The Epipalaeolithic Background



3.0 Introduction to the Epipalaeolithic Background

The Epipalaeolithic is best understood in the southern Levant, with a good sequence in southern Palestine.  However, it is also found in northern Levant, Zagros and northern Mesopotamia.

In southern Palestine the Epipalaeolithic has a clear continuity from the Palaeolithic period, emerging from it at around 20,000bp and lasting until around 10,500bp.  In the Zagros the Zarzian appears to emerge from the Upper Palaeolithic.  In the Negev and Sinai, the Harifian appears to emerge from local conditions, cultural and environmental, related to those in southern Palestine.

However, it is clear from Fellner’s invaluable overview (Fellner 1995) that regional relationships are not clear, chronologies are often difficult to place because stratigraphic relationships are not always clear, and radiocarbon dates are rather few and far between.  So understanding the Epipalaeolithic of the Near East will benefit from more work and more radiocarbon dates.

3.1 Faunal and Botanical Resources

3.1.1 Faunal Resources

From the Epipalaeolithic to the PPNA the main sources of animal food were generally as follows (Bar-Yosef and Meadow 1995), although individual sites exhibited differences on a localized basis – due either to local vegetational, ecological circumstances and/or preference:

  • Gazelle
    • Gazella gazelle
    • Gazella subgutturasa
    • Gazella dorcas
      • Concentrated in the Sinai and Negev until later in the Holocene
      • Non migratory  with restricted home ranges
      • While males move in groups around the margins of the territory, females and young are mostly sedentary
      • If water is available daily gazelles reproduce throughout the year; if dryer, they only bread seasonally, giving birth between March and July.
  • Wild equids
    • Equus hemionus
    • Equus africanus
  • Wild boar (Sus scorfa)
  • Deer
    • Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)
    • Roe Deer (Caprechs capreolus)
    • Fallow Deer (Dama mesopotamica)
  • Wild cattle (Bos primigenius)
  • Ibex (Capra nubiana)
  • Wild goat (Capra aegagrus)
  • Wild sheep (Ovis orientalis)

Only equids were likely to have been migrational.  Other species were locally adapted and would not have needed to migrate out of their territories, which made them a more reliable food source.  Sheep and goat were particularly heavily exploited in the Zagros and Taurus ranges and foothills (Bar-Yosef and Meadow 1995).

3.1.2 Plant Resources

The earliest finds of wild cereals and pulses in southwest Asia date to the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic in northern Israel.  Pea is found at Kebara cave dating to between 60,000 and 50,000bc.  Emmer wheat seeds have been found at Nahal Oren dating to 31,000bc.  At Ohalo II (discussed below) a large multi-species plant assemblage was found dating to around 17,000bc (19,000bp).


3.2 Proto-Kebaran and other early Industries

The earliest Epipalaeolithic industries lie in two main groups dating to between 20,000 and 17,000 bp.  Both are steppe-based occupations of south and east Jordan, the Syrian highlands and the northern Negev.

The Proto-Kebaran is the somewhat awkward designation sometimes used to describe the settlement of Ohalo II, dating to around 19,500BP (an average of the C14 dates, corresponding to the Late Glacial Maximum) which was found on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Ohalo II has provided considerable information to archaeologists due to the unusual state of preservation of the site, providing data on structural aspects of dwellings and information about subsistence practices not available from elsewhere.  Ohalo II was formerly submerged beneath the inland sea, and was preserved by anaerobic conditions.  The existence of these features suggests that other sites probably shared the newly identified components, but were not as well preserved.

The site consisted of six brush huts (the oldest ever reported) in the Levant, six concentrations of fireplaces, one human grave, one it, one stone installation, midden deposits, burnt wood, and charred seeds and fruit.  Large quantities of stone tools, animal bones and plant remains occurred both in and around the huts.

Amongst the components preserved, and described by Nadel (2003) were brushwood “walls” of dwellings.  The dwellings were more or less oval, most with a north-south axis.   In two cases there was an the entrance in the middle of the long eastern wall.  The floor area varies between 5 and 13 sq m.  Floors were between 20 and 30cm lower than the surface level, making the dwellings subterranean.  The brush wall was made using thick local branches – tamarisk, willow and oak - to form the basic framework and smaller branches were then placed on top.  There were no postholes and no stone pavements.  Inner structures were uncommon, including hearths, with occasional big stone placements perhaps used as anvils.

Hut contents indicate that flint knapping took place indoors, and that fish were probably stored.  Some storage or processing of mammals – especially gazelle, fallow deer, fox and hare – and many species of bird are also suggested by bones.

Most of the hearths were in the open, in the public spaces between the huts, perhaps suggesting communal activities. 

The economy was based on collected cereals (including wild barley), legumes, fruit, fish, a variety of animal species, and birds.

The continuous and long period of accumulation of material, combined with the number of activities that took place within each hut, and the analysis of botanical and bird remains “strongly suggest a year-round use of the camp in general and certain huts in particular” (Nadel 2003, p.39).

3.3 The Kebaran

The earliest Epipalaeolithic industry is usually considered to be the Kebaran because it is the first industry that features standardized microliths, characterized by abrupt retouch. 

It dates to between c.20,000/18,000 and 14,000bp in the Mediterranean zone of western Jordan, southern Palestine, southern Syria and the Lebanon.  It may begin slightly earlier in the Northern Palestine area, and only begins at around 16,000bp in the southern deserts of Negev and Sinai. 

The Kebaran is limited to the coastal Levant and the oases.

