Newly Unearthed Remains Reveal the Complexity of Levantine Hunter-Gatherers

Life before the dawn of agriculture in the Near East turns out to have been far more complex — and comfortable — than previously thought.

Diners at top-tier restaurants often pay extra for items like foraged wild mushrooms, dry-farmed produce, and tisanes made out of freshly picked herbs. These items often appear on the menu of Berkeley’s famous Chez Panisse, where downstairs guests can enjoy their meal in view of a comforting wood fire.

Before the dawn of agriculture in the Near East, some hunter-gatherers surprisingly enjoyed similar comforts. A recent years-long excavation of a 14,600–12,000-year-old site in Jordan unearthed the remains of elaborate stone buildings, a fire pit, artworks, stone tools, and ample food remains from what appears to have been a healthy, balanced diet.

The site, Shubayqa 1, which lies northeast of Amman, is described in the journal Scientific Reports. The research sheds light not only on the transition from foraging to farming, but also on the Natufian culture that lived there during this important time in human history.

“The Natufian culture is characterized by the appearance of solid stone buildings — indeed, some of the earliest in the world,” Tobias Richter, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, told Seeker.

One oval-shaped, semi-subterranean Natufian structure at the site featured a flagstone-paved floor. Maintaining the structure’s look and functionality, the builders lined the fire pit with carefully placed stones.

“They also domesticated the dog as early as 14,000 years ago, which still represents some of the best evidence for the early domestication of the dog,” Richter said.

He added that the Natufians were among the first societies to product art, which consisted of usually carved bone and stone figures, as well as incised stones. They also started to produce large numbers of grinding, pounding, and pulverizing tools.