Cave Reveals a Culture of Recycling

Homo sapiens sapiens - Deliberate deformity of...
Homo sapiens sapiens - Deliberate deformity of the skull, "Toulouse deformity ". Français: Homo sapiens sapiens – Déformation volontaire du crâne : « déformation toulousaine ». « Crâne déformé - Vieille femme –mars 1905" MHNT.ANT.2003.85 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Flint stone tools, bronze age South H...
English: Flint stone tools, bronze age South Hungary - Tisza culture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Always something to learn from the past, from our ancestors... do we, really?
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By ISABEL KERSHNER


ROSH HAAYIN, Israel – for years, archaeologists have been digging their way through prehistoric layers of time, unearthing the secrets of Qesem Cave. Located 12 kilometers outside Tel Aviv and discovered by accident during a road project in 2000, the cave most recently offered up insights into life hundreds of thousands of years ago that provide a counterpoint to at least one aspect of modern life. It seems early inhabitants cared about recycling.

“Recycling was a way of life,” said Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University. “It was part of human evolution and human nature.”

Archaeologists have found thousands of recycled tools in the cave, including bone hammers and reworked flint stones. With aged, glossy surfaces broken by newer, rougher razor edges, the flint tools were part of a vast collection of knives apparently used for butchering, cleaning animal hides and cutting vegetables. Some of the blades are as sharp as a scalpel and as small as a thumbnail.

At the cave site, there is evidence that prehistoric humans were not always so thrifty, but that the behavior evolved. Life in the region dates back at least 1.5 million years, but professor Barkai said that a dramatic change had occurred here 400,000 years ago. He said that for some unknown reason the elephants that had served as a main food source apparently disappeared, prompting a change of menu and lifestyle.

In the quest for survival, Israeli archaeologists say, the cave dwellers here began hunting fallow deer instead of elephants. At the same time, they discovered the delights of a hot, home-cooked meal – and apparently invented the barbecue.

These early humans had the intelligence to squeeze the maximum out of every product. After cooking the meat, then smashing the bones to extract the marrow, Professor Barkai said, “they used the bone fragments to create tools with which to butcher the next deer.”

The cave was exposed by chance when road builders widening the highway to the West Bank settlement of Ariel blasted a hillside, collapsing the cave’s ceiling. Another archaeologist who happened to be nearby, guarding his own cave, spotted chunks of rocks packed with bones and flint and immediately realized that the site was prehistoric.

The cave caused a bit of a stir in 2010, when it was reported that several teeth found there had provided evidence for the existence of Homo sapiens, or modern humans, 200,000 years earlier than in Africa, and earlier than in anywhere else in the world.

By now, 13 early human teeth have been found, and Professor Barkai said the inhabitants might have been a kind of missing link – more advanced than Homo erectus and precursors of Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. The Stone Age innovators lived here on and off from about 400,000 to 200,000 years ago.

The early humans had to adapt to their changing environment – perhaps another lesson for the modern world.

They developed an independent, local culture, Professor Barkai said, that stretched across the territory that now includes Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The hunters needed to become discerning, agile and efficient. On average, 80 deer were needed to make up the food provided by one elephant. The cave dwellers gathered fruit and nuts and collected wood for fires. This area was a kind of Eden, with natural springs and flint in abundance.

They began crafting their sharp tools from flint, according to experts, racing ahead of their time and their human contemporaries in Europe and Africa.

“This was the high technology of the ancient man,” Professor Barkai said.

In a patch that once serve as a hearth, layers of hardened ash date back 300,000 years. Here the earth is packed with bone fragments, including a horse’s jaw.

Though sporadic use of fire existed much earlier, Qesem Cave has been established as the site with the earliest evidence of the systematic use of fire for roasting meat on a daily, domestic basis – “like when we turn on the gas stove,” as Professor Barkai put it. The cave dwellers’ ancestors probably ate their elephants raw.

The cave was organized like a house, he said, with different areas serving as a kitchen, a workshop and an area where children appeared to have practiced making flint tools of their own. The hearth also appears to have served as a kind of central campfire.

Professor Barkai said that evidence of some of the same behavior, technologies and methods had been found as far away as Syria and that there must have been some kind of communication between the early humans in the region.

“I don’t know how,” the professor says. “There was no Wi-Fi, but they knew each other.”


Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, The New York Times International Weekly, December 13, 2014

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