The Kebaran was a straight forward hunter-gatherer economy.  There are no signs in the Kebaran of the complexity that followed.  This is usually divided into an earlier and later phase, with a number of sub-phases identified.  The Early Kebaran displays considerable regional variation, but the Late Kebaran becomes increasingly standardized, with the obliquely backed bladelet becoming the most common tool.  Sites include Ein Gev I, where hut foundations were found.  These consisted  of oval depressions between 6m and 7m in diameter, which were lined with undressed stone, stone pavements and hearths.  There were a number of occupations.  There were no central or peripheral postholes which suggests that the superstructure was a wig-wam type structure.

The Kebaran is summed up by Wenke as follows:  “If the Kebaran peoples were doing something that inexorably led their remote descendants to become farmers, it is not obvious in their archaeological traces.  Such traces are almost all small concentrations of bones and stone that reflect a people skilled principally in hunting deer and other large grazing animals” (Wenke 1999, p.291).


3.4 Nizzanian and Zarzian

The Nizzanian is confined to Negev and, while very distinct, it has been suggested that it has close affinities with the Azraq Basin (Fellner 1995, p.22).  It dates to the later Early Epipalaeolithic.  It features scalene triangle and some rare isosceles triangle microliths, Gravette points, microgravettes, and abundant arched-backed blades, and makes use of the microburin technique.

The Zarzian of the Zagros region of Iran is contemporary with the Natufian but different from it.  The only dates for the entire Zarzian come from Palegawra Cave, and date to 17,300-17,000BP, but it is clear that it is broadly contemporary with the Levantine Kebaran, with which it shares features.  It seems to have evolved from the Upper Palaeolithic Baradostian. 

There are only a few Zarzian sites and the area appears to have been quite sparsely populated during the Epipalaeolithic. Faunal remains from the Zarzian indicate that the temporary form of structures indicate a hunter-gatherer subsistence strategy, focused on onager, red deer and caprines.  Better known sites include Palegawra Cave, Shanidar B2 and Zarzi. 

Unlike the Levantine situation, the Zarzian does not appear to evolve into anther form.  Where the Kebaran evolved into the Natufian, and in where there were occupations in the middle Euphrates at Abu Hureyra and Mureybet, the Zarzian seems to be followed by a hiatus where there was an absence of occupation.  This apparent temporal gap could be accounted for by climatic deterioration and the need to relocate to lower zones where conditions were not so severe.  Following the post-Zarzian hiatus, the next evidence consists of a series of pre-ceramic sites, both cave and open sites.  The oldest date to the Younger Dryas.


3.5 Geometric Kebaran (formerly Kebaran A)

Dating to between c.14,500 and 12,800/12,500bp, the Geometric Kebaran sites are found from south Sinai to Syria.  The distribution of the Geometric Kebaran was considerably impacted by climatic changes.  It was initially restricted to the Mediterranean coast and the oases, probably due to conditions in the Late Glacial Maximum.  As the climate improved and aridity decreased between 14,500 and 13,000bp expansion was possible into southern Palestine and former desert areas which now became steppe, which now became available for settlement and exploitation.  It was followed by desiccation just before the Early Natufian, a period associated with the abandonment of southern Palestine and Sinai by Geometric Kebaran groups.

The lithic tool industry consists of blades and bladelets as well as microliths. Trapeze and rectangle forms make up over 50% of the microlithic component of the industry, but the microburin technique which is highly diagnostic of some Epipalaeolithic industries, was only rarely used.  Although it is similar to the Late Kebaran it is less diverse, but displays some regional variation.  For example the Negev displays specialization with finely serrated or notched edges on some microlithic forms, and bipolar backing is characteristic of lithics in Sinai.   Bellwood (2005) points to the conspicuous lack of sickles in the Geometric Kebaran, which like the absence of the microburin technique, distinguishes it from following periods.

Ground stone mortars, bowls and bedrock mortars were also featured, but mainly in the Mediterranean belt.

Animals exploited include deer, gazelle, wild boar in the core area, and gazelle, ibex and hares in the steppic areas.

Caves and open campsites were both used, and were generally less than 300m2.  It is likely that transhumance was practiced, with winter camps located in valleys and summer camps in higher hillside and mountain locations.  Sites include Haon III, which featured semi-subterranean huts with walls lined with undressed stone.  No structures are known from Negev or Sinai where the only settlement evidence consists of simple hearths. 

A few burials are associated with the Geometric Kebaran, although burial does not become a standard feature until the Natufian.  Mediterranean marine shells were used for decorative ornamentation.

Wenke’s view is that in the Geometric Kebaran “we get a few indications of economic changes that may be harbingers of agriculture” (Wenke 1999, p.291).

3.6 Hamran

The Hamran was apparently related to the Geometric Kebaran and is usually divided into three phases, with increasing volumes of lunate forms in assemblages. 

3.7 Mushabian

The Mushabian is founded in southern Jordan, the Negev, and Sinai.  It is usually divided into an earlier phase (c.14,500-12,800bp) and a later phase which overlaps with the Early Natufian (12,800-11,000bp).

The Classic Mushabian is characterized by a dominance of arched-back bladelets, La Mouillah points, and scalene triangles, all of which were truncated at one end using the microburin technique.  Helwan lunates are also featured.

Evidence for economic activities are few and far between – there are very few botanical or faunal remains, but some rare pounding tools suggest that plant exploitation was a feature of the economy.  Bar-Yosef and Meadow (1995) hypothesize that the subsistence strategies employed in the Mushabian were much the same as those of the steppic Geometric Kebaran and Hamran groups.

