is easily moved—a sign of the permanence of this village. But the finds themselves are perhaps less striking than the fact that none of them is supposed to be here.

The village that Grosman and her colleagues uncovered was larger and more advanced than any Natufian site previously excavated. It was inhabited for at least 200 years and dated to the period just before the Natufians, and the village itself, disappeared for reasons that still aren’t clear. It seemed almost too advanced to be Natufian at all, and some scholars argued that it had to date from the later Neolithic period: It featured stone houses and an orderly cemetery, and it was located on open ground, without any connection to caves, as was often true of earlier settlements.

The archaeologists observed that residents built some of their homes according to a uniform plan, a circle with a small alcove jutting out identically toward the nearby stream, perhaps serving as a kind of entranceway. The structures were not haphazard but made of layers of heavy stone, indicating permanence: You don’t go to that kind of trouble if you’re leaving in a few months. Other finds further support the idea of year-round settlement. The bones of slaughtered young gazelles, for example, indicate habitation in spring, while the bones of carp show habitation in winter, when that fish is abundant. The team also found artworks, such as a striking, schematic human face with deep eyebrows, carved into a piece of limestone about the size of an avocado. They unearthed a smooth human figurine small enough to be held in the palm, a bowl carved from black basalt and decorated with a geometric pattern, and lovely green oval beads with two tiny, precise holes, one at each end.

Natufian Tools

Natufian tools

The characteristic Natufian tools was a small, half-moon-shaped flint blade called a lunate, barely a centimeter or two in length and apparently designed to be used as an arrowhead or embedded in a handle made of wood or bone. The Natufian microlithic industry centered on short blades and bladelets. They used the microburin technique to make these tools. Geometric microliths include lunates, trapezes, and triangles. There are backed blades as well. Sickle blades appear for the first time in the Natufian periodlithic industry. The characteristic sickle-gloss shows that they were used to cut the silica-rich stems of cereals, indirectly suggesting the existence of incipient agriculture. Shaft straighteners made of ground stone indicate the practice of archery. There was a rich bone industry, including harpoons and fish hooks. There are heavy ground-stone bowl mortars as well. A special type of retouch (Helwan retouch) is characteristic in early Natufian stone tools. In the late Natufian, the Harif-point, a typical arrowhead made from a regular blade, became common in the Negev.

One persistent mystery at Natufian sites was purpose of a type of sharpened stone, five centimeters in length, hundreds of which had turned up in the dig. Matti Friedman wrote in Smithsonian magazine: The archaeologists called them “perforators,” guessing that they were used to make a hole in something. Artifact 3D showed that many of the perforators were cracked in precisely the same spot, suggesting that each had been used repeatedly for the same task until they broke in the same way. The researchers concluded that the stones were swiveled with a mechanism resembling a bow drill, with a string moving back and forth to rotate the tool—perhaps the earliest evidence for a mechanism of that kind. The drill could have been used to perforate beads or pieces of leather. [Source: Matti Friedman, Smithsonian magazine, July-August 2023]

The same drill may also have featured in another of the site’s mysteries—a hundred or so doughnut-like stones, each with a hole drilled in the middle. These were pebbles picked up on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a short walk from the village, but what they were for was anyone’s guess. By analyzing the hole in the center, the software was able to pinpoint their center of gravity. This, in turn, helped rule out early hypotheses, like the idea that they were weights used for fishing nets. Instead, Talia Yashuv, a master’s student at the lab, suggested that they were part of a spindle whorl, used to make string. She took a few of the stones to an expert on ancient crafts, who was able to use them to recreate the technique. If the hypothesis is correct, they would represent the earliest known examples of the spindle whorl.

