Natufian culture

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Natufian culture
Geographical range Levant
Period Epipaleolithic
Dates circa 12,500 B.C. — circa 9,500 B.C.
Type site Wadi an-Natuf
Major sites Shuqba cave, Ain Mallaha, Ein Gev, Tell Abu Hureyra
Preceded by Kebaran
Followed by Khiamian, Shepherd Neolithic
Map of Israel showing important sites that were occupied by the Natufian culture (clickable map)
The Mesolithic
The Epipaleolithic
Mesolithic Europe
Epipaleolithic Europe
Fosna-Hensbacka culture
Komsa culture
Maglemosian culture
Kunda culture
Narva culture
Komornica culture
Swiderian culture
Epipaleolithic Transylvania
Mesolithic Transylvania
Schela Cladovei culture
Mesolithic Southeastern Europe
Levantine corridor
Stone Age

The Natufian culture /nəˈtjfiən/ was an Epipaleolithic culture that existed from 12,500 to 9,500 BC in the Levant, a region in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was unusual in that it was sedentary, or semi-sedentary, before the introduction of agriculture. The Natufian communities are possibly the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements of the region, which may have been the earliest in the world.[citation needed] There is some evidence for the deliberate cultivation of cereals, specifically rye, by the Natufian culture, at Tell Abu Hureyra, the site of earliest evidence of agriculture in the world.[1] Generally, though, Natufians made use of wild cereals. Animals hunted included gazelles.[2] According to Christy G. Turner II, there is an archaeological and physical anthropological reason for a relationship between the modern Semitic-speaking populations of the Levant and the Natufians.[3]

The term "Natufian" was coined by Dorothy Garrod who studied the Shuqba cave in Wadi an-Natuf, in the western Judean Mountains, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Ramallah.[4]


Radiocarbon dating places this culture from the terminal Pleistocene to the very beginning of the Holocene, from 12,500 to 9,500 BC.[5]

The period is commonly split into two subperiods: Early Natufian (12,500–10,800 BC) and Late Natufian (10,800–9,500 BC). The Late Natufian most likely occurred in tandem with the Younger Dryas (10,800 to 9,500 BC). In the Levant, there are more than a hundred kinds of cereals, fruits, nuts, and other edible parts of plants, and the flora of the Levant during the Natufian period was not the dry, barren, and thorny landscape of today, but rather woodland.[6]

Precursors and associated cultures[edit]

The Natufian developed in the same region as the earlier Kebaran complex, and is generally seen as a successor which developed from at least elements within that earlier culture. There were also other cultures in the region, such as the Mushabian culture of the Negev and Sinai, which are sometimes distinguished from the Kebaran, and sometimes also seen as having played a role in the development of the Natufian.

More generally there has been discussion of the similarities of these cultures with those found in coastal North Africa. Graeme Barker notes there are: "similarities in the respective archaeological records of the Natufian culture of the Levant and of contemporary foragers in coastal North Africa across the late Pleistocene and early Holocene boundary".[7]

Ofer Bar-Yosef has argued that there are signs of influences coming from North Africa to the Levant, citing the microburin technique and “microlithic forms such as arched backed bladelets and La Mouillah points.”[8] But recent research has shown that the presence of arched backed bladelets, La Mouillah points, and the use of the microburin technique was already apparent in the Nebekian industry of the Eastern Levant.[9] And Maher et al. state that, "Many technological nuances that have often been always highlighted as significant during the Natufian were already present during the Early and Middle EP [Epipalaeolithic] and do not, in most cases, represent a radical departure in knowledge, tradition, or behavior."[10]

Authors such as Christopher Ehret have built upon the little evidence available to develop scenarios of intensive usage of plants having built up first in North Africa, as a precursor to the development of true farming in the Fertile Crescent, but such suggestions are considered highly speculative until more North African archaeological evidence can be gathered.[11][12] In fact, Weiss et al. have shown that the earliest known intensive usage of plants was in the Levant 23,000 years ago at the Ohalo II site.[13][14] Anthropologist C. Loring Brace in a recent study on cranial metric traits however, was also able to identify a "clear link" to Sub-Saharan African populations for early Natufians based on his observation of gross anatomical similarity with extant populations found mostly in the Sahara.[15] Brace believes that these populations later became assimilated into the broader continuum of Southwest Asian populations.

