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Workers digging at the Gesher Benot Ya'aqov site archaeological site in Israel

Archaeologists excavate the Gesher Benot Ya'aqov site in Israel in an undated photo.

Photograph courtesy Gonen Sharon, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Mati Milstein in Tel Aviv, Israel

for National Geographic News

January 12, 2010

It’s long been thought that so-called modern human behavior first arose during the middle Stone Age, in “modern” humans—Homo sapiens.

But a new study suggests modern living may have originated roughly 500,000 years earlier—courtesy of one of our hairy, heavy-browed ancestor species.

At the prehistoric Gesher Benot Ya'aqov site in northern Israel, researchers have found the earliest known evidence of social organization, communication, and divided living and working spaces—all considered hallmarks of modern human behavior.

The former hunter-gatherer encampment dates back as far as 750,000 years ago, and must have been built by Homo erectus or another ancestral human species, archaeologists say. Homo sapiens—our own species—emerged only about a couple hundred thousand years ago, fossil record suggest.

At the site, researchers found artifacts including hand axes, chopping tools, scrapers, hammers and awls, animal bones, and botanical remains buried in distinct areas.

"Different tasks"—from nut processing to seafood preparation—"were taking place in different locations in the site," said archaeologist Naama Goren-Inbar, who led the excavation.

"The modification of basalt tools was done in proximity to the fireplace but, on the other hand, flint [sharpening] was done on the other end of the site in association with where we found a lot of fish teeth," said Goren-Inbar, of Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology in Mount Scopus, Israel.

Traditionally, the search for the earliest signs of modern human behavior has focused on Homo sapiens sites from the middle Stone Age (roughly 300,000 to 50,000 years ago), due to the preponderance of evidence found at them in the past.

(Related: "Prehistoric Bones Point to First Modern-Human Settlement in Europe.")

Camp Life

Based on their finds and evidence from other sites and groups, the researchers assume there was a division of labor at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov.

A visitor stumbling upon the Gesher Benot Ya'aqov encampment might have found women gathering nuts and processing small animals like fish, crabs, and turtles close to the communal hearth, Goren-Inbar speculated, based on ethnographic analogies and comparisons.

The men would be off hunting or situated in farther corners of the site butchering larger game, including a long-extinct elephant species, she suggests.

Basalt, limestone, and flint toolmaking would also be taking place in various locations around the encampment. And some people would just be chowing down on roasted nuts—still a local staple—or fish.

"One of the highlights of our report is that people ate fish more than 750,000 years ago," Goren-Inbar said.

The encampment, located on an ancient lakeshore, holds some of the earliest evidence of fish eating ever found, according to the study, published in the journal Science. Bones at the site suggest a now extinct, yard-long (meter-long) carp species was a common meal, for example.

Greatest Story Ever Told?

Archaeologist Dani Nadel agrees that the new discovery indicates a surprisingly early emergence of modern human behavior.

"They managed to show that there are certain areas in this site connected to certain activities—an organization of space," said Nadel, of the University of Haifa, was not involved in the Gesher Benot Ya'aqov excavations.

The findings, he said, fit nicely into a regional story of human development emerging from the archaeological record.

At the 1.5-million-year-old Israeli site of Ubeitiya, for example, archaeological evidence indicates inhabitants chose raw materials based on the types of tools they intended to craft—they didn't just pick up the closest rock and start banging at it, Nadel said.

Alternately, evidence of early modern human behavior has also been found at 100,000-, 50,000-, and 23,000-year-old sites around Israel's Mount Carmel and Galilee regions.

Nadel said these sites show a continuous development in every aspect of daily life, from the burial of the dead to the layouts of communities and homes.

"Now we have kitchens and living rooms and bedrooms," Nadel said. "But it all started somewhere in the past."

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