The Ain Sakhri lovers, a carved stone object held at the British Museum, is the oldest known depiction of a couple having sex (See the image below). It was found in the Ain Sakhri cave in the Judean desert. Other Natufian objects interpreted as being connected with sex have been misplaced. According to Archaeology magazine: Once thought to have been phallic ritual objects, one- to two-inch-long clay cylinders from several Pottery Neolithic sites in Israel might have been the world’s first matches. Based on their conical tips, ridges, grooves, breakage patterns, and dark coloration, the 8,000-year-old items may have been used as fire drills — placed in holes and rotated to produce frictional heat to ignite tinder. Interestingly, some cultures interpret such fire drills as symbolic of male and female sex organs — so the initial interpretation might still generate a little heat. [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, November-December 2012]

Natufian Burials

Natufian burial

In 2008, the grave of a seemingly important 12,000-years-old Natufian woman was discovered in a ceremonial pit in Hilazon Tachtit cave in northern Israel. Media reports referred to this person as a shaman. She was buried with remains of at least three aurochs and 86 tortoises, all of which are thought to have been brought to the site during a funeral feast. Her body was surrounded by tortoise shells, the pelvis of a leopard, forearm of a wild boar, wingtip of a golden eagle, and skull of a stone marten. +

Natufian grave goods are typically made of shell, teeth (of red deer), bones, and stone. There are pendants, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and belt-ornaments as well. Stone and bone were worked into pendants and other ornaments. There are a few human figurines made of limestone (El-Wad, Ain Mallaha, Ain Sakhri), but the favourite subject of representative art seems to have been animals. Ostrich-shell containers have been found in the Negev. +

According to Archaeology magazine: 13,000 years ago, the Natufian people laid their dead to rest on beds of flowers. In four graves at Raqefet Cave in Israel, archaeologists found clear impressions of plants, including sage, mint, and figwort, which suggest spring burials involving colorful, aromatic flowers. The finds represent the earliest known use of a plant lining in graves — flowers for the dead. It is possible that many more Natufian graves had similar floral beds, but preservation of such remains is rare. [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, November-December 2013]

Matti Friedman wrote in Smithsonian magazine: For reasons no one understands, the villagers manufactured several tons of lime plaster and used it to encase two or three dozen bodies in the graveyard, which is adjacent to the village-—one of the first known cemeteries in the world. The plaster would have made the burial ground gleam white, a unique and permanent feature in the landscape. As the University of Haifa archaeologist David Friesem explained in a detailed analysis, creating that amount of high-quality plaster would have taken many days of collecting, crushing, burning and refining limestone for each burial. The villagers obviously had technical knowledge and the capacity for organization. Moreover, they were investing in one place, the place where they lived and where their dead were buried. We might take this for granted, but it was a dramatic psychological change after millions of years of nomadism. [Source: Matti Friedman, Smithsonian magazine, July-August 2023]

Natufian Art

Ain Sakhri lovers

Laura Anne Tedesco of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Natufians are also the first documented Levantine group to have produced artistically decorated utilitarian objects such as pottery and ostrich-egg vessels. These objects have been found in scores of Natufian sites. Their decoration of geometric motifs almost surely served as a form of visual communication, perhaps to demonstrate ownership of the objects by an individual or to indicate affiliation with a particular group or geographic area. [Source: Laura Anne Tedesco, Metropolitan Museum of Art , October 2000 \^/]

Natufian art, while it follows some of the same representational conventions of the European Paleolithic in its naturalistic and sensitive portrayal of animals, reflects a new awareness of individual identity and social life. Natufian burials, often placed in close proximity to the homes of the living, contain elaborate jewelry made of bone, shell, and stone. These materials, readily available in the Mediterranean landscape, were fashioned by skilled artists and marked the social standing of the Natufians' buried ancestors. At Eynan/Ain Mallaha, for example, an exquisite headdress made from hundreds of delicate, tusk-shaped dentalium shells was found in a woman's burial. \^/