The Mushabian was traditionally thought to derive from North Africa via the Nile Delta and the Sinai:  “The Mushabian sites in Sinai are interpreted as the remains of mobile groups budded off from the Nile region who were attracted to the expanding, lusher steppic environment” (Bar-Yosef and Meadow 1999, p.55).  This view was based on the early occurrence of the microburin technique in industries like the Sisilian.  “However, the recent discovery of even earlier use of the microburin technique in the Azraq Basin fundamentally weakens the argument, and may even indicate diffusion of this technique in the other direction” (Fellner 1995, p.26).  Fellner believes that the Mushabian is most likely to derive from the Nizzanian of the Negev.


3.8 Azraq Epipalaeolithic

The Epipalaeolithic in Azraq is unlike other Epipalaeolithic industries in a number of ways, and is particularly distinct from the core industries. 

It is typified by sites like Jilat 22, which dates to 13,500-13,000bp  Jilat 22 is located in a marshland location and consists of a non-microlithic blade industry with tanged knives.  Most of the bladelets were made on either single platform or opposed platform cores, and the microburin technique was in frequent use (Garrard 1998).

Garrard et al (1996, p.215) finds that gazelle was dominant, representing 80-90% of faunal assemblages at some sites, equids were the next most common specie and tortoise remains are also common.  Sheep and goat made up less than 0.2% of faunal remains.  Cattle from one site were probably attracted to the nearby marshland conditions.  A high incidence of birds occurs, particularly eagles. 

There were few late Epipalaeolithic or Natufian sites, other than Azraq 18.

3.9 Qerenian

Featuring increasing numbers of trapeze-shaped and rectangular microliths, this industry is typologically similar to the Geometric Kebaran, but technologically is similar to the Mushabian, although it has only a few arch-backed blades.

3.10 Madamaghan

Madamaghan sites are located in southern Jordan but affiliations and dates are unclear.  The sites include Madamagh rock shelter and Tor Hamar. 

3.11 Ramonian (formerly the Negev Kebaran / Negev Mushabian)

The Ramonian is distributed in the Sinai and Negev.  It probably derives from the Mushabian.

Characteristic of the industry is the Ramon point, similar in appearance to the La Mouillah point.  There are two subgroups of the industry, one with no geometric microliths and the other with lunates.  These two groups subgroups are usually interpreted as an earlier and later phase, but there are no reliable dates available.

Differences Between the Mushabian and Ramonian





Signs of contact with Geometric Kebaran groups

No contact with Geometric Kebaran groups

No occupation of the Negev highlands

Occupation of the Negev highlands

Arch-backed bladelets a key component of the industry

Ramon point appears, replacing the arch-backed bladelet


3.12 Natufian

3.12.1 The Emergence of the Natufian

The emergence of the Natufian is explained by Bar-Yosef (1998) as follows:  “On the one hand, climatic improvements around 13,000BP provided a wealth of food resources.  On the other hand, contemporaneous population growth in both the steppic and desertic regions made any abrupt, short-term climatic fluctuation a motivation for human groups to achieve control over resources” (p.167).  He sees a semi-sedentary lifestyle resulting from environmental change which led to a “shift of resource scheduling” (p.167).

Fellner (1995) states that “the transition from the Geometric Kebaran to the Early Natufian culture can be described as the most important cultural change within the Epipalaeolithic of Palestine, as the lifestyle of the Natufian groups differed very substantially from that practiced by their Geometric Kebaran ancestors” (p.122)  The Natufian is usually seen as a key stage in Near Eastern Prehistory as it represents many features usually associated with the Neolithic.

3.12.2 Temporal Overview

There are two main Natufian phases, an earlier and later phase, each distinguished by certain key characteristics, mainly in the lithic tool record – as well as a possible third phase, the Final Natufian. 

The Early Natufian dates to between c.12,500 and 11,500bp and features long and wide lunates, over 50% of which are backed by bifacial retouch.  Early Natufian sites include Mallaha III-IV, Wadi Hammeh 27 and Azariq XV.  At Hayonim Cave five oval semi-subterranean huts, measuring 2-2.5m in diameter were closely clustered.  Three were paved and had hearths.

The Later Natufian dates from approximately 11,000/11,500-10,500bp, which equates to the Younger Dryas.  It is characterized by small lunates retouch with a technique known as Helwan retouch.  The Later Natufian is concentrated in North and Central Palestine at sites like Mallaha I and Hayonim Terrace.  However it also occurs in marginal areas like the northern Sinai and the western Negev, represented by small sites with limited toolkits. 

A possible final phase, dating to c.10,500-10,200bp is only found in northern and central Palestine and is characterized by very small lunates which are never backed.

The Natufian is followed by the Pre Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), and is almost certainly directly ancestral to it.

The emergence of the Natufian in northern and central Palestine at around 12,500bp coincides with the absence of the Geometric Kebaran in Negev and Sinai, and their replacement with the Romanian.  These events are probably connected, but it is unclear how.  The Natufian probably derives from the Geometric Kebaran of northern Palestine.

Both industrial and settlement features are similar to the Kebaran, indicating a degree of continuity between the two, but there are also key differences.  These include the introduction of new tools, including (Bar-Yosef 1998):

  • Picks
  • Sickle blades, wood or bone-hafted, with gloss on part of the surface of both faces indicative of use for cereal harvesting.  They were much more efficient than beaters and baskets for maximizing cereal yield

Ground stone tools were used more regularly than before. These included mortars (bedrock and portable), cup-holes, mullers and pestles, which were used for food processing, crushing burned limestone and grinding red ochre.  Whetstones were used for shaping bone objects and shaft straighteners were thought to have been used for shaping bows.

Similarly, various Natufian characteristics are important for distinguishing between temporal phases and regional groups including (Bar-Yosef 1998):

  • Use of the microburin technique
  • Size and type of lunate retouch
  • Length of lunates
  • Core types and usage
  • Proportion of microliths in an assemblage

The microburin technique was used throughout the period, increasing in frequency of use through time. 