According to Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen, "It seems that certain preadaptive traits, developed already by the Kebaran and Geometric Kebaran populations within the Mediterranean park forest, played an important role in the emergence of the new socioeconomic system known as the Natufian culture."[16]


Remains of a wall of a Natufian house

Settlements occur in the woodland belt where oak and Pistacia species dominated. The underbrush of this open woodland was grass with high frequencies of grain. The high mountains of Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon, the steppe areas of the Negev desert in Israel and Sinai, and the Syro-Arabian desert in the east were much less favoured for Natufian settlement, presumably due to both their lower carrying capacity and the company of other groups of foragers who exploited this region.[17]

The habitations of the Natufian are semi-subterranean, often with a dry-stone foundation. The superstructure was probably made of brushwood. No traces of mudbrick have been found, which became common in the following Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA). The round houses have a diameter between three and six meters, and they contain a central round or subrectangular fireplace. In Ain Mallaha traces of postholes have been identified. "Villages" can cover over 1,000 square meters. Smaller settlements have been interpreted by some researchers as camps. Traces of rebuilding in almost all excavated settlements seem to point to a frequent relocation, indicating a temporary abandonment of the settlement. Settlements have been estimated to house 100–150 people, but there are three categories: small, median, and large, ranging from 15 sq. m to 1,000 sq. m. There are no definite indications of storage facilities.


The Natufian had a microlithic industry, based on short blades and bladelets. The microburin technique was used. Geometric microliths include lunates, trapezes and triangles. There are backed blades as well. A special type of retouch (Helwan retouch) is characteristic for the early Natufian. In the late Natufian, the Harif-point, a typical arrowhead made from a regular blade, became common in the Negev. Some scholars[who?] use it to define a separate culture, the Harifian.

Sickle blades appear for the first time. The characteristic sickle-gloss shows that they have been used to cut the silica-rich stems of cereals and form an indirect proof for incipient agriculture. Shaft straighteners made of ground stone indicate the practice of archery. There are heavy ground-stone bowl mortars as well.

Other finds[edit]

There was a rich bone industry, including harpoons and fish hooks. Stone and bone were worked into pendants and other ornaments. There are a few human figurines made of limestone (El-Wad, Ain Mallaha, Ain Sakhri), but the favourite subject of representative art seems to have been animals. Ostrich-shell containers have been found in the Negev.


The Natufian people lived by hunting and gathering. The preservation of plant remains is poor because of the soil conditions, but wild cereals, legumes, almonds, acorns and pistachios may have been collected. Animal bones show that gazelle (Gazella gazella and Gazella subgutturosa) were the main prey. Additionally deer, aurochs and wild boar were hunted in the steppe zone, as well as onagers and caprids (ibex). Water fowl and freshwater fish formed part of the diet in the Jordan River valley. Animal bones from Salibiya I (12,300 – 10,800 BP) have been interpreted as evidence for communal hunts with nets.

Development of agriculture[edit]

According to one theory,[18] it was a sudden change in climate, the Younger Dryas event (ca. 10,800 to 9500 BCE), that inspired the development of agriculture. The Younger Dryas was a 1,000-year-long interruption in the higher temperatures prevailing since the Last Glacial Maximum, which produced a sudden drought in the Levant. This would have endangered the wild cereals, which could no longer compete with dryland scrub, but upon which the population had become dependent to sustain a relatively large sedentary population. By artificially clearing scrub and planting seeds obtained from elsewhere, they began to practice agriculture. However, this theory of the origin of agriculture is controversial in the scientific community.[19]

Domesticated dog[edit]

It is at Natufian sites that some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the domestication of the dog is found. At the Natufian site of Ain Mallaha in Israel, dated to 12,000 BCE, the remains of an elderly human and a four-to-five-month-old puppy were found buried together.[20] At another Natufian site at the cave of Hayonim, humans were found buried with two canids.[20]


Main article: Ain Sakhri lovers
The Ain Sakhri lovers. British Museum: 1958,1007.1

The Ain Sakhri lovers, a carved stone object held at the British Museum, is the oldest known depiction of a couple having sex. It was found in the Ain Sakhri cave in the Judean desert.[21]


Burials made of shell, teeth (of red deer), bones, and stone. There are pendants, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and belt-ornaments as well.