Natufian representations of humans are both schematic and naturalistic. The stone head from Eynan/Ain Mallaha illustrated here was carved from limestone using flint knives and chisels. Traces of the artist's tool marks are still visible. The eyes, formed by three concentric curving lines, dominate the lower portion of the face, which has been bisected by a broad horizontal band across the center of the stone. The eyes are disproportionately large and yet there was no attempt to delineate pupils. The nose and forehead are exceptionally broad. The upper portion of the head, slightly damaged, is incised with diagonal lines, which may represent hair or ornamentation. The base is flat, indicating that it was probably intended to sit upright. \^/

Natufian art, it is believed, was linked to the practice of rituals and ceremonies. In their newly settled hamlets, the Natufians may have used their superbly carved sculptures, animal figurines, and jewelry to represent beliefs commonly held across communities, and to differentiate status among individual community members. The emergence of Natufian art in the Levant, where previously almost none had existed, appears to indicate a shared ideology and visual culture that probably derived from the Natufians' shared environment and newfound life as settled hunters and gatherers.

When played, the flutes created a high-pitched sound similar to those made by Eurasian sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) and common kestrels (Falco tinnunculus), the latter of which is part of the falcon family. The Natufians were methodical about selecting these bones in particular, since larger ones would have produced deeper sounds. "The Natufians chose those small bones because they wanted the sound to be like this in order to imitate falcon sounds," Davin said. "This demonstrates their knowledge of acoustics and indicates that there were probably other instruments made of perishable materials."

Books: Treasures of the Holy Land: Ancient Art from the Israel Museum. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986; Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700. 4th ed.. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Natufian Birds of Prey Flutes

According to Archaeology magazine: Implements that mimic the sounds of birds are frequently used in hunting to lure prey. Such devices have been around for at least 12,000 years. Seven flutes found at the Natufian site of Eynan-Mallaha ((also known as Ain Mallaha) in Israel are thought to be the world’s oldest such birdcalls. The objects were made from the bones of teals and coots, and when played they imitate the high-pitched screeching of kestrels and sparrow hawks — birds of prey. Archaeologists believe these instruments were used to draw birds close during hunting expeditions or to communicate with them. The flutes were reported in a study published June 9, 2023 in the journal Scientific Reports.[Source: Archaeology magazine, September-October 2023]

Jennifer Nalewicki wrote in Live Science: Although researchers had investigated the site extensively since its discovery in the 1950s, last year archaeologists were surprised to find the flutes scattered among a stockpile of 1,100 bird bones. Of the more than half a dozen flutes unearthed, which artisans carved out of the bones of small waterfowl, only one was completely intact; it measured less than 2.6 inches (65 millimeters) in length, according to a statement. "They are probably some of the smallest prehistoric sound instruments known today," study lead author Laurent Davin, a postdoctoral fellow of archaeology at the French Research Center in Jerusalem, told Live Science in an email. "Because of residues of ocher, we know that they were probably red painted. Because of the use-wear we think they might have been attached to a string and worn." [Source: Jennifer Nalewicki, Live Science, June 9, 2023]

Natufian Flutes from Eynan-Mallah

To hear the sounds for themselves, the researchers created a replica flute using computer software and measured the spectral analysis of the sounds until the instruments produced ones similar to falcon calls, according to the study. "It was very moving when I played it for the first time and heard the sound that Natufians made 12,000 years ago," Davin said.

Archaeologists think the Natufians likely used the aerophones while hunting, to create music or even to communicate with the birds. The Natufians valued birds, as can be seen in the numerous ornaments crafted out of talons that have been discovered at the site, according to the statement. "These artifacts are really important because they are the only sound instruments clearly identified in the prehistory of the whole Levant and the oldest sound instruments imitating bird calls in the world," Davin said. "They tell us about the [inventiveness] and knowledge of acoustics of the Natufians as well as their technical precision. It also gives us evidence of the Natufians' relationship with the symbolically valued birds of prey, how they communicate with them or how their calls were integrated in Natufian music." However, the musical instruments aren't the oldest in the world. That accolade goes to a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal flute discovered inside a cave in Slovenia, according to the National Museum of Slovenia.

