Half a million years ago, Homo erectus made prehistoric ‘Swiss Army knives’ here
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Half a million years ago, Homo erectus made prehistoric ‘Swiss Army knives’ here

Large-scale remains of flint-knapping industry uncovered in salvage excavation in Jaljulia, which reveal a thriving, longtime home for a direct ancestor of modern man

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Maayan Shemer, excavation director for the Israel Antiquities Authority, showing a half-million year-old hand axe found at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Maayan Shemer, excavation director for the Israel Antiquities Authority, showing a half-million year-old hand axe found at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Hundreds of hand axes were uncovered in the excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Hundreds of hand axes were uncovered in the excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • The excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia, aerial view. (Yitzhak Marmelstein, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia, aerial view. (Yitzhak Marmelstein, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Maayan Shemer, excavation director for the Israel Antiquities Authority, showing a half-million year-old hand axe found at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Maayan Shemer, excavation director for the Israel Antiquities Authority, showing a half-million year-old hand axe found at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Hundreds of hand axes were uncovered in the excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Hundreds of hand axes were uncovered in the excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • The excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • The excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

A half-million-year-old center of flint-knapping industry was unexpectedly uncovered ahead of the planned expansion of the Arab Israeli town of Jaljulia.

During salvage excavations that reached five meters (16 feet) below ground level, archaeologists discovered a rare intact site with hundreds of teardrop-shaped flint axes — two-faced handle-less multi-purpose tools, the prehistoric “Swiss Army knife.”

Hundreds of hand axes were uncovered in the excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

The excavation was funded by the Israel Land Authority and conducted by the Israel Antiquity Authority in a joint operation with Tel Aviv University. According to the IAA, which labeled the site as “rare and important,” the axes are typical tools of the ancient Acheulian culture, prehistoric humans who had settled in Israel’s central Sharon Region some half a million years ago.

What appears to be a once-thriving prehistoric site was revealed through the “extraordinary quantity of flint tools” that were “knapped” (or formed from flint) there, said Maayan Shemer, the excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Prof. Ran Barkai, head of the Archaeology Department at Tel Aviv University.

What the tools were used for is not fully known, but researchers argue they may have been utilized for various purposes, from leather scraping to butchering elephants.

“It’s hard to believe that between Jaljulia and Route 6, five meters below the surface, an ancient landscape some half of a million years old has been so amazingly preserved,” said Barkai.

Maayan Shemer, excavation director for the Israel Antiquities Authority, showing a half-million year-old hand axe found at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Central Israel hosts two other prehistoric sites in close approximate age to the Jaljulia site, five kilometers (three miles) north at Kibbutz Eyal, and five kilometers south at Qesem Cave from a slightly later cultural phase.

A November 2017 Haaretz article hypothesized that Qesem Cave once served as a sort-of “school of rock” based on analysis of flint stones and fragments from 400,000 years ago.

“I wouldn’t talk about a school in the modern sense, but we can see a specific tradition, a specific way of doing things in the cave, which was passed on from generation to generation,” study leader Ella Assaf told Haaretz. Assaf, an archaeologist and PhD student at Tel Aviv University, said, “There was definitely a mechanism of knowledge transmission.”

Here at Jaljulia as well, according to Shemer and Barkai, there is evidence of master craftsmanship in some of the tools, which were found in an unusually large quantity. They said flint knapping requires “careful and meticulous work, and a deep familiarity of the raw material in use.” The axes were of disparate material and quality, which would indicate a learning curve in the trade.

The large quantity of hand axes “provides significant information about the lifeways of prehistoric humans during the Lower Paleolithic period. It seems that half a million years ago, the conditions here in Jaljulia were such, that this became a favored locality, subject to repeated human activity,” said the archaeologists.

Hundreds of hand axes were uncovered in the excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia. (Samuel Magal, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

The evidence of flint-knapping found at the site is in keeping with Homo erectus, “a direct ancestor of the Homo sapiens sapiens, the human species living today,” said the archaeologists. Other flint artifacts attest to Homo erectus’s technological innovation, development and creativity, said the IAA.

“The findings are amazing, both in their preservation state and in their implications about our understanding of this ancient material culture. We see here a wide technological variety, and there is no doubt that researching these finds in-depth will contribute greatly to the understanding of the lifestyle and human behavior during the period in which Homo erectus inhabited our area,” said Shemer.

The Homo erectus communities, according to the archaeologists’ geological reconstruction of the prehistoric environment, indicates that the area once hosted an ancient stream and would have been rich in herding animals and vegetation — “a ‘green spot’ in the landscape.”

The excavation of the half a million-year-old prehistoric site at Jaljulia, aerial view. (Yitzhak Marmelstein, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

“In this place, three basic needs of the ancient hunter gatherers were met: clear water, a variety of food sources and flint nodules, of which tools were made,” said the archaeologists. “The fact that the site was occupied repeatedly indicates that prehistoric humans possessed a geographic memory of the place, and could have returned here as a part of a seasonal cycle.”

“This extraordinary site will enable us to trace the behavior of our direct prehistoric ancestors, and reconstruct their lifestyle and behavior on the very long journey of human existence,” said Barkai.

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