The Natufian culture existed in the Mediterranean region of the Levant. It was an Epipalaeolithic culture, but unusual in that it established permanent settlements even before the introduction of agriculture. The Natufians are likely to have been the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements of the region, which may have been the earliest in the world. There is also evidence that the Natufians themselves had already begun deliberate cultivation of cereals. They were certainly making use of wild grasses.
Radiocarbon dates of 12,500-10,200 BP (before Present=1950, uncal.) place this culture just before the end of the Pleistocene.
The houses of the Natufien are semi-subterranean, often with a dry-stone foundation. The superstructure was probably made of brushwood. No traces of mudbricks have been found that became common in the following Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, abbreviated PPN A. The round houses have a diameter between 3-6 m, 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 as less permanent abodes (camps). Traces of rebuilding in almost all excavated settlements seem to point to a frequent relocation. Settlements have been estimated to house 100-150 people. There are almost no indications of storage facilities.
A sedentary life may have been made possible by abundant resources due to a favourable climate at the time, with a culture living from hunting, fishing and gathering, including the use of wild cereals. Tools were available for making use of cereals: flint-bladed sickles for harvesting, and mortars, grinding stones, and storage pits.
The Natufien has a microlithic industry, made 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) is characteristic for the early Natufien. In the late Natufien, the Harif-point, a typical arrowhead made from a regular blade, became common in the Negev. Some scholars use it to define a separate culture, the Harifian.
Sickle blades made on 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.
There is a rich bone industry, including harpoons and fish-hooks. Stone and bone was 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 the gazelle. Ostrich-shell containers have been found in the Negev.
The Natufien people lived by hunting and gathering. The preservation of plant remains is bad 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, wild cattle and wild boar were hunted in the steppe zone onagers and caprids (Ibex) as well. Water fowl and freshwater fish formed part of the diet in the Jordan-valley. Animal bones from Salibiya I (12,300–10,800 BP) have been interpreted as evidence for communal hunts with nets.
Development of agriculture
According to one theory (described in 4), it was a sudden change in climate, the Younger Dryas event, that inspired the development of agriculture. The Younger Dryas was a 1,000-year-long interruption in the higher temperatures prevailing since the last ice age, 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.
The Natufian culture was also among the first to domesticate dogs. The close bond between the people and their dogs is evident in burials at Ain Mallaha in what is now Northern Israel (12,000 BP). One grave features an elderly man, with his left hand cradling a young dog. Another combined dog-human burial has been found at the Hayonim Terrace .
Burials are located in the settlements, commonly in pits in abandoned houses. The pits were backfilled with settlement refuse, which sometimes makes the identification of grave-goods difficult. Sometimes the graves were covered with limestone slabs. The inhumations are stretched on their backs or flexed, there is no predominant orientation. There are both single and multiple burials, especially in the early Natufian, and scattered human remains in the settlements that point to disturbed earlier graves. The rate of child mortality is rather high. Skull removal has been practiced in Hayonim cave, Nahal Oren and Ain Mallaha. Sometimes the skulls were decorated with shell beads (El-Wad). Grave goods consist mainly of personal ornaments, like beads made of shell, teeth (red deer), bones and stone. There are pendants, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and belt-ornaments as well.
Long distance exchange
At Ain Mallaha, Anatolian obsidian and shellfish from the Nile-valley have been found. The source of malachite-beads is still unknown.
Natufian sites include:
Tell Abu Hureyra, Mureybat , Yabrud III (Syria)
- Hayonim Terrace , Ain Mallaha (Eynan) , Beidha , Ein Gev , Hayonim Nahal Oren , Salibiya I (Israel)
- Jiita III, Borj el-Barajné, Saaidé, Aamiq II (Lebanon)
- El-Wad and Shuqba .
- O. Bar-Yosef/F. R. Valla (eds.), The Natoufian culture in the Levant (Ann Arbor 1991).
- D.V. Campana/P. J. Crabtree, Communal hunting in the Natufian of the Southern Levant: The social and economic implications. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 3/2, 1990, 233-243.
- Balter, Michael, The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk, An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization, Free Press (2005)
- "The Natufian Culture in the Levant, Threshold to the Origins of Agriculture," Ofer Bar-Yosef, Evolutionary Anthropology 6, 159-177, 1998 -- preprint -- http://www.columbia.edu/itc/anthropology/v1007/baryo.pdf
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12