Natufians, Gazelles and Dog Domestication

At Natufian sites is some of the earliest archaeological evidence of dog domestication. At the Natufian site of Ain Mallaha in Israel, dated to 12,000 B.C., an elderly human and a four-to-five-month-old puppy were found buried together. At another Natufian site, the cave of Hayonim, humans were found buried with two dogs. +

Gideon Hartman, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, , conducted isotope analysis of gazelle teeth. Matti Friedman wrote in Smithsonian magazine: He was hoping to discern where the animals came from based on the plants they ate, theorizing that the teeth of gazelles that grazed in the limestone hills near the village would have a molecular signature different from those that grazed above the village, on the Golan plateau, where the rocks are mostly basalt. His study showed that the gazelles eaten at Nahal Ein Gev II came exclusively from the environs of the village and never from the plateau. [Source: Matti Friedman, Smithsonian magazine, July-August 2023]

The discovery, combined with the observation that the site’s tools and art were made with stone from the immediate vicinity, points to what anthropologists call “territorial consciousness.” The villagers seem to have felt that this area was theirs, and other areas were not. The walk up to the plateau, Grosman pointed out, was barely 600 yards, but the villagers stayed at the bottom of the slope.

Natufian Foods

Recreation of a Neolithic kitchen

The Natufians may have collected almonds, acorns and pistachios. Pistachios are a member of the cashew family, originating from trees native to Central Asia and the Middle East. Archaeology shows that pistachio seeds were a common food as early as 6750 B.C. Almonds come from a species of tree native to Mediterranean climate regions of the Middle East, from Syria and Turkey to India and Pakistan. It was spread by humans in ancient times along the shores of the Mediterranean into northern Africa and southern Europe.

According to Live Science report, an examination of the bones of lizards and snakes recovered from el-Wad Terrace, a cave near Mount Carmel in northern Israel, indicates that reptiles such as the legless European glass lizard and the large whip snake were eaten by members of the Natufian culture at the site between 15,000 and 11,500 years ago. Archaeology magazine reported: The lizard and snake bones made up about one-third of the animal bones in the cave. Ma’ayan Lev of the University of Haifa said that finding butchery marks on such small bones can be difficult, especially when they have been weathered over a long period of time. Lev and her colleagues therefore experimented with the bones of modern lizards and snakes to identify signs of erosion, burning, trampling, and digestion by birds of prey, and then compared those marks with marks on the ancient remains. [Source:, June 29, 2020]

“The most surprising find was the butchery marks on several large whip snake vertebrae,” Lev said, adding that the marks were found in identical locations of different bones. These animals were likely eaten by humans, Lev said. The study also suggests the eastern Montpellier snake, the common viper, and other smaller lizards and snakes whose remains were found in the cave were likely eaten by raptors or died of other causes. To read about human consumption of a snake in southwest Texas 1,500 years ago, go to “Snake Snack.”

Ancient figs found in an archaeological site in the Jordan Valley, presumably where Natufian lived , may represent one of the earliest forms of agriculture, scientists report. The carbonised fruits date between 11,200 and 11,400 years old. The U.S. and Israeli researchers reported their findings in the journal Science and said the figs are a variety that could have only been grown with human intervention, arging the discovery marks the point when humans turned from hunting and gathering to food cultivation. [Source:Rebecca Morelle, BBC News, June 2, 2006]

Rebecca Morelle of the BBC reported: “Nine small figs, measuring just 18mm (0.7in) across, along with 313 smaller fig fragments were discovered in a house in an early Neolithic village, called Gilgal I, in the Jordan Valley. The researchers from Harvard University in and Bar-Ilan University in Israel believe the figs are an early domestic crop rather than a wild breed. The ancient fig is smaller than these varieties of modern fig After examining the figs, they determined that it was a self-pollinating, or parthenocarpic, variety, like the kind we eat today. In nature, parthenocarpic fig trees appear now and again by a chance genetic mutation; but because they do not produce seeds, they cannot reproduce alone — they require a shoot to be removed and replanted.

