Israel travels

Finding Man: Visit Israel’s prehistoric caves

Israel’s seven fabulous UNESCO World Heritage Sites were recently joined by an eighth: Nahal HaMearot (Wadi of the Caves) Nature Reserve

Carmel cave (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Carmel cave (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1929, English archaeologist Dorothy Garrod and an all-female team arrived at a site in Israel’s Carmel mountain range and began to  dig deeply into the caves within. According to an oft-told tale, one day Garrod sent a missive to her family back home in which she announced, with great excitement, that she had “found Man.”

Garrod’s parents, who by that time had perhaps given up hope that their nearly 40-year-old daughter would ever marry, were beside themselves with joy. At the time they didn’t realize that Garrod’s “Man” was actually the skeleton of a Neanderthal woman — the first-ever to be discovered outside of Europe.

Ten years after she began excavating the Carmel caves, Garrod became the first female professor at Cambridge (or at Oxford, for that matter). Perhaps she acquired the position in part because her findings in the Holy Land were so astounding. Indeed, before she left the Carmel she uncovered masses of evidence attesting to that rarest of phenomena: continuous settlement in a single location for 800,000 years.

Although for years we roamed the excavated caves at will and let our imaginations run wild, things changed after the site was taken over by the Nature Reserves Authority in 1988. Today you pay a fee, but in return are treated to fascinating, educational displays. The cave you explore is clean, and you get to see a movie. Although the latter, in my humble opinion, is one vast yawn, this is really a great family outing.

One hundred million years ago, our beautiful Carmel mountain range was only flat land covered by a shallow sea. Over time the waters receded and the ground rose up to form the Carmel Mountains. Sea creatures died and turned into fossils, sinking to the bottom of the ocean; eventually these fossils covered the landscape’s natural limestone rock.

Little by little, water dissolved the hills’ soft stone, forming cracks in the rock that slowly widened into large caves. When an entrance to the cave opened up as well, the caves became excellent shelter for early man.

View from the Tanur Cave (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
View from the Tanur Cave (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A steep hill leads to Tanur Cave, and from the top there is a superb observation point overlooking the whole area. Most exciting is a natural phenomenon you can view, called “Finger Cliff” (matzok etzba). Long ago, the cliff and the cave were joined, and together they formed a gigantic underwater reef.

Tanur (oven) Cave, the oldest and westernmost of the prehistoric caves, was the first to be discovered. It happened in 1928, when the British (who ruled Israel) were building a port in Haifa. Workers in need of large rocks for a breakwater took them from the Carmel. When they stumbled on prehistoric tools, experts were called and Garrod arrived soon afterwards. The cave’s name comes from the chimney in its ceiling, formed by natural forces.

Life in this cave dates all the way back to the Acheulian culture on the Carmel, about a million years ago. The people living here apparently stood erect (called homo erectus) and chiseled out hand tools which were comfortable to hold and symmetrical.

Nahal Hamearot Nature Reserve (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Nahal Hamearot Nature Reserve (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

More tools appeared later on, and are beautifully illustrated at the cave. For instance, the Mousterian culture, found only in this part of the world, used their hand tools for scraping pelts. About 25-50 people lived in this cave, and hunted animals who roamed there at the time: deer, gazelles and wild cows. This is where Garrod discovered the Neanderthal skeleton, whose skull contained a brain the same size as that of modern man. However the face lacked a chin and had a very low forehead.

At the Camel Cave, you can view a display of the Mousterian culture which began about 100,000-years ago and lasted for 40,000 years. Mannequins dressed in period costumes illustrate life at the time; a dead fallow deer lying on its side shows you what kind of food they ate. Hides are hung up to dry and Mr. Caveman is sharpening a tool. He could be making a spearhead, or a knife, for hunting. Mrs. Caveman raised the kids, and gathered grapes and berries for meals. The couple’s son is holding a snake.

The next cave on the route is Nahal (Wadi) Cave, 70 meters deep, where you have the opportunity to explore the interior and to watch the movie. Just inside the entrance is a rock with traces of a prehistoric animal, a cone‑shaped creature which contained a mollusk. After the mollusk rotted only the shell was left, and it left its print on the rock. The animal became extinct together with the dinosaur 65,000,000 years ago and this is one of the only places in the world where it can be seen so clearly and in such quantity.

Nahal cave (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Nahal cave (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Much of the cave’s ceiling is black. That’s because the cave’s inhabitants lived around a campfire and the flames had nowhere to escape. Caves were excellent shelters: warm in winter, providing shelter from wind and rain, and cool in summer. This one also had plenty of room for a whole tribe

Outside Nahal Cave, you will find remains from the Natufians, the last (newest) prehistoric culture. During this time (about 12,000 ‑ 10,000 B.C.E.), lifestyles all over the world became more developed and here, too, humans began to settle down. They stopped hunting, and began growing produce on terraced hills near the entrances to their caves. They tamed dogs, goats and other wild animals, and developed interesting forms of art.

With permanent settlement came burial in cemeteries, and 84 skeletons were found next to the entrance to the main cave. All were laid to rest in the fetal position — perhaps so that they would take up less space; it’s hard work to dig in the hill’s hard rocks with primitive tools. Another explanation suggests that the fetal position may have indicated the beginning of a belief in reincarnation. Perhaps prehistoric man felt that, if the bodies were buried in the position they held before birth, they would be reborn. Shell necklaces, found around each and every skull, are almost certainly evidence that the deceased were given a religious burial ceremony.

The other World Heritage Sites in Israel are: Jerusalem’s Old City, Acre’s Old City, the White City of Tel Aviv, Masada, three biblical tels (ancient Beersheba, Megiddo and Hazor), Bahai holy sites, and the Spice Route through the Negev.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.



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