Study of Garbage on 23,000-year-old Hut Floor Reveals Dietary Secrets of Prehistoric Israel
bones inside the oldest brush hut in the world at Ohalo II, near the Sea of Galilee, reveals a diverse diet. But why did these folks eat anything that moved?
23,000 years ago, people living on the shore of the Sea of Galilee
built themselves nice brush huts. These aren’t the earliest ex-cave
domiciles; that honor goes to huts made of mammoth tusks found in
Siberia. But the Galilee structures are the earliest brush huts known so
far, and it’s a marvel that traces of these flimsy creations have
survived all these millennia.
survive the traces did, ensconced in the muddy lake bed. Much has been
identified, including prehistoric bedding, giving us a rare glance at
life during the Late Glacial Maximum – when ice sheets stretched far and
wide in Europe – in what is today Israel.
now the researchers studying the site have cast their attention on the
eating habits of the people at Ohalo on the Sea of Galilee: what they
ate and why they chose to eat it.
conclusions by Tikvah Steiner and Rivka Rabinovich of the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, Rebecca Biton of Ben-Gurion University, Dani
Nadel of the University of Haifa and Florent Rivals of the Catalan
Institute of Human Paleocology were published Wednesday in PLOS One.
Paradise by the Galilee lake
go back to 1989, when the level of the Sea of Galilee – also known as
Lake Kinneret – dropped precipitously, by several meters, thanks to a
combination of drought and over-pumping. This was alarming for
practically everybody in Israel except the archaeologists who discovered
the prehistoric campsite known as Ohalo II on the newly revealed
lakeshore. In fact, they discovered six brush huts, oval in shape, dating to the Last Glacial Maximum.
points out that the Last Glacial Maximum wasn’t a point in time, it was
thousands of years from about 26,000 years ago, involving much climatic
fluctuation. So the huts at Ohalo dating to 23,000 years ago were
within the time period in question.
It seems, however, that the climate in the Levant was barely affected, if at all. “It was paradise,” she says.
actually were brush huts, anyway? They were flimsy affairs like
sukkahs, built of branches but with no central pole. At Ohalo the huts
were constructed of local wood: oak, tamarisk, willow, Nadel says.
is no evidence of cementing with mud, he adds, but it’s theoretically
possible that the people used animal hides to reinforce the “walls” and
create a sort of roof.
could traces of the huts, and much else, survive for 23,000 years until
Steiner et al. arrived on the scene? The answer is rapid inundation,
which deposited fine silt on the campsite.
not known why the site was suddenly flooded, Nadel says; possibly
because of climate change during the waning of the Ice Age, or due to an
earthquake – the Sea of Galilee sits smack on a giant fault line. Also,
at the time, the Jordan River outlet, which today empties the lake to
the south, didn’t exist. “The lake was closed,” Nadel says. “Streams
went in but not out. All you need is one winter for the water to rise
and flood the site.”
campsite was also a few dozen meters from the mouth of the Yavniel
stream, Nadel adds. When water did start flowing out of the lake after
the Ohalo period, that’s where it went – out through Yavniel. The Jordan
River outlet leading to the Dead Sea would only develop much later.
23,000 years ago, much of Europe was a howling frozen wasteland, Israel
was a paradise, the lake level was low and the campsite arose. The
largest of the six huts is called Brush Hut 1, and was 4.5 by 3 meters
large. The preservation even enabled the archaeologists to identify
three layers of floor in that hut, indicating three periods of
occupation. Very short occupation, to be sure.
was sedentary at the time,” Nadel notes – people roamed. This was not a
village, characterized by sedentarism. This was a temporary domicile.
floor could not represent more than a year or two at the most, so
altogether a very short period of time,” he says. “Each brush hut would
exist for just a few years. Some were contemporaneous. It can’t be that
each was occupied at a different time because the minimum size of the
group [postulated at 20 to 40 people] suggests they used a few brush
When a fish passes from this vale of tears
previous finds at Ohalo include open-air barbecues, flint and bone
tools, a man’s grave, grass bedding, this and that, and garbage. The
detritus included flint tools, and a lot of bones.
the team reports that analysis of about 20,000 faunal remains found at
Brush Hut I shows that the people fished and ate a wide range of birds
and animals, not just big ones. They also ate wild wheat, oats and
barley, harvested with stone-toothed sickles and processed using grinding stones found at the site.
the fish, the archaeologists note the difficulty in distinguishing
between bones left from meals and bones left from fish dying at the spot
– “natural fish death.”
