The Natufian culture holds a special place in the hearts of archaeologists. It appeared in the Levant (modern Palestine, Israel, Syria and Jordan) about 12,500 BC and lasted until 9500 BC* (the end of the Epipalaeolithic, sometimes rather confusingly called the Mesolithic). With this culture the world changed forever.
Before the Natufian roaming hunter gatherers, known as the Kebaran culture, trudged the Mediterranean coast as their ancestors had for thousands upon thousands of years. What the Natufians appear to have done, and were possibly the first to have done, is to say “Enough! I’m stopping here thank you,” and build villages.
In terms of size, these villages are very small by modern standards, no more than forty metres across and with populations of less than a couple of hundred people. But they are weird considering there’s almost nothing like them before. The houses are crude, more like shacks, but they do show a surprising degree of care in their organisation and maintenance. Also, whilst there’s no pottery there are stone bowls and grinding stones.
Perhaps most importantly these seem to have been all year round settlements. The teeth of hunted animals such as gazelle show that both summer and winter kills being brought back to the villages. Also, there’s plenty of evidence for house mice and rats in numbers appropriate to a village occupied all year.
Connections with the Neolithic
What intrigues archaeologists most about the Natufian is that, just under three thousand years later, the Neolithic, with the first evidence in the world of agriculture, started in pretty much the same place. It’s difficult not to see the two events as connected, with one leading to the other. The question that archaeologists have asked since the discovery of these earliest villages is “Why then? Why there?” A number of factors have been suggested.
Change of climate
The start of the Natufian culture, 12,500 BC, also marks the end of the last glaciation. The world’s temperatures rapidly increased at this time by several degrees. This seems to have increased rainfall in the Levant, extending woodland further inland, although at the same time a rise in sea level might have countered this effect a bit.
This improvement in climate did, however, reverse around 11000BC, when the “Younger Dryas” event caused a return to cold weather for the next thousand or so years. It was only after the weather warmed up again that agriculture started.
The abundance of food
Since Harlan and Zohary’s famous collection of wild grains in the 1960s it is believed that there was an abundance, possibly even a glut of nutritious grains (wild barley, etc) in the western fertile crescent of the Middle East, including the Levant. Jared Diamond, amongst others, has argued that no comparable abundance of nutritious foods existed elsewhere in the world at the time. These grains grew in open forest which is thought to have spread during the rise in temperatures.
The appearance of complex art
At the same time as the appearance of the Natufian culture there is a noticeable rise in the number of artistic objects in the Levant. These include bone and stone animal carvings, coloured stone beads, some of the stone coming from over 100km away, and complex abstract carvings that may represent code.
As well as these there are many burials, often beneath the houses. These burials often contain peculiar objects to accompany the dead. Many burials include beads but one recently discovered included bits of dead wild animals.
Evidence for immigration
As mentioned above, materials such as stone from Arabia, obsidian from Anatolia and shell from the Nile valley show contacts with people over several hundred kilometres away. But other evidence, such as stone blade shaping techniques derived from north Africa and some evidence for north African genes in the population suggests that people may also have come in from some distance. Additionally there is tenuous evidence for the import of a type of fig from north Africa.
Suggested Reasons for settlement.
The following ideas have been put forward for why these factors might have been important:
Times get easier
The improvement in climate allowed an increased number of nutritious grains to be harvested, meaning that people didn’t have to go so far to forage. In response they chose to settle.
The interesting flip side of this is that the Younger Dryas would have taken that food source away again, leaving people back where they were before. Certainly the number of settlements did decrease during these colder conditions and some people may well have returned to a more mobile lifestyle. However, the settlements did not disappear and it does not appear to be a time of major stress. But overall this idea seems reasonable.
Times get harder
Another argument is that there was an increase in population density at this time, perhaps with immigration from elsewhere. This forced people to define territories for themselves and this led to settlement. To be honest I don’t really understand the supposed reasons for the population density increase because the extent of the forest, and hence grains, was supposed to be expanding at this time.
