The Epipaleolithic Natufian culture (//) existed from around 12,500 to 9,500 BC in the Levant, a region in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was unusual in that it supported a sedentary or semi-sedentary population even before the introduction of agriculture. The Natufian communities may be the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements of the region, which may have been the earliest in the world. Natufians founded Jericho which may be the oldest city in the world. Some evidence suggests deliberate cultivation of cereals, specifically rye, by the Natufian culture, at Tell Abu Hureyra, the site of earliest evidence of agriculture in the world. Generally, though, Natufians exploited wild cereals. Animals hunted included gazelles. According to Christy G. Turner II, there is archaeological and physical anthropological evidence for a relationship between the modern Semitic-speaking populations of the Levant, Persian Gulf and the Natufians. However modern Levantines have substantial Iran Neolithic/Chalcolithic, Anatolia Neolithic and Caucasus Hunter Gatherer-like admixture since the Bronze Age.
|Dates||c. 12,500–9,500 BC|
|Type site||Shuqba cave (Wadi an-Natuf)|
|Major sites||Shuqba cave, Ain Mallaha, Ein Gev, Tell Abu Hureyra|
|Followed by||Khiamian, Shepherd Neolithic|
↓ Stone Age
The Natufian culture was discovered by British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod during her excavations of Shuqba cave in the Judaean Hills. Prior to the 1930s, the majority of archaeological work taking place in Palestine was biblical archaeology focused on historic periods, and little was known about the region's prehistory. In 1928, Garrod was invited by the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (BSAJ) to excavate Shuqba cave, where prehistoric stone tools had been discovered by a French priest named Alexis Mallon four years earlier. She discovered a layer sandwiched between the Upper Palaeolithic and Bronze Age deposits characterised by the presence of microliths. She identified this with the Mesolithic, a transitional period between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic which was well represented in Europe but had not yet been found in the Near East. A year later, when she discovered similar material at el-Wad Terrace, Garrod suggested the name the Natufian culture, after the Wadi an-Natuf that ran close to Shuqba. Over the next two decades Garrod found Natufian material at several of her pioneering excavations in the Mount Carmel region, including el-Wad, Kebara and Tabun, as did the French archaeologist René Neuville, firmly establishing the Natufian in the regional prehistoric chronology. As early as 1931, both Garrod and Neuville drew attention to the presence of stone sickles in Natufian assemblages and the possibility that this represented very early agriculture.
The period is commonly split into two subperiods: Early Natufian (12,500–10,800 BC) and Late Natufian (10,800–9,500 BC). The Late Natufian most likely occurred in tandem with the Younger Dryas (10,800 to 9,500 BC). The Levant hosts more than a hundred kinds of cereals, fruits, nuts, and other edible parts of plants, and the flora of the Levant during the Natufian period was not the dry, barren, and thorny landscape of today, but rather woodland.
Precursors and associated culturesEdit
The Natufian developed in the same region as the earlier Kebaran industry. It is generally seen as a successor, which evolved out of elements within that preceding culture. There were also other industries in the region, such as the Mushabian culture of the Negev and Sinai, which are sometimes distinguished from the Kebaran or believed to have been involved in the evolution of the Natufian.
More generally there has been discussion of the similarities of these cultures with those found in coastal North Africa. Graeme Barker notes there are: "similarities in the respective archaeological records of the Natufian culture of the Levant and of contemporary foragers in coastal North Africa across the late Pleistocene and early Holocene boundary".
Ofer Bar-Yosef has argued that there are signs of influences coming from North Africa to the Levant, citing the microburin technique and "microlithic forms such as arched backed bladelets and La Mouillah points." But recent research has shown that the presence of arched backed bladelets, La Mouillah points, and the use of the microburin technique was already apparent in the Nebekian industry of the Eastern Levant. And Maher et al. state that, "Many technological nuances that have often been always highlighted as signiﬁcant during the Natuﬁan were already present during the Early and Middle EP [Epipalaeolithic] and do not, in most cases, represent a radical departure in knowledge, tradition, or behavior."
