The Land Before History
Lower Paleolithic period, 1,500,000–120,000 Before the Present
The Middle East has great importance in the history of man. Geographically, it served as a continental bridge traversed by groups of Homo erectus on their way from Africa to Asia and Europe. The Jordan Valley and the coastal plain were the favored parts of the country at this early period. The presence of large bodies of sweet water and the favorable climate were well suited to the hunting and food-gathering economy of the early peoples. Toward the end of the period, humans began to exploit the forested regions and to inhabit caves in mountainous areas.
Tools were restricted to only a few very early types, such as choppers, picks, spheroids, and large, crudely fashioned hand axes, such as the stone tools from Ubeidiya, the earliest site in the Middle East. The most fascinating find from that time is a unique figurine from Berekhat Ram in the Golan Heights, dated to 233,000 years BP, the oldest work of art in the world.
Middle Paleolithic period, 120,000–45,000 BP
Changes in human environment, culture, and physical development mark this period. In the Land of Israel two human types have been defined – Neanderthal and Homo sapiens sapiens. Cold weather prevailed and forests covered much of the land. Large animals disappeared, and fallow deer became the most frequently hunted animal.
Large open-air sites have been found in the Negev highlands, while in the Mediterranean zone and the Judaean Desert many caves were occupied where rich occupation layers have been uncovered, including base camps, kill sites, and flint manufacture sites. Various retouched flakes and points, as well as scrapers and burins, were among the tools in common use. Many were probably fixed in wooden hafts, such as the flint points which served as spearheads.
Human burials have been found both in the caves and on their terraces, revealing much information about funerary customs, such as the frequent placement of animal horns or jaws on the bodies of the deceased, perhaps reflecting a belief in the supernatural power of animals. The use of red ocher paint to decorate the deceased appears at this time.
Upper Paleolithic period, 40,000–18,500 BP
The Upper Paleolithic culture has been discovered in many parts of the world. During this period modern Homo sapiens appeared and made their mark, especially in the realm of artistic expression. They produced the spectacular cave paintings of Europe, as well as the large number of carved stone and bone art objects that have been found from Western Europe to Siberia.
In the Land of Israel, on the fringe of these artistic and spiritual developments, the Proto-Mediterranean type of Homo sapiens probably evolved from local antecedents. Humans lived in small groups consisting of a few families and settled in caves as well as in open sites. Two major flint-working traditions were partially contemporaneous: one with many short flare tools was common in the Mediterranean region. The other, characterized by blade tools, is found mainly in the Negev and Sinai. Microliths, the small tools that were to become the hallmark of the following period, begin to appear Information aabout the spiritual aspects of life is gradually emerging. Beads and pendants made of shells and animal teeth form the earliest evidence of personal adornment. A figure of a horse from Hayonim Cave, dated to 30,000 years BP is the earliest appearance of one of the most important symbols in the art of the Late Stone Age.
Epipaleolithic period, 18,500–8,300 BCE
This period coincides with the end of the last Ice Age in Europe, which also affected the climate and landscape of the Land of Israel. The broader distribution of sites reflects a growing ability to deal with varied ecological zones. Grinding and pounding utensils, among them basalt mortars and pestles and limestone bowls, indicate new methods of preparing food and gathering of wild grains.
Natufian culture was one of the richest and most innovative in the Near East. The Natufians’ achievements brought them to the threshold of civilization, with their gradual transition to sedentary life. Their architecture, burial customs, new tools, and art objects reflect the great strides made by the Natufian culture.
Neolithic period, 8,300–4,500 BCE
The “Neolithic revolution” witnessed a momentous step forward in the ability of humans to deal with their environment, including the systematic cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals, followed by the growth of settlements to accommodate expanding populations.
Raising livestock domesticated from wild local species – first goats and sheep and later pigs and cattle – ensured a constant supply of meat, skins, and bones. Over time, wool and milk products were also used. Flint tools reached a peak of functional sophistication. Arrowheads developed, attesting to the mastery of the bow and arrow, a new and efficient hunting weapon. Sickle blades and axes were adapted to the needs of agriculture. In addition to flint tools, limestone and basalt domestic utensils, such as grinding implements, have been found in every excavated house.
Gradually, a more complex society evolved, which practiced a variety of crafts, engaged in trade, and developed a rich religious and spiritual life. Major changes took place in Neolithic spiritual life and religious practices. For the first time the human figure became a common motif, such as the seated woman figurine from Horvat Minha, perhaps marking the beginning of the conception of gods and spirits in human form. The emphasis placed on the human head – evidenced by numerous plastered skulls and masks, such as the modeled skulls from Beisamoun and the stone mask from Nahal Hemar – suggests that it was considered to have magical power and to be the seat of ancestral spirits. Most likely human and animal figurines were used in religious rites and ceremonies.