Earliest Evidence of Bread: From a 14,000-Year-Old Natufian Site

Natufian holes

In 2018, it was reportedly that tiny pieces of bread were found in fireplaces used by hunter-gatherers 14,000 years ago, predating agriculture by thousands of years. Nicola Davis wrote in The Guardian: Charred crumbs found in a pair of ancient fireplaces have been identified as the earliest examples of bread, suggesting it was being prepared long before the dawn of agriculture. The remains – tiny lumps a few millimetres in size – were discovered by archaeologists at a site in the Black Desert in north-east Jordan. Using radiocarbon-dating of charred plant materials found within the hearths, the team found the fireplaces were used just over 14,000 years ago. [Source: Nicola Davis, The Guardian July 16 2018]

“Bread has been seen as a product of agriculturist, settled societies, but our evidence from Jordan now basically predates the onset of plant cultivation … by at least 3,000 years,” said Dr Tobias Richter, co-author of the study from the University of Copenhagen, noting that fully-fledged agriculture in the Levant is believed to have emerged around 8,000 BC. “So bread was being made by hunter-gatherers before they started to cultivate any plants,” he said.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Richter and colleagues from Denmark and the UK describe how during excavations between 2012 and 2015 they found the crumbs in the fireplaces of a site used by hunter-gatherers known as Natufians, who foraged for wild grains. Among the remains, the team unearthed small, round tubers of a wetland plant known as club-rush, traces of legumes and plants belonging to the cabbage family, wild cereals including some ground wheat and barley – and 642 small charred lumps.

“Analysis of 24 of these lumps revealed they are bread-like – with the others expected to be similar. “They are charred breadcrumbs, sort of what you might find at the bottom of your toaster at home – the sort of stuff that falls off when you put it on high power,” said Richter. Further analyses revealed that 15 of the 24 crumbs contain tissues from cereal plants – probably, says Richter, from barley, einkorn wheat or oats. Some of the crumbs were also found to contain ingredients from other plants, with the team saying club-rush tuber is the most likely candidate. What’s more, the analysis of the crumbs suggests the flour used to make the bread might have been sieved, while the team say the lack of an oven means the bread was probably baked in the ashes of the fire, or on a hot stone. The team say the crumbs appear most likely to be from a sort of unleavened flat bread.

While the newly discovered crumbs are now the earliest bread remains found so far, taking the title from remains found at the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and dated to about 9,100 years ago, the team say the food might have emerged even earlier. “Food remains have long been ignored in archaeology, and therefore have not been sufficiently studied,” said Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, first author of the study from the University of Copenhagen. “I’m sure that if we look at older sites, we may find bread-like cereal products during the Paleolithic [for example] 25,000 years ago.”

Richter said it is unlikely the bread found at the Natufian site was consumed as a staple, given it would have been very labour intensive to gather and process the grains. While the team suggest the bread could have been made by the hunter-gatherers for their onward journey, they say other evidence adds weight to the idea it could have been part of a feast or ritual event. “[The older fireplace] also had a number of gazelle [bones] in it from at least a dozen or more animals as well as water birds and hare,” said Richter. “So it looks like a bit of a meal [shared] between a larger group of people, like a little feast that was then discarded in the fireplace.”

Amy Bogaard, professor of Neolithic and bronze age archaeology at the University of Oxford and who was not involved in the research, described the study as fascinating. “We previously knew that these communities were grinding and preparing plants in various ways, but this study is the first to identify actual bread-like remains of this early date,” she said. “ In terms of food history, it suggests that preparation of flatbread-like foods long predates the establishment of agriculture, and that farming in this region emerged within a pre-established culture of grinding and baking.” While the team have yet to recreate the recipe, Richter says they have tried bread made with club-rush tubers, offering a clue as to how the ancient bread might have tasted. “It tastes a little bit salty, so it is probably not to our particular tastes in the present,” he said.

