ArchaeologyNew C-14 and OSL dates give a 6,000 year overlap of species

Prehistoric man lived with and loved Neanderthals in the Negev 50,000 years ago

Using precision carbon dating and secure archaeological contexts, researchers have proof for the first time of when the two cultures overlapped — and where

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Prehistorian Dr. Omry Barzilai with a flint tool from 50,000-year-old Boker Tachtit. (Israel Antiquities Authority)
Prehistorian Dr. Omry Barzilai with a flint tool from 50,000-year-old Boker Tachtit. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

A new multidisciplinary archaeological study attempting to define when and where early man first met and lived alongside his older Neanderthal cousins has pinpointed that meet-cute to Israel’s Negev Desert some 50,000 years ago.

According to the study, it is during this time period that the ancestors of modern humans may have bred with their Neanderthal neighbors, resulting in a lasting Neanderthal genetic fingerprint even after the species itself died out.

“What was the nature of the encounter we have identified between the two human species? Did Neanderthals throughout the country become naturally extinct, merging with modern man, or did they disappear in violent ways? These questions will continue to concern us as researchers in the coming years,” said Dr. Omry Barzilai, excavation director at the Boker Tachtit site on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

According to an IAA press release, this is the first study that provides scientifically gathered and analyzed evidence for the coexistence of the two prehistoric cultures in the Middle East.

“This goes to show that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in the Negev coexisted and most likely interacted with one another, resulting in not only genetic interbreeding, as is postulated by the ‘recent African origin’ theory, but also in cultural exchange,” said lead authors Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto of the Weizmann Institute of Science and the IAA’s Barzilai in a Weizmann press release.

The excavations at the 50,000-year-old Boker Tachtit site in the Negev Desert. (Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto, Weizmann Institute of Science)

Part of the evidence was gathered from a recent excavation of Boker Tachtit, located south of modern-day Kibbutz Sde Boker. “Boker Tachtit is the first known site reached by modern man outside Africa, which is why the site and its precise dating are so important,” said Barzilai.

Flint point from Boker Tachtit, dated to the Early Upper Paleolithic. (Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to the study’s authors, through new hi-tech methods and reevaluation of old samples, the researchers have successfully identified the earliest evidence of modern human activity that was concurrently occurring alongside Neanderthal inhabitation in the same region.

The study, which is published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal on Wednesday, uses traditional archaeological methods, as well as laboratory carbon-14 dating methodology and new hi-tech optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates.

“The dating of the site to 50,000 years ago proves that modern man lived in the Negev at the same time as Neanderthal man, who we know inhabited the region in the same period. There is no doubt that, as they dwelt in and moved around the Negev, the two species were aware of each other’s existence. Our research on the Boker Tachtit site places an important, well-defined reference point on the timeline of human evolution,” said Barzilai.

Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, Head of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s D-REAMS Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory (courtesy)

Written by a large team including Weizmann’s Boaretto and the IAA’s Barzilai, the PNAS article, “The absolute chronology of Boker Tachtit (Israel) and implications for the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in the Levant,” describes how recent chronological studies based on radiocarbon dating from other sites in the Levant spurred the team to rethink the previously recognized dating at the Boker Tachtit site, determined from earlier excavations.

So the team, funded by the Max Planck-Weizmann Center for the Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology, conducted new excavations from 2013-2015 and gathered very small individual fragments of wood charcoal. At least a millimeter in their longest dimension, the minuscule samples were analyzed by Boaretto and her Weizmann lab.

The samples belonged to four major species: Pistacia atlantica (a species of pistachio tree), Juniperus cf phoenicea (Phoenician juniper), Tamarix sp. (tamarisk, salt cedar) and Hammada scoparia. According to the article, the radiocarbon dating samples were from clear archaeological contexts that could be associated with significant flint concentrations, which provide a source of typological dating.

Layer of typical Early Upper Paleolithic flint tools as found at the Boker Tachtit site. (Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto, Weizmann Institute of Science)

The C-14 dates and the optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates overlap between 50,000 and 44,000 years ago, a range of 6,000 years.

“We are now able to conclude with greater confidence that the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition was a rather fast-evolving event that began at Boker Tachtit approximately 50-49,000 years ago and ended about 44,000 years ago,” said Boaretto in a Weizman press release.

According to the study, a lot went down during this relatively short period and it corresponds to three periods earmarked by early man’s development and dispersal in the Levant: Late Middle Paleolithic (LMP), Initial Upper Paleolithic (IUP) and Early Upper Paleolithic (EUP).

“For the first time in prehistoric research, the results of the dating prove the hypothesis that there was definitely a spatial overlap between the late Mousterian culture, identified with Neanderthal man, and the Emiran culture, which is associated with the emergence of modern man in the Middle East,” said Barzilai.

The excavations at the 50,000-year-old Boker Tachtit site in the Negev Desert. (Dr. Omry Barizlai, Israel Antiquities Authority)

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