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ArchaeologyMan came to Israel from East Africa via Arabian Peninsula

Paleolithic flint tools are 1st ‘breadcrumbs’ of modern man’s trail to Israel

Migration route from Africa given new clarity by 100,000-year-old tools discovered outside Dimona in the Negev Desert made by unusual flint-knapping technique

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

  • 100,000-year-old tools uncovered at a flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel's Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    100,000-year-old tools uncovered at a flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel's Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Aerial view of a unique flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel's Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Aerial view of a unique flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel's Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • A local Dimona high school student excavates at the 100,000-year-old flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel's Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    A local Dimona high school student excavates at the 100,000-year-old flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel's Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • 100,000-year-old tools uncovered at a unique flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel's Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    100,000-year-old tools uncovered at a unique flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel's Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

A trove of Paleolithic flint tools newly discovered outside of Dimona in Israel’s Negev Desert recharts the path modern man took from Africa to Israel 100,000 years ago.

The excavation that found them explores the earliest known Israeli site where unique flint-knapping technology called “Nubian-Levallois” was used to forge the tools. This point-making technique is a calling card that allows archaeologists to firmly date where and when modern man were in specific areas, Israel Antiquities Authority co-director Maya Oron explained to The Times of Israel.

The discovery therefore lets archaeologists reconnect the dots between locations where these tools were found to see a clearer picture of the route early humans took from East Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula, to Israel.

It is the first time Israeli archaeologists have securely identified the technique’s use in local production, said Oron. “We found some traces in the Negev, but one stone here and there, on the surface, not excavated in a site. For the first time, we can see how it looks in situ and date it,” said Oron.

Israel Antiquities Authority prehistorian Maya Oron at a flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel’s Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

In an Israel Antiquities Authority press release, co-directors Oron and Talia Abulafia said that the site from Dimona probably represents the northernmost penetration of the flint tool industry from East Africa and marks man’s migration route: from Africa to Saudi Arabia, and from the Arabian Peninsula to the Negev.

The untouched Middle Paleolithic site (a period that spans from circa 200,000 to 45,000 years ago) allows Oron and Abulafia a rare glimpse into a flint workshop frozen in time. It was uncovered during salvage excavations conducted by the IAA ahead of the construction of a new solar energy field by the Israel Electric Corporation outside of Dimona.

A team of local high schoolers aided in the excavations, finding a source of income during the coronavirus crisis. In hard-hit Dimona, there are currently around 78 people infected and 248 recovered patients.

A local high school student excavates at a 100,000-year-old flint-knapping site outside Dimona in the Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The discovered flint tools were knapped using a technique called the Nubian Levallois reduction method, named after two archaeological sites where similar tools were discovered — Nubia in East Africa, and Levallois, a suburb of Paris. Oron explained that different waves of early humans had particular methods they used to produce tools, that changed from culture to culture. This method created very pointy tips that could be used as spearheads.

“Our luck is that people didn’t just strike the flint and use the tools,” but rather left remnants of production onsite, she said. An additional stroke of luck came in that after use, the site was quickly covered by the wind with loess sediment and sand from dunes once found in the Negev, leaving a perfectly preserved site for study.

Aerial view of a flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel’s Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Oron, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on Middle Paleolithic sites in the Negev, said that ancient modern man would have inhabited many sites in the area, but most have been washed away or otherwise destroyed and lost for scholars.

Other flint tools made using this technique were uncovered during a field survey at two sites near Nahal Paran and Nahal Tsihor, which are located within the Paran plains in the Arava, according to a 2017 Journal of Lithic Studies article by Mae Goder-Goldberger.

A complete technological analysis of the assemblages was not completed. However, Goder-Goldberger writes, “The findings from these two localities bridge a gap in the geographical extent between the Negev Highland and central Arabia adding data to the ongoing of recent discussions regarding archaeological markers of modern human dispersals out of Africa and feasible routes into Eurasia and Arabia.”

Oron said that 100,000 years ago, these humans would have seen a different Negev from the rocky barren land we see today. It would always have been arid, she said, but there would have likely been more available spring water, vegetation, and animals available for hunting.

The ability to retrace the early modern humans’ steps through the Hansel and Gretel-like “breadcrumbs” they left via the flint tools is made all the more exciting to Oron when she explores the possibility of the interactions between early humans — including Homo sapiens and our Neanderthal relatives — who may have walked in the Levant at the same time.

100,000-year-old tools uncovered at a flint-knapping site outside Dimona in Israel’s Negev Desert. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)

There were several northern waves of human migration out of Africa, she said, as well as waves of Neanderthals moving south from Europe.

“For me the most interesting thing is that during the Meso-Paleolithic period, we really know there were more than one kind of human walking on the earth. We can see that the Neanderthals and modern human were around at the same time in the same places, and we’re trying to make sense of what happened when they met. How did they interact?” she said.

With the new find, said Oron, “We have all the pieces of the puzzle. I think we started to see these bread crumbs, and we now have better knowledge of how and where they migrated.”

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