Interview'People have lived in Israel for at least 1.5 million years'

Intricacies and wonder of prehistoric Israel accessible through an engaging new book

‘They Were Here Before Us,’ released this week, distills decades of academic work to reveal the fascinating world of early humanity

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Prof. Ran Barkai holding a prehistoric stone tool, in his office at Tel Aviv University, on February 28, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
Prof. Ran Barkai holding a prehistoric stone tool, in his office at Tel Aviv University, on February 28, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

The Land of Israel was settled far before the spread of the peoples whose history is recorded in the Bible. An excellent new book, “They Were Here Before Us,” successfully shows how the story of prehistoric humans in what is now called Israel is as resonant, important and deeply meaningful to the modern era.

Written by Tel Aviv University archaeology professor Ran Barkai and his student Eyal Halfon, an award-winning filmmaker, “They Were Here Before Us,” distills decades of research, fieldwork and lectures into just under 200 concise, well-written pages.

The book was originally published in Hebrew in 2021 and the English language version was officially released this week by UK-based Watkins Publishing.

By focusing on 10 different archaeological sites in the Holy Land, the book covers an array of subjects including Neanderthals and modern humans, megafauna and what happened as they died out, the development of agriculture and metalworking, megalithic structures, early human society and more.

“This place is really significant in terms of prehistoric times and the deep history of the human race,” explains Prof. Barkai, meeting The Times of Israel in his university office packed with prehistoric stone tools.

Israel was “a corridor between continents. Everything happened here. And this was always a good place to be; it was a paradise. People have lived here for at least 1.5 million years, so this place records the history of the human race in every aspect,” Barkai says.

A collection of prehistoric stone implements collected by Prof. Ran Barkai, in his office at Tel Aviv University, on February 28, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

As the field of archaeology was developing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “this was the hotspot… the study of prehistory began with the English and French, who were here, and they realized this was the next big place to study besides Europe,” Barkai explains. “The intensity of the archaeological research in this area is unlike any other area in the world.”

This is shown in “They Were Here Before Us” as the authors not only present an overview of prehistoric research and discoveries but deftly show how the finds were made and by whom. The cast of interesting characters includes Amos Frumkin, the Hebrew University geology professor who in 2000 stumbled upon the now-famous Qesem Cave, an important paleolithic site, after its roof fell in during the construction of Highway 5.

The Holy Land is “a narrow piece of land and it was heavily inhabited by early and later humans,” Barkai says. Discoveries such as Qesem Cave can “happen all the time. It’s like being in Rome, but to a larger extent. The whole territory is full of ancient sites.”

The entrance to Qesem Cave alongside Highway 5 in central Israel. (courtesy Watkins Publishing)

An abundance of prehistoric sites certainly exist in other areas of the Levant, in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, but due to historical reasons there is “no legacy of research like there is here,” he says.

Neanderthals: brothers from another mother

Neanderthals, who used tools and likely had a sophisticated culture and language, coexisted with early humans for thousands of years. Some of the first encounters between the two related species likely took place in Israel, Barkai explains, a topic covered in the first chapters of the book.

“I think the Neanderthals were very similar to us: they were cousins, in the family. I think highly of the Neanderthals, against the popular conception which sees them as ignorant brutes. I think they were very successful and very much like us with very little differences,” he says.

“They clearly understood how the world works in a very efficient way. We call it today ‘ancient ecological knowledge.’ It was not based on university study but on experience and knowledge transferred from one generation to the next. They became extinct or assimilated into modern humans. How and why we don’t know. They thrived for 400,000 years: For me it’s a successful part of human prehistory.”

Cover of ‘They Were Here Before Us,” Watkins Publishing, 2024.

In Barkai’s telling, the Neanderthals died out because they were highly adapted to arctic conditions and specialized in hunting mammoths, but when conditions changed and the Ice Age was ending they couldn’t adapt. This was at around the same time that early homo sapiens were roaming out of eastern Africa via Israel.

In “They Were Here Before Us” and in a recent paper, Barkai theorizes that the extinction of mammoths and other megafuna directly led early humans to the development of different hunting strategies for smaller prey, which in turn led to technological and social development and ultimately to the development of agriculture.

“We showed that there was a massive decrease in the size of animals hunted by humans until there was almost nothing left, and we think this was the primary motive for the development of agriculture,” Barkai explains.

Land of the lost

The authors present a startling picture of the region in prehistoric times: a lush and abundant land full of resources and life, where herds of mammoths and hippos roamed alongside packs of hyenas and larger apex predators. It was a land being explored and ultimately tamed by humanity.

A central effort in the book is an attempt to understand these early humans, and the authors delve into shamanism, possible belief systems, social organization, early use of language and more, all following physical clues left behind so long ago.

These humans were basically “just like us. No difference,” Barkai stresses, and were certain to have had spiritual beliefs, language and a complex society.

Among the many clues is the discovery of a swan wing bone showing evidence that feathers were plucked from it, indicating their use for decoration and ritual, and the later building of various megalithic structures that have no easily discernable practical function, such as the Rujm el-Hiri stone circle in the Golan that has a mysterious, central chamber.

Passage to the inner chamber at the center of the Rujm el-Hiri megalithic stone circles in the Golan. (courtesy Watkins Publishing)

For Barkai, the lessons gathered from his studies of prehistoric humans and their world have a direct application to the present.

“I think that the secret of human survival and prosperity for over 1.5 million years was a kind of respectful behavior towards the world and for other humans. They treated everything equally, they wasted nothing, they knew that they were making an impact on the world and they were concerned with that.”

He notes that it already has been shown that the introduction of agriculture created more hierarchical societies and required more effort in general, as early human hunter-gatherers worked far less for their sustenance than early agriculturalists or modern humans.

Contrary to popular thinking, early human societies show “very little evidence for a lot of death by violence, from what we have. They died healthy. They managed to survive and thrive for hundreds of thousands of years, in a world which was not easy.”

“They went wrong, apparently. And we are going wrong. So there is a lesson there,” said Barkai.

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