According to Archaeology magazine: Meanwhile, a Stanford University team analyzed residues on three Natufian stone mortars unearthed roughly 150 miles west of Shubayqa 1, in Israel’s Raqefet Cave. They detected evidence that Natufians were brewing beer from wild wheat and barley 13,000 years ago, well before those grains were domesticated. The two discoveries suggest that our prehistoric ancestors were bakers and brewers thousands of years before they even contemplated becoming full-time farmers. [Source: Eric A. Powell, Archaeology magazine, January-February 2019]

12,500-Year-Old Natufian Barley Bread

Natufian mortars and grinding stones

There is strong evidence that groat meals and fine flour were produced from wild barley by the Natufians (who lived 12,500–9,500 B.C. in Palestine, the Levant and Syria) around 12,500 years ago, two to three millennia before the appearance of domesticated grains, and perhaps made into a kind of pita bread and this is perhaps linked to thousands of mysterious cone-shaped hollows carved into the bedrock throughout the Southern Levant. The issue is being examined by a team led by Prof. Mordechai Kislev, an expert in archaeo-botony at Bar-Ilan University involved in excavating the Natufian site of Huzuq Musa, Dr. David Eitam, also from Bar-Ilan University, the physicist Adiel Karty and Prof. Ofer Bar-Yosef, a member of Harvard University’s Department of Anthropology.[Source: Bar-Ilan University, August 26, 2015,]

Prof. Bar-Yosef, an expert on the origin of modern humans and early farming societies in the ancient Near East, says “that the the Natufians – although subsisting as a hunter-gatherer society – used sickles to harvest wild, almost-ripe cereals, and were capable of producing large quantities of groat meals from roasted, “half green” barley grain. Moreover, the technological advance from wide-to narrow-cone mortars represented a major dietary change, because de-husked flour made it possible to produce the fine flour needed for what has become the Western world’s most widespread staple food: bread. With the development of a new agro-technological system, including threshing floors, peeling utensils and milling devices, the Natufians bequeathed to their Neolithic successors a technical advancement that contributed to the establishment of agricultural societies.”

Prof. Kislev points out that the barley-processing “facilities” found at the site indicate that stone-utensil-produced flour could have been a significant part of the local Natufian diet. “Huzuq Musa is estimated to have had a population of about a hundred people,” he says. “If we assume that the historical 35 liters of grain given to a Roman worker during the winter corresponds to a reasonable level of nutrition, the four large threshing floors discovered near the site – and its accompanying tools – could have produced a sufficient quantity of processed barley for its estimated inhabitants.”

“Producing food from wild barley grain was not easy, but the biggest challenge may have been the challenge of not harvesting all the wild grain in the field, and ensuring that there would be something left to eat the following year,” he says. “This Natufian advance was a bridge to the Neolithic revolution, when sedentary farmers developed the discipline needed to plan for the successful planting – and reaping – of domesticated grains.”

According to Dr. Eitam, the majority of scholars agree that Natufian culture was characterized by the first communities that inhabited permanent settlements. “Our discovery of this sophisticated agro-technological system indicates that Natufian society made the shift from hunting-gathering to an agriculture-based economy, which was possibly extant 3,000 years before the domestication of cereal,” he says.