Authors such as Christopher Ehret have built upon the little evidence available to develop scenarios of intensive usage of plants having built up first in North Africa, as a precursor to the development of true farming in the Fertile Crescent, but such suggestions are considered highly speculative until more North African archaeological evidence can be gathered. In fact, Weiss et al. have shown that the earliest known intensive usage of plants was in the Levant 23,000 years ago at the Ohalo II site.
Anthropologist C. Loring Brace (1993) cross-analysed the craniometric traits of Natufian specimens with those of various ancient and modern groups from the Near East, Africa and Europe. The Late Pleistocene Epipalaeolithic Natufian sample was described as problematic due to its small size (consisting of only three males and one female), as well as the lack of a comparative sample from the Natufians' putative descendants in the Neolithic Near East. Brace observed that the Natufian fossils lay between those of the Niger-Congo-speaking populations and the other samples, which he suggested may point to a Sub-Saharan influence in their constitution. Subsequent ancient DNA analysis of Natufian skeletal remains by Lazaridis et al. (2016) found that the specimens instead were a mix of 50% Basal Eurasian ancestral component (see genetics) and 50% Western Eurasian Unknown Hunter Gatherer (UHG) population related to European Western Hunter Gatherers.
According to Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen, "It seems that certain preadaptive traits, developed already by the Kebaran and Geometric Kebaran populations within the Mediterranean park forest, played an important role in the emergence of the new socioeconomic system known as the Natufian culture."
Settlements occur in the woodland belt where oak and Pistacia species dominated. The underbrush of this open woodland was grass with high frequencies of grain. The high mountains of Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon, the steppe areas of the Negev desert in Israel and Sinai, and the Syro-Arabian desert in the east were much less favoured for Natufian settlement, presumably due to both their lower carrying capacity and the company of other groups of foragers who exploited this region.
The habitations of the Natufian are semi-subterranean, often with a dry-stone foundation. The superstructure was probably made of brushwood. No traces of mudbrick have been found, which became common in the following Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA). The round houses have a diameter between three and six meters, and they contain a central round or subrectangular fireplace. In Ain Mallaha traces of postholes have been identified. "Villages" can cover over 1,000 square meters. Smaller settlements have been interpreted by some researchers as camps. Traces of rebuilding in almost all excavated settlements seem to point to a frequent relocation, indicating a temporary abandonment of the settlement. Settlements have been estimated to house 100–150 people, but there are three categories: small, medium, and large, ranging from 15 sq. m to 1,000 sq. m. There are no definite indications of storage facilities.
The Natufian had a microlithic industry centered on short blades and bladelets. The microburin technique was used. Geometric microliths include lunates, trapezes, and triangles. There are backed blades as well. A special type of retouch (Helwan retouch) is characteristic for the early Natufian. In the late Natufian, the Harif-point, a typical arrowhead made from a regular blade, became common in the Negev. Some scholars[who?] use it to define a separate culture, the Harifian.
Sickle blades also appear for the first time in the Natufian lithic 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 are heavy ground-stone bowl mortars as well.
In 2008, the 12,000-years-old grave of an apparently significant Natufian female was discovered in a ceremonial pit located in the Hilazon Tachtit cave in northern Israel. Media reports referred to this person as a shaman or witch doctor. The burial contained the remains of at least three aurochs and 70 tortoises, all of which are thought to have been brought to the site during a funeral feast. The 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.
Long distance exchangeEdit
There was a rich bone industry, including harpoons and fish hooks. 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.
The Natufian people lived by hunting and gathering. The preservation of plant remains is poor because of the soil conditions, but wild cereals, legumes, almonds, acorns and pistachios may have been collected. Animal bones show that gazelle (Gazella gazella and Gazella subgutturosa) were the main prey. Additionally deer, aurochs and wild boar were hunted in the steppe zone, as well as onagers and caprids (ibex). Water fowl and freshwater fish formed part of the diet in the Jordan River valley. Animal bones from Salibiya I (12,300 – 10,800 BP) have been interpreted as evidence for communal hunts with nets.
