Israeli researchers identify chilly transition to farming at end of last ice age

In first such model of region at time, study examines botanic remains in Hula Valley to build picture of fluctuations in climate, rain distribution that shaped agricultural society

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

The prehistoric archaeological site Jordan River Dureijat (Jordan River Stairs) on the shores of Lake Hula. (Prof. Gonen Sharon, Tel-Hai College)
The prehistoric archaeological site Jordan River Dureijat (Jordan River Stairs) on the shores of Lake Hula. (Prof. Gonen Sharon, Tel-Hai College)

The examination in Israel of prehistoric remains of plants from the end of the last ice age has revealed key information about how humans transitioned from being hunter-gatherers to forming settlements and agricultural communities, researchers say.

The study, by Tel Aviv University and Tel Hai College, looked at the spread of flora during the critical period in the development of human societies 20,000-10,000 years ago, the schools said in a statement Tuesday.

By building a first-of-its-kind model of the climatic changes in the Land of Israel region from that period, researchers found they were a “significant influence in the transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer society to permanent settlement and an agricultural way of life.”

Also, they gleaned the first information about the history of the region’s flora and its response to the climatic changes, which, they believe, could help in preserving local plant species as well as in preparing for future changes.

“There is no doubt that this knowledge can assist in preserving species variety and in meeting current and future climate challenges,” said Dafna Langgut of the Department of Archaeology and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University.

The study was published last month in the scientific journal Quaternary Science Reviews by Langgut; Prof. Gonen Sharon, head of the MA Program in Galilee Studies at Tel-Hai College; and Rachid Cheddadi, an expert in evolution and paleoecology at the University of Montpellier, Institute of Evolutionary Sciences (ISEM) Montpellier, France.

Dr. Dafna Langgut.(Tel Aviv University/Sasha Flit)

Work was carried out at the Jordan River Dureijat (Jordan River Stairs) archaeological site located on the shores of Lake Hula, a marsh-like body of water that attracted human settlement in prehistoric times.

The site’s “exceptional preservation conditions,” which have shown its early residents engaged in fishing, also preserved botanic remains enabling identification of the plants that grew in the Hula Valley 10,000-20,000 years ago, the statement said.

During the period, known as the Epipalaeolithic, there were two profound processes in world history that happened in the region: the adjustment from nomadic to a settled society and pronounced climate changes.

“At its outset, people were organized in small groups of hunter-gatherers who roamed the area,” Sharon said. “Then, about 15,000 years ago, we are witness to a significant change in lifestyle: the appearance of settled life in villages, and additional dramatic processes that reach their apex during the Neolithic period that followed. This is the time when the most dramatic change of human history occurred – the transition to the agricultural way of life that shaped the world as we know it today.”

Researchers built a climatic model of the region based on identified changes in the spread of plant species, producing a picture of the fluctuations in temperature that were different from those of today.

“Their exact characteristics were unclear until this study,” Langgut said.

Prof. Gonen Sharon. (Tel-Hai College)

Researchers found there was “climatic instability, intense fluctuations, and a considerable drop in temperatures” of up to five degrees Celsius and also “a surprising phenomenon was discovered,” according to the statement. Average rainfall was only slightly less than today, yet the precipitation was distributed over the entire year, helping the annual growth of leafy plant species.

“The gatherers who lived in this period now had a wide, readily available variety of gatherable plants throughout the entire year,” researchers explained. “This variety enabled their familiarity just before domestication.”

The findings, they said, “contribute to a new understanding of the environmental changes that took place on the eve of the transition to agriculture and domestication of animals.”

Though deliberately drained during the 20th century, the lake, which is part of the Hula Valley Nature Reserve, has since been partially refilled.

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