Biblical archaeology attracts the attention of millions around the world. The archaeological finds uncovered all over the Holy Land that pertain to the Biblical period are indeed of much interest to scholars and laypeople alike, as they have been for more than a century. Important and fascinating as these finds are, however, they are only a small part of a very long cultural history in this region. Indeed, the prehistory of the Land of Israel (as part of the southern Levant) is one of the most important and most studied on the globe.
Those who, like readers of BAR, are interested in the Biblical period may gain new perspectives and insights if they are more familiar with the preceding long cultural sequence in general, and the last prehistoric cultures in particular. The latter include the first villages of the Neolithic period, about 11,000 years old, and several subsequent Neolithic phases, during which the full domestication of cereals and farm animals took place. The last prehistoric period, the Chalcolithic, is well-known to all those interested in Biblical archaeology. Among its many inventions and innovations are the first examples of metallurgy and the onset of new social and political systems.
However, if we go back to the earliest period known in the region, we should start with the Lower Paleolithic period (the first phase of the Stone Age). The oldest site in Israel and the Levant is Ubeidiya in the Jordan Valley, dating to 1.5 million years before the present. It represents one of the first waves of hominids migrating out of Africa. The site has been thoroughly excavated, and the stone tools and animal bones have been meticulously studied. Sites from the same period are known all over Israel, from the Upper Galilee to the Negev. In one of these sites, Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (which flourished about 800,000 years ago), a butchered elephant skull, wood implements, nut-cracking tools and evidence for the 025 control of fire are excellently preserved.
The Middle Paleolithic period (c. 200,000–45,000 years ago) is characterized by the coexistence of two populations: the Neanderthals and the Homo sapiens. Israel is one of the only places in the world where skeletons of both populations are found in adjacent sites—in several caves on Mt. Carmel and in the Galilee. Thus, a wide variety of studies regarding the origins of modern humans (our species) and the demise of the Neanderthals focus on remains in Israel. It is also no surprise that the cluster of prehistoric caves on Mt. Carmel was recently declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The next period, the Upper Paleolithic (c. 45,000–20,000 years ago) includes a variety of local cultures and traditions. Their sophisticated technologies and subsistence strategies and patterns are well-attested in the submerged site of Ohalo II (23,000 years old) in the Sea of Galilee. Due to excellent preservation conditions we have the construction details of six brush huts, the oldest grass-bedding structures ever and a wide variety of unique plant remains now studied in detail. The remains of this period are commonly found in many cave sites around the country, as well as in open-air sites—even in the deserts of the Negev and Sinai.
After the last Ice Age, a variety of innovations are found in the Natufian culture (15,000–11,600 years ago). These include the oldest ever stone walls, a wealth of artistic features and the first true graveyards. Among the fascinating Natufian burial customs are the removal of heads after death and the decoration of the deceased. Feasts were held around the graves. The burial site of a shaman woman was found in a cave in the Upper Galilee, and graves lined with flowers were found in a cave on Mt. Carmel.
During the Neolithic period (11,600–6,500 years ago) local communities settled down. With the domestication of several species of cereals and legumes, agriculture was invented and developed. Goats, sheep, pigs and cattle too were domesticated. The Levant is one of the most studied regions in the world for the long process of shifting to full sedentary life and agriculture, and within it sites in Israel are of major importance. By this period the common use of pottery was established, large villages with hundreds of people thrived and architecture reached sophisticated achievements with monuments such as the high Jericho tower (30 feet high), on one hand, and two-story dwelling complexes on the other.
It was only after this long sequence that the complex Chalcolithic cultures developed in the region, being somewhat under the shadow of the large centers developing in Egypt and Mesopotamia.a This period was followed by the Bronze 064 and Iron Ages—the Biblical period.
The only scientific journal devoted to the prehistoric period in Israel and beyond is Mitekufat Haeven, the Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society (JIPS). Founded in 1960 and published once a year, it is a major source of information for excavation data and research results. It covers all fields of research pertaining to the prehistory and protohistory of the southern Levant up to the Early Bronze Age. One of the society’s major aims is the strengthening of ties between professional and academic prehistorians, avocational prehistorians and the wider public. The society’s members include not only academics but also nonprofessionals from all over Israel and beyond. You are invited to join us.
Biblical archaeology attracts the attention of millions around the world. The archaeological finds uncovered all over the Holy Land that pertain to the Biblical period are indeed of much interest to scholars and laypeople alike, as they have been for more than a century. Important and fascinating as these finds are, however, they are only a small part of a very long cultural history in this region. Indeed, the prehistory of the Land of Israel (as part of the southern Levant) is one of the most important and most studied on the globe. Those who, like readers of BAR, […]
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