Development of agricultureEdit
According to one theory, it was a sudden change in climate, the Younger Dryas event (c. 10,800 to 9500 BC), that inspired the development of agriculture. The Younger Dryas was a 1,000-year-long interruption in the higher temperatures prevailing since the Last Glacial Maximum, which produced a sudden drought in the Levant. This would have endangered the wild cereals, which could no longer compete with dryland scrub, but upon which the population had become dependent to sustain a relatively large sedentary population. By artificially clearing scrub and planting seeds obtained from elsewhere, they began to practice agriculture. However, this theory of the origin of agriculture is controversial in the scientific community.
It is at Natufian sites that some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the domestication of the dog is found. At the Natufian site of Ain Mallaha in Israel, dated to 12,000 BC, the remains of an elderly human and a four-to-five-month-old puppy were found buried together. At another Natufian site at the cave of Hayonim, humans were found buried with two canids.
According to ancient DNA analyses conducted by Lazaridis et al. (2016) on Natufian skeletal remains from present-day northern Israel, the Natufians carried the Y-DNA (paternal) haplogroups E1b1b1b2(xE1b1b1b2a,E1b1b1b2b (2/5; 40%), CT (2/5; 40%), and E1b1(xE1b1a1,E1b1b1b1) (1/5; 20%). One Natufian individual was also found to belong to the N1b mtDNA haplogroup and two others belonged to the J2a2 mtDNA haplogroup. In terms of autosomal DNA, these Natufians carried around 50% of the Basal Eurasian (BE) and 50% of Western Eurasian Unknown Hunter Gather (UHG) components. However, they were slightly distinct from the northern Anatolian populations that contributed to the peopling of Europe, who had higher Western Hunter Gatherer (WHG) inferred ancestry. Natufians were strongly genetically differentiated from Neolithic Iranian farmers from the Zagros Mountains, who were a mix of Basal Eurasians (up to 62%) and Ancient North Eurasians (ANE). This might suggest that different strains of Basal Eurasians contributed to Natufians and Zagros farmers, as both Natufians and Zagros farmers descended from different populations of local hunter gatherers. Mating between Natufians, other Neolithic Levantines, Caucasus Hunter Gatherers (CHG), Anatolian and Iranian farmers is believed to have decreased genetic variability among later populations in the Middle East. The scientists suggest that the Levantine early farmers may have spread southward into East Africa, bringing along Western Eurasian and Basal Eurasian ancestral components separate from that which would arrive later in North Africa. No affinity of Natufians to sub-Saharan Africans is evident in the genome-wide analysis, as present-day sub-Saharan Africans do not share more alleles with Natufians than with other ancient Eurasians.
While the period involved makes it difficult to speculate on any language associated with the Natufian culture, linguists who believe it is possible to speculate this far back in time have written on this subject. As with other Natufian subjects, opinions tend to either emphasize North African connections or Eurasian connections. The view that the Natufians spoke an Afro-Asiatic language is accepted by Vitaly Shevoroshkin. Alexander Militarev and others have argued that the Natufian may represent the culture which spoke Proto-Afroasiatic, which he in turn believes has a Eurasian origin associated with the concept of Nostratic languages. The possibility of Natufians speaking proto-Afro-Asiatic, and that the language was introduced into Africa from the Levant, is approved by Colin Renfrew with caution, as a possible hypothesis for proto-Afro-Asiatic dispersal.
Some scholars, for example Christopher Ehret, Roger Blench and others, contend that the Afroasiatic Urheimat is to be found in North or North East Africa, probably in the area of Egypt, the Sahara, Horn of Africa or Sudan. Within this group, Ehret, who like Militarev believes Afroasiatic may already have been in existence in the Natufian period, would associate Natufians only with the Near Eastern pre-Proto-Semitic branch of Afroasiatic.
Natufian sites include:
- Syria: Tell Abu Hureyra, Mureybet, Yabrud III Tell Aswad, Tell Qaramel
- Israel: Ain Mallaha (Eynan), El-Wad, Ein Gev, Hayonim cave, Nahal Oren, Salibiya I, Kfar HaHoresh,
- West Bank: Shuqba cave, Jericho
- Jordan: Beidha
- Lebanon: Jeita III, Borj Barajne, Jabal es Saaïdé, Aamiq II
- Egypt: Mushabian culture
- Turkey: Nevalı Çori
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