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Ancient foodies: Study reveals dietary preferences of Jordan Valley early humans

Animal remains from 12,000 years ago found at archaeological site show that despite varied supply, locals stuck mostly to hunting small number of fish, bird species

The Nahal Ein Gev II archeological site 
 excavations (Leore Grosman/Hebrew University)
The Nahal Ein Gev II archeological site excavations (Leore Grosman/Hebrew University)

It’s not quite gefilte fish or foie gras — but it’s close.

According to new research in Israel and the United States, ancient humans around the Sea of Galilee could have opted for a varied diet of fish and birds, but mostly went for carp and geese.

The study by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the University of Connecticut shows evidence that thousands of years ago humans cultivated a menu by their preference for certain foods, even when others were more easily available. It also offers evidence that these ancient eaters developed specialties in collecting and processing these foods.

The study, published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, examines the remains of animal bones of maritime origin at the Nahal Ein Gev II archaeological site, which dates back about 12,000 years. The site sits on a terrace some two kilometers away from the Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee – the largest freshwater source in the area at that time.

The study, led by Prof. Natalie Monroe of the University of Connecticut and Prof. Leore Grosman of Hebrew University, indicates that local residents in that period chose to eat certain species, and had developed specialties in fishing and hunting them. Specifically, they tended to focus on large carps and geese. They also specialized in the processing of animal skin for cultural-social purposes.

During the period in question, the Sea of Galilee was home to about 19 different species of fish, the biggest being the common catfish. The upper Jordan Valley is well-known as being a major pathway for bird migration – currently, as well as in the past – so there was a wide variety of species around the large lake. In fact, local residents in roughly 10,000 BCE didn’t have to look hard to find food.

But that variety wasn’t necessarily represented by the bone remains at the site, Hebrew University said. Over 98% of species of sea creatures whose remains were found in the area are represented by three large kinds of fish from the carp family (the large scale barbel, longhead barbel and Damascus barbel); and 96% of waterfowl remains at the site are related to the grey goose.

Illustrative: A bird swims in the modern-day Sea of Galilee, April 25, 2020 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“The findings at the site relate to the border of the Natufian and Neolithic periods, which saw humans transition into agriculture and permanent settlement in villages, and no longer living as hunter-gatherers,” said Prof. Grosman, head of the Prehistoric Archaeology Department and of the Computerized Archaeology Lab at Hebrew University.

“Other sites in that same area, such as Ohalo II or Eynan (‘Ain Mallaha), we could see that ancient humans were eating of all the good foods around them – whether it be fish, mammals or fowl – but at the Nahal Ein Gev II site local residents only ate certain kinds of fish and birds,” she said.

“They also preferred walking two kilometers to the Sea of Galilee to fish for their preferred kinds of fish, as opposed to being content with the fish that flowed in the nearby river. Strange? Not if you ask locals, who apparently preferred to consume their beloved and well-known types of food again and again, regardless of diet.”

The consistent choices of foods by local residents at the Nahal Ein Gev II site indicate a specific and intentional preference for large-bodied species, but not all large species. The researchers estimate that the choice of species may reflect a certain cultural preference. For example, the common catfish is the largest fish in the Sea of Galilee, and may have been of the greatest nutritional value in ancient periods; it is also fairly easy to fish, including during mating season in shallow waters – and yet it was noticeably not fished by local residents 12,000 years ago.

In this September 23, 2017 photo, people enjoy the Sea of Galilee near the northern Israeli Kibbutz of Ein Gev. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The findings regarding the locals’ focus on exploiting sea-based resources in the Nahal Ein Gev II area go hand in hand with other evidence of skill cultivation from that period, specifically the development of advanced fishing techniques. Most fishing instruments found at the site were made of organic materials that usually are not preserved for long periods of time, and so little evidence is available on them.

No ancient fishing hooks have been found at Nahal Ein Gev II (unlike in other upper Jordan Valley archaeological sites relating to the same period of about 12,000 years ago). What was found were 22 uniquely-shaped stone tools, whose average weight was 56 grams (about 2 ounces), which appear to have been used as weights for fishing nets.

Additionally, the presence or absence of bones from certain parts of animals’ bodies at the site, according to Hebrew University, are informative about the hunting and processing behaviors of ancient humans, before they brought the hunted animals to their homes.

The researchers found that fish remains found were in many cases missing the bones of the head, which would indicate processing near the fishing site. Geese bone findings similarly indicate such actions. It seems that the geese bones brought back to settlements were ones that carried a large amount of meat, such as wings and chests.

In contrast, species that are not eaten, such as predator birds, are represented at the site by remains of body parts that were not used for dietary purposes. The wings and leg bones of these birds were apparently used for symbolic and decorative purposes.

“This proves that at the time people began to specialize in different areas, whether it’s people who specialized in hunting, fishing or making cultural symbols,” said Grosman. “As far as the period is concerned, these are very exciting conclusions. This is one of the first historical sites to show specialties in different fields.”

The findings at Nahal Ein Gev II also offered information on the season in which these animals were mostly hunted. The large fish most common in the ancient locals’ diet can be caught all year, but it’s most convenient to catch them in the winter when they came to eat and mate in shallow waters. The locals were undeterred by the cold weather and went out to find their favored foods.

Geese were also more plentiful in the area during winter, as well as in early spring, during migration season. The research indicates that hunting and gathering occurred in the area all year round, and that other species of animals were more commonly hunted during summer and autumn.

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