Prehistoric hunter ‘knives’ from 60,000 years ago recovered in Israel

The Nahal Mahanayeem Outlet (NMO) is an open-air outlet located on the left bank of the Jordan River. Archaeological excavations carried out at this site have revealed stone tools and skeletal remains of animals from over 60,000 years ago, a cultural period known as the Middle Paleolithic.

These remains appear on the shores of what is known as Lake Paleo-Hula, an ancient lake that predates the formation of the Jordan River. According to researchers from the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES-CERCA), the Tel-Hai College and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, they correspond to a sporadic camp of hunter-gatherers. That is, these human groups went to this point to process the animals they hunted nearby. After this activity, which could last up to a week, the hunters abandoned the tools used and the remains of the slaughtered animals.

Overview of the Nahal Mahamayyem Outlet location on the east bank of the Jordan River. / Gonen Sharon

The materials were covered by lake sediments, which favors their conservation until their current discovery. The recovered traces represent a “moment in the life” of prehistoric hunters, as if it were a photograph of the past, something very unusual in outdoor sites like this case.

The recovered traces represent a “moment in the life” of prehistoric hunters, as if it were a photograph of the past.

This exceptional preservation of remains allowed researchers to reconstruct the hunting dynamics of the human populations that produced this accumulation of remains. In addition, to find out how the tools were used, the archaeologists carried out a traceological analysis.

The NMO deposit was discovered thanks to the Jordan River drainage works and was excavated by a team from Tel-Hai College and Hebrew University, under the direction of Professor Gonen Sharon. All this revealed a huge number of animal remains of various sizes. Hunters captured and processed deer, gazelles, wild boar and even turtles.

Lithic material studied in this work. /Juan Ignacio Martin-Viveros/IPHES-CLOSE

Archaeologists studied in depth the marks of wear on the tools and thus concluded the activities for which they were used. The results were published in Scientific Reports magazine, in a work led by Juan Ignacio Martin-Viveros, pre-doctoral researcher at IPHES-CERCA. This study is part of his doctoral thesis, co-directed by Gonen Sharon and also by the center’s researchers Andreu Ollé and Gema Chacón.

The type of wear on the edges of the stones helps to understand what they were used for

Depending on the nature of the work carried out with a given stone tool, its edges show one or another type of wear. The wear produced by work on meat is not the same as on vegetable matter, for example. Through experimental archeology and the use of high-magnitude electron microscopes, researchers have identified wear patterns on stone tools that determine the materials in which they were used.

Butchery activities and cognitive ability

The study reveals that most of the sharp stone tools that were recovered at the site were used as knives for butchery activities. Even tools traditionally associated with projectile points, such as Levallois points, were also used for animal carcass processing activities and, to a lesser extent, in work related to skins and vegetables.

Juan Ignacio Martin-Viveros analyzes warehouse industries. / Juan Ignacio Martin-Viveros/IPHES-CERCA

This aspect is very relevant, as it breaks with the traditional schemes in which a pointed tool is associated with a projectile tip. In the case of the NMO, these types of sharp tools were set up prior to arrival on site and were not used for hunting the animals, but for slaughter activities once they were already dead.

The study demonstrates the great cognitive capacity of these populations

One of the most surprising data is that most of the tools were encapsulated. This shows that the populations had very high control over this type of technological resource and, above all, that these technological advances were planned long before accessing the place for processing the animals.

The find represents some of the first evidence of lace with sleeves used as butcher knives at Middle Paleolithic open-air sites in the Levant, demonstrating the great cognitive ability of hunter-gatherer populations that visited NMO.

Reference

Martin-Viveros, JI et al. Knife butchering and hafting at the late Middle Paleolithic outdoor site of Nahal Mahanayeem Outlet (NMO), Israel. Scientific Reports (2023).

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