Times get deeper
Another argument (generally used more for the birth of agriculture but equally applicable here) is that the concept of “the wild” encouraged people to band together in big groups for safety. This idea is related to the increasing amount of ‘spiritual’ animal art and the burial of people in safety under houses. This sort of idea is quite popular with post-modern archaeologists of northern Europe.
I suppose my major problem with this is that earlier, Aurignacian objects and art, some from as much as 25,000 years before this, show human and animal carvings of a decidedly weird and ‘spiritual’ nature. However, the people associated with those earlier objects did not, as far as can be told, settle down in villages.
So now am I going to take my usual angle on this and try arguing that some kind of trade or flow of people could have caused the settlement? Of course it may be wrong but it does have the merit of being different and just about feasible.
The Levant is a corridor (see Centres of domestication…). It’s bounded on one side by the broad eastern Mediterranean and on the other by desert. The corridor connects eastern Europe and central Asia with Africa and western Arabia via the Sinai peninsula and the Red Sea. That means that people trying to get from Africa to Asia, say, would probably pass down this corridor. This same inconvenience made later kingdoms wealthy on controlling trade along this route.
I’m not going to argue for this being a major trade route at the time because that’s probably anachronistic. However, why not argue that it was a significant route for the movement of people, and that some of those people carried with them items for exchange along the way. This could have made the Levant an attractive place to be located. People might wish to settle along the corridor for this reason. People passing through that corridor would be given hospitality by the “owners” of the land and would be expected to give gifts in return. Such gifts could include exotic shells, stones or less durable items.
In order to feed both the passers by and the increasing population food production would need to be intensified. By using grinding stones and organising a community to specialise this would be possible. Such a thing could have developed organically over time or been the idea of a strong individual. Groups could specialise in hunting, collecting grain, building houses, even making ornaments out of exotic stone.
Importantly, because the paths through the Levant would be reinforced by repeated use, positve feedback would make people use these same paths again and again. So the best places to catch the passers by would be on those paths. That would be where the villages became established.
So why then? Wasn’t the Levant always a corridor through the area, even before the this time? Hmm. The only thing I can guess is that the route was either disconnected somewhere else before then or there were other routes through the landscape which allowed people to avoid the Levant. Perhaps only the change in climate at this time singled out this route. However, this is frankly pretty speculative.
There is another problem. The evidence for the appearance of exotic stones and obsidian does not appear at the beginning of the Natufian culture. That takes away my major reason for the settlements being there. Oh well. Such is life. If I manage to overcome this one I’ll let you know.
Bar-Yosef, O. 1998 The Natufian Culture in the Levant, Threshold to the Origins of Agriculture. Evolutionary Anthropology 6, p159-177.
Bar Yosef, O. & Belfer-Cohen, A. 1999 Encoding information: unique Natufian objects from Hayonim Cave, western Galilee, Israel. Antiquity 73, 402-409.
Bar-Yosef Mayer, D.E & Porat, N. 2008 Green stone beads at the dawn of agriculture. PNAS 105, p8548-8551.
Barker, G. 2009 The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers?, Oxford, pp616
Harlan, J.R. & Zohary, D. 1966 Distribution of Wild Wheats and Barley, Science 153, p1074-1080.
Munro, N. D. 2003 Small game, the younger dryas and the transition to agriculture in the southern Levant, Mittelilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte 12, p47-71.
Shlush, I. et al. 2008 The Druze: A Population Genetic Refugium of the Near East, PLoSONE 3.
An interesting case of a possible DNA relic of Natufian populations (X2 haplotype predicted split time from X around 15,000 +- 2,000 BC and in the right place).
Baca, M. & Molak, M. 2008 Research on ancient DNA in the Near East, Bioarchaeology of the Near East 2, p39–61.
*The dates you see given here are calibrated according to recent estimates of the radiocarbon curve and so are supposed to be accurate. Older calibrated dates are more like 11500BC to 8000BC.