Updated – please see end of this post.
The archaeological site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov has been in the news again recently, following the publication of a paper in Science, namely Spatial Organization of Hominin Activities at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel, authored by Nira Alperson-Afil et al, in which they reflect upon the organisational abilities of archaic humans in the Lower Palaeolithic of the Middle Pleistocene, who at GBY, represent the oldest known fisher-hunter-gatherers so far discovered in the archaeological record. It’s fair to say this paper has made something of an impact, with the general consensus being that archaic humans of this era were capable of organisational behaviours similar to that of anatomically modern humans, with one or two voices arguing that the evidence at Gesher Benot Ya’akov (GBY) is suggestive rather than conclusive.
This site of GBY offers us what appears to be a marked contrast to another site of around the same age, c. 780 kya, in the Aurora stratum, also known as the TD6 level at Gran Dolina, Atpauerca in modern-day central north Spain – I’ll add a brief word on that site later in this post, because apart from anything else, the fossils of 6 humans (suggested to have been cannibalised) have been found there, whereas there are no fossil remains of humans described at GBY. Labelled as H. antecessor, it may be that similar people dwelt by the shores of Lake Hula at GBY.
Apart from organisational behaviours, this site also documents a very early use and control of fire, which at c.800 kya, again appears to bridge a cognitive gap, while at the same time posing the question of why there appears to be a cognitive, or at least technological stasis from that point almost to the present day.
Briefly, the site in question GBY Level 2 was found to have been split into two main areas about 25 ft apart, one for the preparation of food such as fish, whilst the other was a hearth around which other activities such as stone tool manufacture, smashing nuts and eating are thought to have taken place. Moreover, because the site was sealed rapidly and very well preserved, numerous faunal and floral remains indicate that a wide range of foods and resources were regularly exploited by these people, from which it seems clear that they had long mastered the art of survival beyond the raw essentials.
The spatial designation of discrete areas for different activities reflects formalized conceptualization of a living space. The results of spatial analyses of a Middle Pleistocene Acheulean archaeological horizon (about 750,000 years ago) at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel, indicate that hominins differentiated their activities (stone knapping, tool use, floral and faunal processing and consumption) across space. These were organized in two main areas, including multiple activities around a hearth. The diversity of human activities and the distinctive patterning with which they are organized implies advanced organizational skills of the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov hominins.
Although the authors concern themselves primarily with implying that archaic humans at the site were showing organisational abilities on a par with modern hunter-gatherers, or foragers, the sheer range of foodstuffs and other materials found there also indicate a fairly complex diet – as opposed to one that mostly involved hurling spears at large mammals as a means of obtaining food – was not only available but fully exploited, with the possibility that certain sites were visited in line with their seasonal resources. There are differing opinions regarding the exact implications for the cognitive and organisational abilities of these early humans, with Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks supportive of the authors, whereas John Hawks was less impressed.
Moreover, as has been mentioned in previous papers, there is clear evidence of the use of controlled fire on a continual basis, and what might be most surprising, is not that fish were also consumed, but that the lakeside dwellers were able to catch carp and other fish in the first place. It has often been stated that an advantageous trait of early modern humans in the Upper Palaeolithic was their more diverse diet which included fish, giving them a putative survival advantage over the Neanderthals (who are in fact documented as having eaten dolphin, seal and mussels on Gibraltar) – plus of course the cognitive ability to manufacture equipment such as barbed bone and ivory points, with which to acquire their prey.
I’m very grateful to have been sent a copy of a paper that would otherwise be inaccessible to me, on this occasion by Professor Naama Goren-Inbar, one of the authors, so as ever, I’ll add some detail from the text as well as adding some comment of my own. First up, a look at the site itself, its geologic past and the way in which it has fortuitously been preserved over such a vast expanse of time.
Gesher Benot Ya’aqov is located on the shores of the paleo–Lake Hula in the northern Jordan Valley in the Dead Sea Rift (7). The Early to Middle Pleistocene sediments document an oscillating freshwater lake and represent some 100,000 years of hominin occupation (Oxygen Isotope Stages 18–20) dating to 790,000 years ago (8, 9). Fourteen archaeological horizons indicate that Acheulian hominins repeatedly occupied the lake margins, where they skilfully produced stone tools, systematically butchered and exploited animals, gathered plant food, and controlled fire.
We focus on a hearth area and the lithic, botanical, and paleontological assemblages of Layer II-6 Level 2 (henceforth Level 2), one of eight superimposed occupational levels in Layer II-6. This sedimentary sequence was rapidly sealed, preserving the original location of different artifacts (evidenced by the fresh preservation state of the lithics, the preservation of mollusk embryos, the presence of conjoinable bones, and a lack of winnowing) (8, 10, 15, 16). Level 2 is 0.12 m thick, and we excavated across an area of 25.6m2 (3 m3). It yielded numerous stone artifacts made of different raw materials; a large assemblage of wood, bark, fruits, seeds, and nuts; and highly diverse lacustrine and terrestrial animal remains.
The immediate impression given is the sheer variety of activities and behaviours exhibited by an as yet unidentified species of archaic human, as they went about their daily lives. Although these were temporary occupations, it’s clear that a great deal of time and effort was needed to keep the camp supplied with resources required for the diverse food items to be sourced, acquired and prepared for eating. The presence of many species of wood remains offer further clues to an invisible part of the archaeology, with the likelihood that specific wood types were selected for various purposes – fire-wood, spears and fishing equipment come to mind, but before getting to those details, a quick word about how Level 2 at GBY was originally configured.