3.12.3 Natufian Site Distribution and Geographical Differences

The main area in which the Natufian industries are found is the northern and central Palestine, but it is found at sites from Syria to Southern Palestine, although the early southern sites are apparently ephemeral and the Syrian sites show distinctive features which are not characteristic of the core areas.  In the later phase sites were more widespread, although again there is considerable regional variation away from the core area. 

The overall distribution of settlements in the Natufian are focused on central and northern  Palestine, with marginal occupations in the south of Palestine, the steppe of Negev and Sinai, the high mountains of Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, and the Syrio-Arabian desert.  Sites increase in number and become up to five times larger, with a much increased population particularly apparent just preceding the Younger Dryas (Bellwood 2005).

Most of the occupations in the main area were apparently semi-sedentary, with some ephemerally occupied sites at Beidha, Hatoula, Tabaqa and Abu Usba.  These sites may be indicative of a combination of subsistence strategies, with mobile hunting groups supplementing the efforts of sedentary sites.  Ephemeral camps were the feature of the lowlands.   The local ecology of the core area was oak and pistachio woodland which contained grasses and a high frequency of cereals.

In southern Palestine hamlets are only found in the Negev and were less extensive than the Late Natufian in northern Palestine.  In the Negev there are no lunates marked by Helwan retouch, but there are a high percentage of lunates, showing a concentration on one particular type of tool, which in turn may suggest specialization at these sites.  There are no Natufian sites so far known from the Azraq Basin.  Fellner (1995, p.29) suggests that the southern Palestine sites dating to the Late Natufian should probably be assigned a separate group, which he terms the “Desert Natufian”. 

Unlike the sites of Beidha and Hatula, there is no sign that Natufian and Sinai hunting camps were reused, and no burials or ornamentation were found at these sites.  At ephemeral sites ground stone tools are rare, and indicate that although plant processing took place, the main form of activity was hunting. This is consistent with the local ecology which had a lower capacity to support large groups, and was also shared with other groups as well.

North and Central Palestine Vs the Desert Natufian (after Fellner 1995)



Semi-subterranean huts

No Early Natufian components in Desert Natufian

Predominant lunates with abrupt or bipolar backing

Bone tools less common and varied in Desert Natufian

Ground tools

No art objects

No Helwan retouch in Desert Natufian

More extensive use of the microburin technique in Desert Natufian

No use of Krukowski variant of microburin technique in Desert Natufian

Selective culling of female gazelle in core area vs. Natufian where males are targeted

Fewer structures occupied less intensively

Fellner concludes that “All these differences seem to indicate that the Desert Natufian should be regarded as a separate cultural entity, distinct from the Late Natufian of the ‘core area’ although strong links obviously existed between them” (1995, p.113).  Fellner sees a Ramonian descent for the Desert Natufian, which also acquired Natufian elements by diffusion.  Late Natufian base camps in southern Palestine have often been cited as Natufian expansion, but this fails to address the issues of what happened to the Ramonian and the differences between the Desert Natufian and those in the core area of central and northern Palestine, and the similarity between certain elements of the Late Ramonian and the Desert Natufian.  He therefore suggests that Desert Natufian sites represent the remains of settlements inhabited by the descendants of the Late Ramonian groups who had adopted a Natufian lifestyle.  Fellner suggests that the Ramonian would not have been effected initially by increasing territoriality of the more northern sedentary societies but that from the Late Ramonian onwards contacts between the core area and Negev and Sinai would have exposed some of these marginal areas to the idea of sedentism, which they copied from the Natufian example, while other areas may have been colonized (Fellner 1995 p.126). 

The sites of Mureybet and Abu Hureyra in northeast Syria are considered by a number of writers to be a variant of the Natufian, sharing many features but also differing in some ways, perhaps due to different ecological and geomorphological circumstances. 

3.12.4 Site Organization

Settlements with structures have been found throughout the Natufian, particularly in the later phases.  They are found both in cave/rock-shelter contexts and in open locations.

Natufian structures typically consist of a wall base made up of undressed stones, and are usually round, oval or u-shaped (an open oval or circle), between 3m and 6m in diameter.  Hut floors are semi-subterranean.  Unlike the Kebaran structures, Natufian structures were closely clustered and up to ten may have been occupied simultaneously at larger sites like Mallaha.  Huts usually feature hearths, and at Wadi el Hammeh 27 bench-like structures were present.  Even the largest sites were not as big as those that appear in the Early Neolithic.

Indoor activities are represented by faunal and lithic remains.  Ground stone implements have also been found at some sites – particularly using basalt as a raw material.  In some instances caches were found under floors. 

Deposits were often 50-60cm in depth and appear to be accumulations over quite long periods of time as, frequently, no successive floors are detectible.  Some dwellings were constructed over previous ones.  Today they are mounds of between 0.5-1m in height.

At Mallaha there are no phases of abandonment visible.  Older structures were repaired and replaced over a 1000 year period.  There is considerable variability in size and organization of structures, varying from 8m to 25 sq m.  Most have one or more hearths, bordered with stones.  Burials and storage pits were sunk into abandoned structures. 

The settlement at Eynan consisted of 50 houses, all round, built in three phases.  The dwelling structures were between 3 and 9m diameter, were lined with rubble and many had stone hearths.  Storage pits are found both within and outside dwelling structures.