Recreating 12,500-Year-Old Natufian Barley Bread

mortars in Raqefet Cave

Bar-Ilan University reported: Using 12,500-year-old conical mortars carved into bedrock, Prof. Mordechai Kislev’s team “reconstructed how their ancient ancestors processed wild barley to produce groat meals, as well as a delicacy that might be termed “proto-pita” – small loaves of coal-baked, unleavened bread. In so doing, they re-enacted a critical moment in the rise of civilization: the emergence of wild-grain-based nutrition, some 2,000 to 3,000 years before our hunter-gatherer forebears would establish the sedentary farming communities which were the hallmark of the “Neolithic Revolution”. [Source: Bar-Ilan University, August 26, 2015,]

The research team, consisting of independent researchers as well as faculty members from Bar-Ilan and Harvard Universities, conducted their study in the Late Natufian site of Huzuq Musa, located in Israel’s Jordan Valley. Their findings were published in the journal Plos One on July 31, 2015. Prof. Kislev said: “Assuming they were mortars used for the processing of plant food, my colleagues – under the direction of archaeologist Dr. David Eitam – decided to use these ancient stone tools, along with period-appropriate items such wooden pestles, sticks and sieves, to reconstruct how the work was done.”

“The experiment began by collecting spikelets – the coated grains of a cereal ear – from wild barley, the most common wild cereal in the Levant both in prehistory and today. After ripening on the ground to prevent them from scattering in the wind, the grains were then separated from the stalks, first by beating against the threshing floor with a curved stick, and subsequently, by sifting them through a large-holed sieve.

“At this point, the conical mortars were used to complete the transformation of wild grain into groats and flour that could be used for food,” says team member Adiel Karty, explaining that the different-sized mortars served specific agricultural purposes. “Filled with a measure of the raw grain and beaten with a wooden pestle, the wider cones were used for hummeling – removal of the bristle that extends from the edge of the seed,” he explains. “The narrower cones came into play during the next stage, when the same wooden pestle was used to remove the grain husk; the Natufians invented a peeling-milling machine long before the invention of machinery!”

“After de-husking, the grain was scooped out of the conical mortar by hand then placed into a small cup cut in the adjacent bedrock. From there, it was transferred for filtering in a small-gauge sieve. “We found that de-husking – and the later milling into flour – was significantly aided by the presence of these cup-like depressions, which could be used to deposit material produced in the mortar by repeated hand-scooping from its bottom,” says Dr. Eitam. “This was a kind of labor-saving device, making it easier to transfer the grain and waste material to a sieve or other vessel.”

World's Oldest Domesticated Fava Seeds Found at Sea of Galilee

Raqefet Cave entrance

World’s oldest domesticated fava seeds found at Ahihud, a site near the Sea of Galilee. A study of seeds exposed in archaeological excavations in recent years at Neolithic sites in the Galilee shows that the inhabitants’ diet at the time consisted mainly of fava beans, as well as lentils, various types of peas and chickpeas. According to the archaeologists, the accurate dating of the fava seeds, utilizing advanced techniques, led to the conclusion that they found the world’s oldest domesticated fava seeds, dating to 10,125-10,200 years ago.[Source: Israeli government,, November 23, 2015]

According to researchers of the Weizmann Institute and Israel Antiquities Authority, ancient man living in the Galilee specialized in cultivating legumes in general and fava beans (ful) in particular. “This is an important discovery, enabling a deeper understanding of the agricultural revolution in the southern Near East.”

A joint study by researchers of the Weizmann Institute and the Israel Antiquities Authority, which examined fava seeds exposed in archaeological excavations in recent years at Neolithic sites in the Galilee, sheds light on the nutritional habits of the people that lived in the area 10,000 years ago. Seeds found at the prehistoric sites show that the inhabitants’ diet at the time consisted mainly of fava beans, as well as lentils, various types of peas and chickpeas.

The study was conducted by archaeobotanist Valentina Caracuta, of the Weizmann Institute, together with Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto and Dr. Lior Regev, and in cooperation with archaeologists Dr. Kobi Vardi, Dr. Yitzhak Paz, Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily, Dr. Ianir Milevski and Dr. Omri Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Image Sources: Wikipedia Commons and Cambridge University (1st image) and Columbia University (2nd image)

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2024

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