In 2008, the grave of a Natufian 'priestess' was discovered (in most media reports referred to as a shaman[18] or witch doctor).[22] The burial contained complete shells of 50 tortoises, which are thought to have been brought to the site and eaten during the funeral feast.[23]

Long distance exchange[edit]

At Ain Mallaha (in Northern Israel), Anatolian obsidian and shellfish from the Nile valley have been found. The source of malachite beads is still unknown.


While the period involved makes it difficult to speculate on any language associated with the Natufian culture, linguists who believe it is possible to speculate this far back in time have written on this subject. As with other Natufian subjects, opinions tend to either emphasize North African connections or Eurasian connections. The view that the Natufians spoke the Afro-Asiatic language is accepted by Vitaly Shevoroshkin.[24] Alexander Militarev and others have argued that the Natufian may represent the culture which spoke Proto-Afroasiatic,[25] which he in turn believes has a Eurasian origin associated with the concept of Nostratic languages. The possibility of Natufians speaking the proto-Afro-Asiatic, and that the language was introduced into Africa from the Levant, is approved by Colin Renfrew with caution, as a possible hypothesis for proto-Afro-Asiatic dispersal.[26]

Some scholars, for example Christopher Ehret, Roger Blench and others, contend that the Afroasiatic Urheimat is to be found in North or North East Africa, probably in the area of Egypt, the Sahara, Horn of Africa or Sudan.[27][28][29][30][31] Within this group, Ehret, who like Militarev believes Afroasiatic may already have been in existence in the Natufian period, would associate Natufians only with the Near Eastern pre-Proto-Semitic branch of Afroasiatic.

Craniofacial research[edit]

The Epipalaeolithic Natufian of Israel from whom the Neolithic realm was assumed to arise is described as having a clear link to Sub-Saharan Africa. The Sub-Saharan element in the remains is also said to be of almost equal importance to that of the Eurasian element. The authors, however, remain cautious because of the small sample size. The authors further speculate that the admixture process between Neolithic people and in situ foragers diluted any discoverable trace of Sub-Saharan ancestry that may have been present.[32]