Outside the core area, at sites like Rosh Zin in the Negev highlands settlements are similar to   those within the core area, but considerably smaller, only becoming larger in later phases.  At Rosh Zin between five and six oval structures, measuring between 2.5-3m diameter were semi-subterranean with a drystone lining.  However, unlike other settlements these were built directly against each other. There is some evidence of structures that do not confirm to the usual shape or use during the Natufian.  Fellner speculates (1995, p.90-91) that these may have been associated with important individuals. 

At Nahal Sekher VI (Goring-Morris and Bar-Yosef 1987), a late Natufian campsite in the western Negev was located where a large wadi meandered between hills.  It was dated by metrics and retouch data to the Late Natufian.  Remains included burnt limestone, bone fragments, stone tools made primarily on chalcedony from an unknown source, marine molluscs and grinding stones. The lithic tool assemblage included 75 cores, short wide blade tools, and flakes.  Microliths were the main tool component – including lunates, trapezoids and triangles.  Microburins were an important component (113 recorded), with a few Krukowski variants noted.  There were some burins, truncations and notches, but scrapers were scarce.  Goring-Morris and  Bar-Yosef (1987) suggest that the limited range of lithics equates to the limited range of activities carried out, and that the site “probably represents a relatively short-term extractive hunting camp by a limited group of occupants at the edge of the dunes” (p.112).  The main activity, which was microlith manufacture, probably represented retooling for hunting.

It has been frequently suggested that many of the Natufian sites represented the first permanent settlements in the Near East (apart from Ohalo II).  This is based on the failure to detect different floor surfaces interspersed with period of abandonment debris, the fact that apparently continuous layers of building and repair took place to form very thick deposits, and that there is evidence of social activities often associated with sedentism, like burial in small cemeteries.

However, at Wadi Hammeh 27, in the Jordan Valley, Edwards and Hardy-Smith (2004) examined the remains of stone-based houses dating to around 12,000bp.  Originally considered to be a permanent settlement, their comparison of the settlement debris at Wadi Hammeh 27 compared with that of ethnographic communities suggests that it may have been transient rather than fully settled.  This is based on the observation that semi sedentary and fully sedentary communities actually have a refuse disposal strategy, something that very rarely happened at transient sties, and there is no sign of anything remotely resembling a refuse disposal strategy at Wadi Hammeh 27, where rubbish and fully formed artefacts were found mixed together within dwellings.

Similarities between the earlier Epipalaeolithic and Natufian sites include the constant reuse of sites, in some cases with structures built on top of old ones, and successive floors.

Hodder’s conclusion (Hodder 1999) from looking at sites like Eynan is that “Thus already in the Natufian we can see that the process of domesticating plants involves an emphasis on the house and settlement in a wider sense” (1999, p.33).  He sees increased settlement size, ordered dwellings and the focus on the household as the main unit of production as indications of increased social control.

3.12.5 Industry and Economy Industry


he main tools of the Natufian in the core area are small short wide bladelets and flakes, with a high frequency of blades, and a high proportion of sickle blades, which were hafted into highly decorated wooden or bone scythe-like handles.  In a comparative study with later forms of sickle blade, Rosen (1997) describes the Natufian sickle blades as particularly small backed blades. A particular sheen on sickle blades suggests that they have been used for harvesting wild cereals.

Microliths and geometrics make up 40% or more of every assemblage.   In the earlier Natufian microliths vary in shape and frequency including trapezes, triangles and both Helwan and other backed lunates.  In the later Natufian backed lunates dominate. 

The presence of pounding and grinding stones suggests plant processing.  They include bedrock mortars, portable mortars, bowls, mullers, pestles, whetstones and cup-holed limestone slabs.

In the earlier Natufian sites were concentrated mainly in the central and northern Palestine, but in the later Natufian phases they extended into marginal areas.  In the northern Sinai and western Negev the Epipalaeolithic was represented by small sites and limited toolkits characterized by lunates, end-scrapers, retouched blades and extensive use of the microburin technique. 

The bone tool industry was richer than that of any other Levantine bone industry. 

Use-wear analyses have suggested that they were used mainly for hide working and basketry.  Barbed items and hooks were probably hunting and fishing tools.  Hafts were made for sickle blades.  Beads and Pendants were also formed in these fabrics.

Many of the items were decorated or crafted with anthropomorphic handles. Economy

The economy is difficult to assess in its entirety because floral collection methods were poor in earlier excavations and, in fact, floral survival is often quite poor due to terra rosa soils.  However, enough survives to enable archaeologists to conclude that intensive harvesting of wild cereals in the summer took place over a large area, particularly in the core area – particularly wild barley.  Sickle handles and blades indicate that grains were collected using a scything technique, and pestles and mortars, made of basalt, indicate plant processing practices.  At Wadi Hammeh 27 (11,500BC) both wild barley and microlithic sickle blades were found.  At Mureybet IA c.10,500BC wild species of barley, einkorn and lentil were found.

There has been considerable debate about whether or not cultivation took place in the Natufian, but Bar-Yosef (1998) and others believe that the available evidence suggests intensive collection rather than cultivation.  At site Wadi el-Jilat 6, in the marginal area of eastern Jordan, only carbonized seeds were found – chenopods, sedges, and grasses – which may have been used as food but may also have been used for fuel, and could equally represent natural rather than deliberate deposition (Garrard 1998).

Bar-Yosef and Meadow (1995, p.59) describe seasonal settlement and exploitation patterns during the Late Natufian in the Sinai and Negev, where dry conditions offer better chances for preservation.  In these instances a winter occupation of the lowlands is apparently followed by a spring/summer move to the highlands, suggesting a transhumant economy. 

