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Galilee’s Receding Waters Reveal Stone Age Camp


When the sea level fell dramatically in the Sea of Galilee ten years ago, the modern calamity revealed an archaeological treasure: the camp of Stone Age fishermen and hunters, abandoned nearly 20,000 years ago. The site, known as Ohalo II, is emerging as perhaps the best preserved Upper Paleolithic dwelling site found anywhere in the world.


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(Richard T. Nowitz/CORBIS)
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When the sea level fell dramatically in the Sea of Galilee ten years ago, the modern calamity revealed an archaeological treasure: the camp of Stone Age fishermen and hunters, abandoned nearly 20,000 years ago.

In the last decade, falling water levels have allowed Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa in Israel to excavate at the camp five times. It is emerging as perhaps the best preserved Upper Paleolithic dwelling site found anywhere in the world.

Known as Ohalo II, the site contains the remains of six huts, several hearth concentrations, a grave, and an area that likely served as a refuse dump.

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(Photograph courtesy Dani Nadel)
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“The site is excellently preserved,” says Nadel. “There are some things [at Ohalo] that are not preserved anywhere else.”

The preservation is due primarily to the fact that very soon after the huts were abandoned they were covered with water. Such a rise could have been caused by climactic change at the end of the Ice Age, or by an earthquake that altered the flow of water into the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a freshwater lake in western Israel’s Jordan Valley.

Water slowed the growth of bacteria, preventing the destruction of organic material at the site, says Nadel.

GLIMPSE OF ANCIENT LIVES

Ohalo II was discovered in 1989, during a particularly dry period in the Jordan Valley, which caused the water level to drop significantly. Before that, Ohalo II had been submerged beneath 2-3 meters (6-9 feet) of water.

Six oval-shaped huts have been excavated. Simple in structure, they were built of tree branches and probably took just a few hours to construct, says Nadel.

The huts are grouped close together, and average between 3 and 5 meters (9 and 16 feet) long. All of the huts appear to have been burned. This may have been intentional, to clear them of garbage or bugs. Burning helped to preserve the rich trove of artifacts found amidst the charred floor materials. These have included flints, animal bones, and remnants of fruit and cereal grains.

Hearths were located outside of the huts. Among the charred remains Nadel and his research partners have found fragments of hundreds of species of birds, fish, fruits, and vegetables.

“We have learned details about their environment and that is enabling us to reconstruct their daily behavior,” says Nadel, who has recovered hundreds of thousands of charred seeds, as well as huge quantities of fish, birds, and mammal bones—an unprecedented wealth of dietary information for this period. In addition to the habitation remains, Nadel’s team uncovered a grave ten years ago. It holds the remains of a person who lived for some time with growths on his chest bone and a disabled arm. It appears that the person was cared for in later years, indicating a sense of social responsibilty among members of this community.

YEAR-ROUND OCCUPATION

Evidence gathered at Ohalo II suggests that the site was occupied at all times of the year, but not for many years. This theory contradicts previously held notions of hunter-gatherer societies, who were believed to move with the season and food supply.

Nadel suggests the reason for year-round use of the site might stem from the richness of the land. “They had water, sun, food here-why go elsewhere?” says Nadel, “unless the water level was rising.”

Recently, a team of geologists has been working to analyze the water levels before and after the flood, and is slowly piecing together the ancient history of the lake.

Ohalo II is proving larger than previously anticipated, and could require an additional three or four seasons to excavate fully. A continuing severe water shortage in the region makes it likely that Ohallo will be available for excavating next season.

The Sea of Galilee is more than 4 meters (12 feet) lower than it has been in recent history. This is due largely to increasing population in the area and farmers using water from the lake for agricultural purposes, which is pushing the lake beyond its ability to replenish itself.


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