Natufian sites include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Moore, Andrew M. T.; Hillman, Gordon C.; Legge, Anthony J. (2000), Village on the Euphrates: From Foraging to Farming at Abu Hureyra, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-510806-X 
  2. ^ Kottak, Conrad P. (2005), Window on Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Anthropology, Boston: McGraw-Hill, pp. 155–156, ISBN 0-07-289028-2 
  3. ^ John D. Bengtson. In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory: Essays in the four fields of anthropology. In honor of Harold Crane Fleming. p. 22. 
  4. ^ New fieldwork at Shuqba Cave and in Wadi en-Natuf, Western Judea
  5. ^ Munro, Natalie D. (2003), "Small game, the Younger Dryas, and the transition to agriculture in the southern Levant" (PDF), Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte 12: 47–71 
  6. ^ Bar-Yosef, Ofer (1998), "The Natufian Culture in the Levant, Threshold to the Origins of Agriculture" (PDF), Evolutionary Anthropology 6 (5): 159–177, doi:10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1998)6:5<159::AID-EVAN4>3.0.CO;2-7 
  7. ^ Barker G (2002) Transitions to farming and pastoralism in North Africa, in Bellwood P, Renfrew C (2002), Examining the Farming/Language Dispersal Hypothesis, pp 151–161.
  8. ^ Bar-Yosef O (1987) Pleistocene connections between Africa and SouthWest Asia: an archaeological perspective. The African Archaeological Review; Chapter 5, pg 29-38
  9. ^ Richter, Tobias. Interaction before Agriculture: Exchanging Material and Sharing Knowledge in the Final Pleistocene Levant (2011)doi:10.1017/S0959774311000060
  10. ^ Maher, Lisa A. Richter, Tobias. Stock, Jay T. The Pre-Natufian Epipaleolithic: Long-Term Behavioral Trends in the Levant. Evolutionary Anthropology 21:69–81 (2012).
  11. ^ Ehret (2002) The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia
  12. ^ Bellwood P (2005) Blackwell, Oxford. Page 97
  13. ^ Weiss E, Kislev ME, Simchoni O, Nadel D, and Tschauner H. 2008. Plant-food preparation area on an Upper Paleolithic brush hut floor at Ohalo II, Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(8):2400-2414.
  14. ^ Nadel D, Piperno DR, Holst I, Snir A, and Weiss E. 2012. New evidence for the processing of wild cereal grains at Ohalo II, a 23 000-year-old campsite on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel. Antiquity 86(334):990-1003.
  15. ^ Brace, C.L., Seguchi, N., Quintyn, C.B., Fox, S.C., Nelson, A.R., Manolis, S.K., and Qifeng, P. (2006). The questionable contribution of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age to European craniofacial form. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 103, 242–24
  16. ^ Ofer Bar-Yosef and Anna Belfer-Cohen. The Origins of Sedentism and Farming Communities in the Levant. Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 3, No. 4 (December 1989), pp. 447-498
  17. ^ Ofer Bar-Yosef, The Natufian culture and the Early Neolithic: Social and economic trends in Southwestern Asia, chapter 10 in Peter Bellwood and Colin Renfrew (eds.), Examining the Farming/Language Dispersal Hypothesis (2002), p.114.
  18. ^ a b "Oldest Shaman Grave Found". National Geographic 04-Nov-2008
  19. ^ Balter, Michael (2010), "Archaeology: The Tangled Roots of Agriculture", Science 327 (5964): 404–406, doi:10.1126/science.327.5964.404, PMID 20093449, retrieved 4 February 2010 
  20. ^ a b Clutton-Brock, Juliet (1995), "Origins of the dog: domestication and early history", in Serpell, James, The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-41529-2 
  21. ^ BBC. A History of the World. Ain Sakhri Lovers
  22. ^ "Archaeologists discover 12,000 year-old grave of witch doctor". Daily Mail 04-Nov-2008
  23. ^ "Hebrew U. unearths 12,000-year-old skeleton of 'petite' Natufian priestess". By Bradley Burston. Haaretz, 05-Nov-2008
  24. ^ Winfried Nöth (1994). Origins of Semiosis: Sign Evolution in Nature and Culture. p. 293. 
  25. ^ Roger Blench,Matthew Spriggs (2003). Archaeology and Language IV: Language Change and Cultural Transformation. p. 70. 
  26. ^ John A. Hall, I. C. Jarvie (2005). Transition to Modernity: Essays on Power, Wealth and Belief. p. 27. 
  27. ^ Blench R (2006) Archaeology, Language, and the African Past, Rowman Altamira, ISBN 0-7591-0466-2, ISBN 978-0-7591-0466-2,
  28. ^ Ehret C, Keita SOY, Newman P (2004) The Origins of Afroasiatic a response to Diamond and Bellwood (2003) in the Letters of SCIENCE 306, no. 5702, p. 1680 10.1126/science.306.5702.1680c
  29. ^ Bernal M (1987) Black Athena: the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0-8135-3655-3, ISBN 978-0-8135-3655-2.
  30. ^ Bender ML (1997), Upside Down Afrasian, Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 50, pp. 19-34
  31. ^ Militarev A (2005) Once more about glottochronology and comparative method: the Omotic-Afrasian case, Аспекты компаративистики - 1 (Aspects of comparative linguistics - 1). FS S. Starostin. Orientalia et Classica II (Moscow), p. 339-408.
  32. ^ Loring, C. Brace. "The questionable contribution of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age to European craniofacial form". 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]