Hunting focused on gazelle and other game, waterfowl and seasonal fishing.  The types of species exploited depended largely upon the area concerned.  In the coastal areas, for example, deer, cattle and wild boar were preferred whilst in the steppe, equids and ibex were the most readily available.  In the marginal areas of eastern Jordan, gazelle made up over 80% of the assemblages, followed by equids, wild cattle and birds, especially eagle (Garrard 1998), but there was no particular evidence of deliberate targeting of age and sex.

Tools suggest considerable plant processing - and some pulse, cereal, almond, acorn and fruits to support this.  Bellwood points to the fact (Bellwood 2005, p.58) that studies of sickle gloss on sickle blades suggest that cereal stands were harvested before the grains and stalks were ripe.  A preference for unripe grains could be due to the character of the wild plant.  When ripe, in order to disseminate itself in the wild, the plant has free-shattering grain which dislodges easily from the plant so that it falls to the ground to establish itself for the following season, which makes it difficult to collect without substantial waste of grain.  To facilitate collection using a sickle, Natufian groups could cut down the cereals before they were ripe in order to prevent grain loss.  However, in the event that ripe stalks were cut, although grain loss would have been high using the sickle method, it would also have led to natural collection of non-shattering grains – the ones still attached to the plant.  As non-shattering grains are a key characteristic of later domesticated cereals, it seems possible that there may have been a change of strategy at some stage at the end of, or after the Natufian which would have favoured the ripe grain.

Exchange or other trading networks have been examined with a view to identifying both the social mechanisms operating and some of the ideas and products that may have been traveling in numerous directions.  In the Natufian “a great variety of marine shells, collected mainly from the shores of the Mediterranean (a few are from the Red Sea), point to a presence of an exchange network with desertic groups” (Bar-Yosef and Meadows 1995, p.60).  However, nothing much more can be concluded about exchange networks during the Natufian.

3.12.6 Burial Traditions

Burials were rare before the Natufian.  Parker-Pearson suggests that there were “seven skeletons, and bones from perhaps another twenty individuals” (1999, p.157-158).  However, within the Natufian they are become far more common (Parker-Person 1999, p.158, numbers the burials at over 400), particularly in northern and central Palestine.   This is a significant indication of change in thinking and perhaps social organization. 

In general terms, burials were associated with settlements, and were dug either into or outside dwellings, but were never interred under the floors of structures that were in use for dwelling or other activities.  They could be in either shallow or deep graves, some very occasionally paved with stones, some coated with lime, with a mixture of body arrangements (supine, flexed or semi-flexed).  Earlier burials could be single or collective.  Collective burials are more common from earlier contexts.  Later burials tend to be single.  Some graves, in which more than one individual occur, can be accounted for by temporal differences – for example, a number of graves with multiple individuals present both primary deposits and secondary deposits.  At Hayonim Cave, and other Late Natufian sites there were instances of skull removal.  Children make up around one third of the dead.  Grave goods were limited to head decorations and other body jewelry made of marine shells, bone, teeth and beads.

At Mallaha there is a clear sequence through all phases of the Natufian.  In early levels of  Mallaha (III-IV) there were two burial clusters, cemeteries A and B.  Burials were flexed, semi-flexed or, rarely, placed on their backs.  Cemetery A contained five mature adults, three young adults, one adolescent and one child.  Four had ornamental jewelry and head dresses made of scaphopods and gazelle phalanx.  Cemetery B had four adult females, two adult males, two unspecified adults, one child of around 6 years of age, and three newborns.  Five were decorated with beads, and one female was accompanied by a complete dog skeleton.  There were also two individual burials located away from the two cemetery clusters.  A middle Natufian phase is represented by Mallaha II with seven burials, all single burials in shallow ditches, flexed or semi-flexed with no ornaments.  Bodies were topped with stones.  There was no clustering – burials were apparently randomly deposited, often in abandoned buildings.  In the Late Natufian (Mallaha Ic) abandoned domestic pits were used for burials. Individual burials sometimes had secondary burials added at a later date.  Later burials always had skulls but some bits of the rest of the skeleton were sometimes absent.  There was no ornamentation, although secondary interments were sometimes accompanied by red ochre.  Some were partly stone-covered.

At Hayonim Cave, two phases of burial are represented.  The Early Natufian burials were located behind the settlement, within the cave.  There are six graves, most of which contained more than one individual, consisting of a primary and a number of secondary burials. Many were ornamented but probably only the primary burial.  In the Late Natufian phase there were seven burials, none ornamented.  Long pierced mortars were common.  In some cases skulls had been removed.  All individuals were flexed or semi-contracted.

The site which most resembled a clearly defined cemetery was at Nahal Oren in the Late and Final Natufian.  Around 50 burials were found.  Most are primary single burials which were either flexed or semi-flexed.  They were undecorated but may have been accompanied by red ochre.  Several were stone-bordered, and there were stone-pierced narrow limestone mortars next to several graves.  Most of the burials were orientated with heads to the North.

There are both similarities and notable differences between the burial traditions at Mallaha and Hayonim Cave.  Other sites include El Wad, Wadi Hammeh 27, Kebara Cave, Erq el-Ahmar, Azraq 18, Rakefet and Shukbah Cave.  Although there are some similarities, the differences between these burial traditions at the same time in different areas are important.  It also shows temporal trends with ornamentation of body only taking place during the Early Natufian.  Secondary burials may have been excarnated.  The sample available and the conditions of individuals make conclusions difficult, but it is clear that certain members were selected for burial and that most were adult males.  Similarly, different burial methods were adopted, with primary burial for some, excarnation for others (or twice burial), some covered with stone, some ornamented, and some associated with broken mortars.

