Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Recent excavations in Israel appear to show that Stone Age ancestors began at a surprisingly early stage to organize their open-air living spaces into separate clusters for different activities. One area was primarily for preparing and eating food and another, more than 25 feet away, for most of their manufacturing of stone tools.

Archaeologists who reported the findings said that having the discrete areas for different activities indicated “a formalized conceptualization of a living space, often considered to reflect sophisticated cognition.”

And the surprise, they said, was to find the evidence for it at an encampment that was occupied as early as 790,000 years ago. Such living and working patterns were previously thought to be associated only with modern Homo sapiens and thus a behavior that emerged in the last 200,000 years.

In the journal report, Nira Alperson-Afil and her colleagues noted, “Modern use of space requires social organization and communication between group members, and is thought to involve kinship, gender, status and skill.”

Dr. Alperson-Afil, an archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and researchers from Germany, Israel and the United States analyzed the remains from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, in the northern Jordan River Valley, where human ancestors had lived on the shore of an ancient lake. Superimposed levels of artifacts indicated the site was occupied over a period of 100,000 years.

Excavations directed by Naama Goren-Inbar, also of Hebrew University, had already exposed evidence, reported a year ago, that occupants of the site had the ability to make and control fire. If correct, this is the first definitive example of fire-making mastery.

“This is an extraordinary site,” said Alison S. Brooks, an anthropology professor at George Washington University, who was not involved in the research. “There are very, very few such sites from that time in Africa, the Middle East or anywhere.”

The identity of the occupants of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov is unknown; none of their skeletal remains have been found there. Scientists said they could have been Homo erectus, a species that presumably left Africa more than a million years earlier, or a more recent intermediate species in the human family.

Dr. Alperson-Afil’s team reported that the occupants “skillfully produced stone tools, systematically butchered and exploited animals, gathered plant food and controlled fire.” Burned flint, wood and other organic material showed the presence of fires in hearths at specific places.

Dr. Goren-Inbar and Dr. Sharon said, “The fact that we recognized activity zones and defined some of the activities that took place there is a breakthrough by itself.”


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