Archaeologists in Israel have uncovered an ancient sweet spot in which early humans flourished some 500,000 years ago.
The “mega-site,” located in Jaljulia near the town of Kfar Saba, was discovered in November 2016 by developers who were surveying the area in preparation for urban development. Over the past year, a collaborative effort by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University has uncovered thousands of artifacts at the one-hectare site, an area frequented by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers some 500,000 years ago.
The site, once the marshy bank of a meandering river, is located near one of Israel’s busiest roads. Digging to a depth of 16 feet (5 meters), the archaeologists uncovered layer after layer of tools and animals bones. At least six distinct sub-sites have been found within the excavation area.
As reported in Haaretz, the site is absolutely littered with flint hand-axes. This spot was likely inhabited by a now-extinct species of human known as Homo erectus, who took full advantage of what this area had to offer. These early hunter-gatherers are a direct ancestor of modern humans, and were likely the first hominids to leave Africa (around 1.8 million years ago) and spread through Eurasia.
“It was a perfect spot for humans,” Ran Barkai, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz. “The water brought flint nodules from the hills, which were used to make tools on the spot, and it attracted animals, which were hunted and butchered here. They had everything that prehistoric people needed.”
Hundreds of hand axes were uncovered by the archaeologists—the so-called “Swiss army knife of the Paleolithic.” This tool, which had two blade ends, was typical of the ancient Acheulian culture, which existed from about 1.5 million to 200,000 years ago. The oval, pear-shaped hand axe was the killer app of the time, good for cutting, butchering, and digging.
But the archaeologists also found tools made with the Levallois technique, which requires considerable foresight and planning. The traditional Acheulian hand axes were made by hammering a piece of flint into a desired shape, but Lavallois tools were made in two stages: knapping a flint core into a specific shape, and then detaching the core with a single decisive strike. This technique requires the designer to envision the tool’s final shape and size within the flint core before shaping begins. That’s a fairly sophisticated cognitive task, and the discovery of these tools shows how smart Homo erectus actually were.
The archaeologists also suspect that these early humans returned to the site repeatedly as part of a seasonal cycle. So in addition to their savvy tool-making skills, these early people also possessed the capacity for geographic memory.
“Over time, the water changed course and the people moved with it. That’s why there are so many different sites,” Barkai told Haaretz. “It was like a prehistoric picnic spot, which people would return to over and over again.”
The archaeologists feel that they’ve only scratched the surface, and that more of these “prehistoric mega-sites” exist in this part of Israel. In addition to looking for more signs of human habitability, the researchers would like to find traces of fire use (which they haven’t yet at this site—a possible sign that sophisticated tool use predated fire use). At any rate, the discovery is showing that many of the characteristics that define modern humans were already in place a half million years ago in a very closely related ancestor.