Ancient humans living on the Sea of Galilee’s shores in northern Israel thrived during the last Ice Age, while most of their contemporaries around the world nearly starved, according to new research by Israeli archaeologists.
Researchers from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University came to the conclusion by analyzing plant and animal remains found at an ancient village on the lake. The community’s well-preserved remains showed its ancient habitants ate a rich and varied diet, despite global food scarcity, they said.
Hunter-gatherers lived in brush huts at the site, known as Ohalo II, toward the end of the most recent Ice Age around 23,000 years ago. The site was a prime location, with fresh water and a broad range of animals and plants to eat.
During that Ice Age, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, massive ice sheets covered much of North America, northern Europe and Asia. Frigid temperatures caused severe environmental impacts worldwide, including drought, desertification and a drop in sea levels.
Thousands of years ago, the site was quickly flooded and buried by silt, resulting in well-preserved remains that give researchers a window into camp life during the era.
For eons, the ancient village was submerged beneath the waters of the lake. Researchers first uncovered Ohalo II in 1989 when a drought lowered the Sea of Galilee’s surface by several meters. Archaeologists carried out excavations there between 1989 and 1991, and from 1998 to 2001. Previous research showed that plant cultivation — the origin of farming — may have started at the site.
Ohalo II is located on the south shore of the sea, around nine kilometers (5.5 miles) south of Tiberias, and covers 2,000 square meters (6,500 square feet). There are six oval-shaped brush huts, open-air hearths, the grave of an adult male and garbage heaps. The huts appeared to have been used throughout the year, and had grass bedding on the floor around a central hearth.
Humankind’s shift to agriculture, and a sedentary lifestyle, was a gradual process that took place over thousands of years, meaning hunter-gatherers sometimes lived inside dwellings. Many hunter-gatherer groups lived semi-nomadic lives during the transition to agriculture, wandering during part of the year, and living in fixed locations during other seasons.
For the new study, the researchers focused on layers of bone remains in one of the huts at the site. The animal remains had not been analyzed in the same way before the study, and new technology allowed the researchers to glean new insights and identify burned bones that had been submerged for thousands of years.
The Hebrew University researchers, led by doctoral student Tikvah Steiner, analyzed 22,000 animal bones, with a focus on reptile, bird and mammal remains found in one of the huts. The bones were identified, categorized, measured and examined for signs of cutting and use.
Animal remains included gazelle, deer, hares and foxes, and added to previous research on plant remains and flint tools at the site.
The team determined that the era’s severe climate swings had little adverse effect on the region. Its ancient inhabitants enjoyed a rich and diverse diet, including plants, mammals, reptiles, birds and fish.
The researchers examined the community’s food-gathering through the lens of two theories on how early humans hunted and ate.
Ancient hunters often targeted small, speedy game, as well as larger animals, for food. They usually shifted from hunting large animals to smaller, less desirable ones, though they are harder to hunt and yield less meat per kill. Plant food also became more important.
One theory of ancient hunting, called Optimal Foraging Theory, posits that as hunter-gatherer populations increased, so did pressure on the most desirable prey, causing a decline in more energy-rich food sources and forcing hunters to pursue smaller prey.
Another paradigm, Niche Construction Theory, holds that ancient humans broadened their diet by gradually engaging more with their environment, instead of by reacting to scarcity. Humans moved to areas with more resources that could support their population and experimented with plant and animal foods, the theory says.
The diversity of prey at Ohalo II was a result of abundance in the area, not desperation, the researchers believe, supporting the second theory, at least for this particular site. The two theories are not mutually exclusive — geography may have determined which paradigm prevailed.
“Ohalo II is an example of diverse prey choice motivated by abundance rather than stress, at a 23,000-year-old fisher-hunter-gatherers camp,” the researchers wrote.
There were bones from both more and less desirable prey from around the same time at Ohalo II, and larger animals did not disappear as time went on. The resource depletion paradigm predicts a more narrow diet that changes as hunters work their way down the food chain.
The prey animals also did not decrease in size over time, which would have happened if humans were forced to gradually hunt younger, smaller prey as populations were depleted.
They favored fish, birds, turtles and plants over hares, which are small and hard to catch, showing they had options when it came to prey, and were not overhunting their best food sources.
A more diverse diet would be less risky and encourage nomadic people to stick to certain areas.
The use of the animals also suggested a more leisurely approach that targeted certain species for uses other than meat.
“Despite their ability to hunt large animals, these inhabitants also hunted a wide range of prey and had tools and time enough to fully exploit animal carcasses down to the marrow,” Steiner said.
“Tortoises were seemingly selected for a specific body size, which may suggest that their shells for use as bowls — and not their meat — were the main target. Hare and fox were possibly hunted for their pelts,” she said.
The shells of larger turtles may have been used as cooking pots, and smaller ones for hand-held vessels, such as bowls, the researchers said.
The ancient humans also ate large amounts of grains including barley, wheat and oats. They used grinding stones to process grains and made tools out of flint.
The bone remains indicated the hunters killed their prey, then brought the remains whole back to camp, rather than butchering the animals in the field and bringing back the best parts.
Ohalo II’s inhabitants were also reliant on fish and were proficient anglers. The study describes the site as “an artisanal fishing camp engaged in intensive aquatic activities.” They most often ate minnow, carp and tilapia, and likely made use of weighted fishing nets.
Researchers also noted that Ohalo II’s residents likely ate a better diet than other ancient settlements in the same area.
The study was supervised by Hebrew University Professor Rivka Rabinovich and University of Haifa archaeologist Prof. Dani Nadel.
The research was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed PLOS One science journal.