Neolithic site shows how villagers weathered drought, climate change 8,000 years ago

At a submerged village off Israel’s northern coast, archaeologists discover a trove of artifacts showing how the settlement lived and survived during the global 8.2ka climatic event

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Stone sinkers likely used to weigh down fishing nets, found at the 'Habonim North' martime archaeological site, off the coast of northern Israel. (courtesy Cambridge University Press/CC BY)
Stone sinkers likely used to weigh down fishing nets, found at the 'Habonim North' martime archaeological site, off the coast of northern Israel. (courtesy Cambridge University Press/CC BY)

An archaeological excavation at a submerged Neolithic village off Israel’s northern coast has shown how a community successfully adapted to extreme regional drought conditions over eight thousand years ago.

First excavated only in 2020, the “Habonim North” site off the Carmel coast is an ancient village now submerged under 3 meters of water and seafloor. The excavation has provided “evidence for continuity of subsistence and economic strategies” as well as “the resilience of coastal communities in the face of significant climatic uncertainty,” according to a recent paper published by the University of Haifa-led team.

“There was a climate change 8,200 years ago, it became colder and drier. These early pottery Neolithic sites are very rare after this event,” says Prof. Assaf Yasur-Landau, director of the University of Haifa’s Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies, speaking to The Times of Israel by phone.

The study, “Continuity and climate change: the Neolithic coastal settlement of Habonim North, Israel,” was published in March in Antiquity, a peer-reviewed journal of the Cambridge University Press, and includes the results of a collaboration between the University of Haifa, UC San Diego and Bar-Ilan University.

This worldwide decrease in temperature occurred around 6200 BCE and is thought to have lasted 200-400 years. Known as the “8.2ka climatic event,” it is understood to have caused environmental challenges worldwide, including drought conditions in the Levant.

Archaeologists have cited this event to explain a dearth of sites in the eastern Mediterranean coastal region from the Early Pottery Neolithic period (6400-5500 BCE) when humans had already domesticated some crops and animals and were developing pottery technology. In contrast, sites from the pre-pottery period, in the early Neolithic before the 8.2ka climatic event, are more abundant.

Professor Assaf Yasur-Landau, the director of Haifa University’s Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies, at the Dor Beach marine archaeology excavation on May 9, 2023. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Yasur-Landau, who led the underwater excavations at the Habonim North site, explains that the village is a “rare example” that “probably began immediately after this [climate] crisis. We are beginning to understand that people could actually cope with the changing climate, especially in areas along the coast where they had access to fresh water and marine resources.”

The archaeologists discovered multiple examples of pottery shards, some of which were non-local, indicating that trading networks were already in place. They also found organic matter, well-preserved because of the oceanic conditions, indicating the use and consumption of both domesticated and wild crops and animals.

Some of the pottery shards, including close up of decoration, found at the ‘Habonim North’ marine archaeological site off Israel’s northern coast. (courtesy Cambridge University Press/CC BY)

The team also discovered several stones with holes carved through them, likely used for weighing down fishing nets, and other kinds of stone tools, including a large stone bowl, left in situ under the water, likely used for grinding grain. At least two stone structures were uncovered, as well as several stone walls.

The new findings show that “early Neolithic societies were resilient and sustainable, providing the foundation for the later social and economic changes that lead to the development of urbanism,” the authors note.

“It was a very unstable environment,” Yasur-Landau says. “The conditions may have caused crop failures from time to time. Changing sea levels also caused rising salinity in coastal wells, so you had to dig new wells. I think the conditions also had an impact on swamps, and where they were created.

Images showing a stone mace fragment and basalt object with incision marks, found at the ‘Habonim North’ maritime archaeological site along Israel’s northern coast. (courtesy Cambridge University Press/CC BY)

“You have villages residing there, they were growing crops, barley, lentils, vegetables, and you also have animals such as sheep and goats.”

This time in human development, Yasur-Landau stressed, was a period of “adapting to a new reality,” with the first use of pottery, iconography with human shapes, small figurines and other cultural and material changes.

“We also found evidence that they also had symbols of authority,” he said. “We found a mace head made of stone, which is a ceremonial weapon. It’s not used for hunting, it’s a weapon and probably showed status as a warrior or local leader.”

Other aspects of social development, such as use of flint tools — which were found in abundance at Habonim North — and grain cultivation, remained much the same as previous periods.

Habonim North is the second underwater Neolithic site excavated off the Israeli coast. The other, Atlit Yam, just north of the Habonim site, dates from 8000-9000 years ago, just before the development of pottery. It features a huge stone Neolithic circle, burial sites, stone buildings and other finds.

Images showing Israel’s northern coast and the site of the ‘Habonim North’ marine archaeological dig. (courtesy Cambridge University Press/CC BY)

Yasur-Landau is certain other underwater Neolithic sites are waiting to be discovered.

“One thing is the amazing amount of adventure and exploration you can do in underwater archaeology… You can sometimes get results that haven’t been shown before because there are so few people working on it,” he said.

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