There are no signs in the burial record of social hierarchy:  “Currently, it appears that the burials do not show evidence of social stratification yet their elaborate treatment indicates that they were the focus of complex ceremonials” (Parker-Pearson, 1999 p.158).  Yet it is clear that, probably due to increased sedentism, the dead have a significant role within society – Parker-Pearson suggests that what we may be seeing “for the first time in the human experience, is the explicit construction of ancestorhood” (1999, p.158). Hodder (1999) believes that the appearance of burials within settlements and dwelling structures implies concepts of death being domesticated (p.33).

3.12.7 Art Objects

Natufian artwork is the earliest known of its type in the Near East, and is quite remarkable.  It includes both decorated tools and “jewelry” – pendants, beads, headgear, necklaces and bracelets, made of mollusc, bone, greenstone, limestone, malachite and, exclusively at Ain Mallaha, rare pieces of obsidian. These are represented mostly in burial contexts, and usually date from the Early Natufian. 

Portable figurines are also made during the Natufian.  Usually made of limestone or bone, forms include young ungulates, a kneeling gazelle, a dog’s head, a tortoise and an owl.  Human depictions do occur, but they are rare.

Decorative motifs on other objects, usually items of daily use, include net-shapes, chevrons, zigzags, meanders and curved multiple lines.  These geometric motifs are most common in the core area, but vary from site to site – perhaps reflecting individual ideas and identities.

Ornamentation varies between sites, and changes over time.

3.12.8 Social Organization and Differentiation

Nadel (2003) suggests that one of the key differences between the Pre-Kebaran site of Ohalo II and the Natufian sites was the organization of hearths.  At Ohalo II hearths were set in “public” space between dwellings, whereas at the Natufian sites they were contained within dwellings.  He suggests that this indicates an increasing emphasis on family-based activities and less sharing of labour resources and end-products. 

The newly established burial traditions suggests that there may have been innovation in social organization, with deliberate attempts to express different social units. This may have been connected to to economic change and increased sedentism, with social units becoming more complex as a result of ongoing proximity and the establishment of new concepts of spatial boundaries in terms of more clearly defined territories.  Fellner suggests that “there is no solid evidence that Natufian society was ranked, or that earlier groups were egalitarian” (Fellner 1995, p.107) but there were considerable changes in social activities, subsistence strategies and settlement patterns which were to be very significant in the following Neolithic period.

Bar-Yosef and Meadow (1995, p.60) point out that in marginal areas, like the Sinai and Negev, where there is much more clear evidence of seasonal occupation patterns, there is a lack of key Natufian components like burials, art work and a rich bone industry, and they suggest on this basis that these groups may not have been Natufian.  Fellner (1995) refers to these groups as the “Desert Natufian” to distinguish them from the rest of the Natufian and other Sinai/Negev industries. 

3.12.9 Natufian Conclusions

The Natufian was a fundamentally important period in the history of the Near East, marking multiple changes from the Geometric Kebaran, including the first true hamlets, the adoption of semi-sedentary and sedentary lifestyles and the intensive collection of plant foods, perhaps including early experiments in plant cultivation prior to domestication.

McCorriston and Hole (1991) see early Holocene environmental change, anthropogenic processes (e.g. cutting down trees, setting bush fires etc.), technology and operational logistical activities (long term storage and settlement organization) as important elements in the Natufian.

Fellner (1995) suggests that over time, aggregation of populations, identifiable both in terms of bigger settlements and grouped burials, caused the community to replace the family as the most important social unit.

The ultimate impacts of the Natufian on the PPNA are clear – the establishment of cultivation and the first domesticates followed in the Neolithic as an apparently direct result of Natufian activities.


3.13 Abu Hureyra and Mureybet

Abu Hureyra I dates to the 11th millennium bp and has provided the most complete floral assemblages from the Near East at this time.  Abu Hureyra, located in northern Syria, is described by Bellwood (2005, p.51) as either Natufian or a “close cousin” to the Natufian.  There are important differences between this somewhat spectacular outlier and standard Natufian sites. 

Around 150 forms of edible seeds and fruits were collected by inhabitants between May and July, and again between August and November.  During the Younger Dryas it appears to have been effected by the cold, dry conditions of the Younger Dryas, which caused ecological changes including the loss of woodland. 

It appears that the occupants of Abu Hureyra at this time compensated for the loss of their woodland food sources by harvesting wild wheat and rye.  It has been argued, both on morphological grounds and on the increased presence of weeds that accompany domesticates, that rye may represent an early experiment in plant domestication.  The site was abandoned after the Younger Dryas.  Grindstones were found at this time, probably used for processing cereal grains.

This stratigraphic gap at Abu Hureyra between the Epipalaeolithic and PPNB levels,  is filled by the site of Mureybet, about 20km away from Abu Hureyra.  The Mureybet levels I-III date to the same time as the Late Natufian to the end of the Early Neolithic.  A large number of two-row wild einkorn seeds were found, increasing in volume through the levels, together with other wild seeds and fruit.  There are no claims here for any attempts to domesticate plants at Mureybet.


3.14 Harifian

The Harifian dates to between approximately 10,800/10,500bp and 10,000/10,200bp.  It is restricted to the Sinai and Negev, and is probably broadly contemporary with the Late Natufian or Pre-Pottery Neolithic A.  It probably evolved out of the Desert Natufian.  It occurs at the same time as the Younger Dryas and represents a quite remarkable adaptation to new conditions in the Negev and Sinai. 

In the lowlands the Harifian consists of small mobile groups, with small mainly winter campsites which exploited an area of between 8000 and 30,000 sq km or more.