tends toward the opinion that most of the fish bones found at Brush Hut
I were from meals, not fish that swam into the inundated hut, flopped
over and died. Steiner believes that the bones from fish that taste
terrible died there naturally and most of the rest were meals.
on from fish: The people dwelling in Brush Hut 1 ate of the gazelle and
animals of similar size, fallow deer and animals of similar size, and
also small animals – hare and wee beasties such as hedgehogs. They also
ate turtles and tortoises, which it bears adding are easy to hunt once
found: Bend over, pick up.
the Ohalo inhabitants didn’t scorn aurochs (tentative identification of
bones), boar and roe deer. The deer were of course hunted in the
environs and lugged back to the site; the researchers add that it seems
the Ohalo people hunted mostly full-grown specimens.
and Steiner explain that elsewhere in Israel during the Late Glacial
Maximum people clearly preferred deer when they had the choice, but here
they ate everything that moved and didn’t evince a clear preference for
venison, which is odd.
is something of a mystery about fox remains found inside the hut, of
which there were many. Were the people eating them or did they hunt them
for their fur? There are no cut marks on the bones indicating
consumption, Steiner says, however, neither are there signs of
de-fleshing, as would likely have been done if the people wanted the fox
question is why they ate that wide range of animals. Small animals, let
alone speedy ones, tend not only to be hard to catch and don’t have
much of the fat we crave. A buck offers more bang for your spear than a
hedgehog. So why did the inhabitants have such a diverse diet?
The fly factor
eons, the range of the animals in the Old World changed drastically.
Separate research has shown that in the last 1.5 million years, the
average body mass of animals shrank by 98 percent, likely because humans hunted so many to extinction. The great lumbering elephants and any other giants have long since disappeared from the Levant.
By the period this paper examines, the largest animal available for hunting in northern Israel was the fallow deer.
if deer were still common at the time of Ohalo, and so were gazelle,
why would the people eat animals like hedgehogs, turtles and foxes? Was
it a choice or did they have to?
“had to” hypothesis suggests that there was a paucity of resources; the
optimal foraging theory suggests that when a favorite prey disappeared,
the humans had no choice and had to branch out. They ate smaller and
fleeter animals, and plants too.
appearance and proliferation of ground stone tools for plant processing
point to the growing importance of plant food during the Upper
Paleolithic and especially during the Epipaleolithic,” the team
observes. It bears adding that improved technology would help catch the
speedier of the small animal set – it’s easier to hunt a hare with arrows than spears, for instance.
possibility is the “because it fell into the trap” theory: The site was
so rich in animal life that the humans could have their deer and also
take what came. This is known as the niche construction theory:
abundance leading to diversification of resources.
other words, if there are toothsome ungulates or swine about, would you
eat a lizard if it fell onto your spear, or a sinewy, skinny hare if it
hopped into your trap?
team concludes that even though the mega-fauna had largely gone extinct
by that time, following the Last Glacial Maximum, the Levant thronged
with delicious animals big and small. The consumption habits of the
people in Brush Hut I were driven by abundance, not stress. They liked a
nice deer for dinner but the habitat was rich and they also ate
Neither the tortoise nor the hare won that race. In short, this argues for the niche selection theory at Ohalo.
if this was such a paradise, why were the huts on the lake shore used
so briefly, each one a year or so? Nobody was sedentary at the time;
people roamed. But the place heaved with animals and edible plants – the
people didn’t have to go far to forage, hunt and fish, Nadel explains.
“Hygiene may have been an issue,” Nadel adds drily. “They didn’t remove their garbage.”
author Steiner sheds more light on the trash. It turns out that the
good people of Ohalo did have concentrated garbage disposal, yes,
consisting of bones and tools. They may also have eaten outside the huts
as well; the hearths were outside.
it’s patently clear that they dined inside, spitting the bones onto the
floor. And leaving them there. Thousands of bones were found inside
Brush Hut I, but they were all broken; none were whole, Steiner says.
indicates highly intensive exploitation of the whole animal. They would
break some bones to access the marrow,” she says. And, she suspects,
some were broken because they were thrown on the floor, as one does, and
they got trampled.
Some bones were converted into tools, supporting the thesis of maximal exploitation of the hunt.
Meanwhile, to the general relief of everybody except the archaeologists investigating this and other sites around the lake, a few winters have brought blessed rains; impressive storms have refilled the lake. Ohalo II is underwater again.
gone,” Nadel says bleakly. “We were very lucky, but now we can’t
excavate it underwater at the same resolution.” Still, however brief the
hiatus above water was, prehistoric people of Ohalo – we started to
come to know ye.