In prehistoric times, the Dead Sea Rift—a segment of the Great African Rift—functioned as a kind of migratory superhighway for early and modern hominids as they left Africa and headed for new territories in temperate Eurasia.

I have excavated at three sites from the Lower and Middle Paleolithic periods (1.4 million to 44,000 years ago) along this “Levantine Corridor.” Our excavations have revealed that even very early hominids were sophisticated tool-makers and creative thinkers.

At each of the sites—Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, near the Jordan River, which was occupied from 780,000 B.P.; Berekhat Ram, in the Golan Heights, which dates to about 233,000 B.P.; and Biquat Quneitra, also in the Golan Heights, which dates to 54,000 B.P.—we found impressive evidence of organized tool assembly. Large basalt blocks had been transported to Gesher Benot Ya’aqov and formed into hand axes and cleavers. We’ve also uncovered nonutilitarian artifacts of unprecedented antiquity that were modified and shaped by human hands. These finds were recovered in association with thousands of stone artifacts (at all three sites) and bones (at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov and Biquat Quneitra), as well as wood, fruit and seed remains (at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov).

Fossil bones excavated at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov and Biquat Quneitra indicate that birds, reptiles, amphibians, deer and large mammals—including elephant, rhino, hippo and auroch (an extinct ox)—were common in Israel during the periods in which these sites were occupied. Evidence from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov indicates that elephant meat formed a part of the hominids’ diet: We uncovered the skull of a prehistoric elephant bearing the signs of deliberately inflicted blows. A variety of tools made of basalt were found nearby, as well as a tree branch, which is thought to have been used by hominid hunters to turn over the elephant’s enormous skull to extract its brains. Both the skull and branch were preserved by being buried in the anaerobic mud of the now-vanished Hula Lake.

Indeed, Gesher Benot Ya’aqov’s “wet” environment made possible the preservation of many kinds of organic material, including thousands of pieces of wood. One of these, made of willow, is the oldest polished piece of wood found anywhere in the world so far. Our excavations also turned up the remains of many plants, including vines and oaks, along with such edible fruits and nuts as figs, cherries, pistachios and almonds.

Twenty years ago, while excavating in the formerly active volcanic region of the northern Golan Heights at Berekhat Ram, we unearthed what has been described as “the world’s oldest artwork” sandwiched between two layers of basalt strata dated to 800,000 B.P. and 233,000 B.P. The female figurine (above), less than 2 inches high, was carved from a small piece of rock that had been spewed from an ancient volcano. The pebble was then incised, creating clearly delineated arms and a head. Additional scraping, possibly with a flint tool, further modified the shoulders and breasts. The resulting voluptuous female figure predates the previously oldest known “Venus” figurines (see photo of faceless figurine with milk-filled breasts) by over 200,000 years, suggesting that early Berekhat Ram hominids were not only tool-makers but creative artists capable of symbolic expression.

They also made tools out of flint, a relatively rare rock in the basaltic plateau of the Golan Heights. These hominids’ ability to locate, extract and transport such raw materials for distances of at least a few miles reflects both their ability to plan and their knowledge of the environment.

At Biquat Quneitra, also on the Golan Heights, hunters processed their kills primarily with flint tools, even though the nearest flint beds were over six miles away. We uncovered a 54,000-year-old, 3-inch-long flint plaque that was incised with diagonal lines and four concentric arches (below).

Even in the deep, deep past, humans were industrious, clever and creative. Let’s hope that the popular “Cave Man” image—of thick-whiskered and thick-muscled brutes—is now dead and gone. Although our excavations in the Levant are small in scale, they have given us a new understanding of, and a new respect for, our ancient parents.