Microlithic points are a characteristic feature of the industry, with the Harif point being both new and particularly diagnostic – Bar-Yosef (1998) suggests that it is an indication of improved hunting techniques.  Lunates, isosceles and other triangular forms were backed with retouch, and some Helwan lunates are found.  This industry contrasts with the Desert Natufian which did not have the roughly triangular points in its assemblage.

There are two main groups within the Harifian.  One group consists of ephemeral base camps in the north of Sinai and western Negev, where stone points comprise up to 88% of all microliths, accompanied by only a few lunates and triangles.  The other group consists of base camps and smaller campsites in the Negev and features a greater number of lunates and triangles than points.  These sites probably represent functional rather than chronological differences.  The presence of Khiam points in some sites indicates that there was communication with other areas in the Levant at this time.

The local area was exploited for both plant and animal foods.  Faunal remains include gazelle, ibex, hare and possibly wild sheep.  Plant foods are indicated by the presence of plant processing equipment.

Harifian sites are also notable for a collection of exotic marine molluscs from the Red Sea.

The type site is the Har Harif Plateau with small summer-to-autumn base camps and repeated occupations over many years.  Dwellings and storage pits were dug into the loess, and cup-holed stones, pestles and mortars, and grinding stones were found.  Marine shells were also represented but were different from those in the Late Natufian core area, with two thirds from the Red Sea and one third from the Mediterranean.  No plant remains were found, but animals hunted included ibex, gazelle, rabbits and perhaps wild sheep (Bar-Yosef and Meadow 1995).

At Abu Salam there were 4-5 oval semi-subterranean structures measuring 3-4.5m in diameter.  They are sunk into natural bedrock depressions, which were roughly lined, with hearths. Unlike the core area in the Natufian the dwellings were separated by several meters of open ground.  Shallow rubbish pits were located both within and outside of the settlement structures. Large stone-lined cup-marked slabs were also found. 

Ramat Harif consists of 5 drystone stone-lined oval semi-subterranean sites measuring 2.5-3m diameter made in artificial depressions. Hearths consisted of unprepared areas, without stone borders, as at Abu Salam.  Large cup-marked slabs also feature.

The Harifian has been interpreted in a number of different ways. Henry (1989, p.220) suggests that this period corresponds to a return to simple foraging strategies.  Fellner (1995, p.127) sees continuity rather than change, with similar subsistence practices and the introduction of new features like triangular points and the collection of Red Sea marine molluscs, perhaps suggesting increased evidence of local identity.

The Harifian abandonment of southern Palestine equates with a period of increased aridity at the end of the Natufian.  It is usually interpreted as an unsuccessful attempt to adapt to the Sinai conditions during the deteriorating Younger Dryas conditions.


3.15   Conclusions about the Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was not as cut and dried as it has sometimes been portrayed in the past.  Ethnographic studies and a greater focus on the complexities of archaeological data have given archaeologists the understanding that hunter-gatherer communities operated in numerous different ways, which could potentially involve various degrees of settlement practice, from regular, seasonally based mobility, to partial sedentism, with both industrial and artistic skills, burial traditions and sophisticated exploitation strategies.  In addition, pastoral nomads will have shared some of the features of mobile hunter-gatherer communities.

It has frequently been emphasized that marginal environments could have forced adoption of new food types and lifestyles but price and Gebauer suggest that it also took place in areas where resources were richly available (Smith 1995, p.7).

It is clear that subsistence groups where high levels of mobility were inherent, operated in a very different way from semi or fully sedentary communities.  Population size was the necessity to maintain mobility.  Full mobility could only be achieved if enough of the infant population could either be carried by the mother or close family members who were not themselves reproducing, or could themselves walk.  This meant that births had to have been spaced.  There are a number of mechanisms for achieving this, including lactational amerorrhea, abstinence, infanticide and abortion.  Incidental mechanisms were also present:  “Studies have shown that it is almost impossible for a woman to become pregnant until she has about 27,000 calories, or 20-25% of her body weight, stored as fat” (Wenke 1999, p.279).  This occurs in highly mobile hunter-gatherer groups because of both the rigorous lifestyle and the high protein (rather than high fat) diet and the nursing of a child which requires at least 1000 calories a day.  Finally, fertility is reduced by the mobile lifestyle because if a woman works heavily and walks distances, spontaneous miscarriage becomes likely (Wenke 1999, p.280).

Research in the last few decades has shown that the stereotypical image of Epipalaeolithic groups as small, mobile and egalitarian is by no means the only possible type of organization.  Far more complex systems amongst larger groups are now clearly visible, especially where natural resources were abundant (Smith 1995, p.6-7).  Even where hunter-gatherer lifestyles persisted, a degree of sedentism will have forced changes in the internal interactions of individuals who now found themselves in long term proximity with other, perhaps more clearly defined as identities/entities.  The concept of boundaries will have become more important, and would have been in conflict with the idea of loose, large territories where different groups will have overlapped.

Smith (1995, p.7-8) suggests that there was general agreement at the SAR conference in terms of the following (although there are many opinions that contradict these points):

  • Plants were an important component in the economy prior to agriculture
  • The adoption of agriculture was a gradual shift, not sudden change
  • Domesticates initially supplemented the hunter-gatherer diet
  • Agricultural components and knowledge were spread by diffusion rather than colonization – local peoples adopting new techniques
  • Cultivation appears initially in rich resource areas and amongst complex groups
    • Much less risk if failure
    • Sedentism was already established
  • He sees a change from community to household levels of economic organization

Ducos suggests that there was an intermediate state between the Natufian/PPN and the PN:  “a situation in which a species is on the one hand not hunted, while on the other it is still not domesticated” (Ducos 1999, p.68).



Copyright (text and images) Andie Byrnes 2005, unless otherwise stated