Flint tools for butchering deer were developed in Israel 400,000 years ago – study

TAU researchers say the stone scrapers originated near Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim in the Samarian hills, which were likely sacred sites for prehistoric humans in the area

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Close up of a Quina scraper found in the Jaljulia Cave prehistoric site in central Israel. (courtesy Tel Aviv University)
Close up of a Quina scraper found in the Jaljulia Cave prehistoric site in central Israel. (courtesy Tel Aviv University)

Tel Aviv University researchers have identified a group of prehistoric stone tools discovered in central Israel as 400,000-year-old implements designed for butchering and processing fallow deer, the university said Monday, making the artifacts “the earliest appearance worldwide” for this specific type of tool.

The flint scrapers were discovered at both the Jaljulia Cave and Qesem Cave prehistoric sites, well-explored areas located near each other in central Israel. The tools were found to be made of flint traced to sites about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of the caves, Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim in the Samarian hills, locations that were at the time breeding grounds for the fallow deer the scrapers were designed to process.

A paper on the tools, “The Stone, the Deer, and the Mountain: Lower Paleolithic Scrapers and Early Human Perceptions of the Cosmos,” was published in the journal Archaeologies in February. Research was led by Vlad Litov and Prof. Ran Barkai of the Tel Aviv University Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures.

The tools belong to a class called Quina scrapers, named after the site in France where artifacts of this kind were first discovered. Quina scrapers are “characterized by a sharp working edge shaped like scales, enabling users to butcher their prey and also process the hides,” the researchers said.

For more than a million years, the primary source of food, hides and other animal-derived necessities prehistoric humans needed were elephants and other large herbivores. But “about 400,000 years ago, following the elephants’ disappearance, hunters turned to a different kind of prey, considerably smaller and quicker than elephants: fallow deer,” the university statement said.

The transition to smaller prey caused a great change in human society and technology, including the development of the Quina scrapers.

Deer in the snow, in Moshav Odem, in the Golan Heights, northern Israel, January 19, 2022. (Moraz Brom/Flash90)

“We found a dramatic change in the human diet during this period… Clearly, butchering a large elephant is one thing, and processing a much smaller and more delicate fallow deer is quite a different challenge. Systematic processing of numerous fallow deer to compensate for a single elephant was a complex and demanding task which required the development of new implements. Consequently, we see the emergence of the new Quina scrapers, with a better-shaped, sharper, more uniform working edge compared to the simple scrapers used previously,” author Litov said.

The origin sites of the flint used to create the Quina scrapers are believed by the researchers to have had a spiritual significance for the early humans in the area. These sites at the time “were a home range of fallow deer and thus considered a source of plenty. We found a connection between the plentiful source of fallow deer and the source of flint used to butcher them, and we believe that this link held perceptual significance for these prehistoric hunters,” said Prof. Barkai.

“They knew where the fallow deer came from and made special efforts to use flint from the same area to make tools for butchering this prey. This behavior is familiar from many other places worldwide and is still widely practiced by native hunter-gatherer communities,” he continued.

Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. (Dr. Shai Bar/TAU)

“When the locals realized that the elephant population was dwindling, they gradually shifted their focus to fallow deer. Identifying the deer’s plentiful source, they began to develop the unique scrapers in the same place. This is the earliest instance of a phenomenon that later spread throughout the world,” Litov said.

The Mount Gerizim location, near Nablus, is especially important because numerous fallow deer bones were found there at an ancient altar site. As Gerizim is associated with the Israelite’s entry into the Land of Israel and is considered a sacred site by the local Samaritan community, “apparently, the Mountains of Samaria gained a prominent, or even sacred status as early as the Paleolithic period, and retained their unique cultural position for hundreds of thousands of years,” the researchers said.

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