Neanderthals Weren’t Only Cavemen

“And I will lead Yisrael back to his pasture, and he shall graze in Carmel and Bashan, and eat his fill in the hill country of Efraim and in Gilad.” Jeremiah 50:19 (The Israel Bible™)

Archeological sites located in caves usually provide the most information about their Neanderthal ancient dwellers, but civilizations in open-air locations are less likely to have been preserved. Neanderthal people, in fact, have long been identified as cave dwellers.

But now, the open-air archeological site of Ein Qashish in northern Israel presents a rare opportunity – its finds reveal that Neanderthals made repeated, long-term use of it during the Middle Paleolithic period.

(Photo courtesy)

Dr. Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University and colleagues discovered the remains and have just published their findings in the open-access journal PLoS One.

In the Levant region of the Middle East, the main source of information on Middle Paleolithic human occupation comes from cave sites. Compared to open-air settlements, sheltered sites like caves were easily recognized and often visited and thus more likely to record long periods of occupation. The open-air site of at Ein Qashish is unusual in having been inhabited over an extended prehistoric time period. This site provides a unique opportunity to explore an open-air locality across a large landscape and over a long period ranging between 71,000 and 54,000 years ago.

The Neanderthals conducted much of their activities in the open landscape, according to the study by an international team led by Israeli archeologists and constituted a resilient population that survived successfully in caves and open landscapes when dispersing modern humans reached the region.

In a joint collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority, Ekshtain and colleagues identified human skeletal remains there as Neanderthal and observed more than 12,000 artifacts from four different depositional units in the same location on the landscape. These units represent different instances of occupation during changing environmental conditions.

The study focused on the skeletal remains of two human individuals on the banks of the Kishon stream in northern Israel. The analyses showed that these bones represent the first Neanderthal remains outside caves in the Levant and are among the very few of such finds worldwide.

The first individual is represented by a single upper molar tooth, attributed to a Neanderthal using advanced imaging and statistical techniques. The other individual is represented by lower limbs of a young Neanderthal estimated to be 15 to 22 years in age, who suffered from injuries that caused limping. This individual was found within a rich archaeological level containing flint tools, animal bones and some unusual finds for this period, such as a marine shell, pigments and an antler of a deer.

The finds from ‘Ein Qashish allow, for the first time in the history of research in this region, to tie material culture remains in an open-air site with the Neanderthals, the researchers wrote.  Located in present-day northern Israel, the area of this site is estimated to have been about 1,300 square meters in area, of which about 670 were excavated. The site is located at the confluence of the Kishon stream with a small tributary running off the eastern flanks of the Mount Carmel.

״A number of researchers have recently claimed that Neanderthals were adapted to life in rugged mountainous terrains whereas modern humans adapted better to flat and open landscapes. The finds from Ein Qashish show that Neanderthals inhabited sites in diverse topographic and ecological contexts.”

Another contentious topic concerns the causes for the disappearance of the Neanderthals.  One of the prominent explanations offered was that it was difficult for Neanderthals groups in the Levant to cope with the environmental outcomes of a trend of increasing drying climate that was characteristic of the time period under study. The unique find from Ein Qashish suggests that Neanderthal groups repeatedly returned to the open-air sites during this time.