Text #9387"Natufian Culture", in .
The Natufian culture was an Epipaleolithic culture that existed from 12,500 to 9,500 BC in the Levant, a region in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was unusual in that it was sedentary, or semi-sedentary, before the introduction of agriculture. The Natufian communities are possibly the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements of the region, which may have been the earliest in the world. There is some evidence for the deliberate cultivation of cereals, specifically rye, by the Natufian culture, at Tell Abu Hureyra, the site of earliest evidence of agriculture in the world. Generally, though, Natufians made use of wild cereals. Animals hunted included gazelles. According to Christy G. Turner II, there is an archaeological and physical anthropological reason for a relationship between the modern Semitic-speaking populations of the Levant and the Natufians.
The term “Natufian” was coined by Dorothy Garrod who studied the Shuqba cave in Wadi an-Natuf, in the western Judean Mountains, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Ramallah.
Radiocarbon dating places this culture from the terminal Pleistocene to the very beginning of the Holocene, from 12,500 to 9,500 BC.
The period is commonly split into two subperiods: Early Natufian (12,500–10,800 BC) and Late Natufian (10,800–9,500 BC). The Late Natufian most likely occurred in tandem with the Younger Dryas (10,800 to 9,500 BC). In the Levant, there are more than a hundred kinds of cereals, fruits, nuts, and other edible parts of plants, and the flora of the Levant during the Natufian period was not the dry, barren, and thorny landscape of today, but rather woodland.
The Natufian developed in the same region as the earlier Kebaran complex, and is generally seen as a successor which developed from at least elements within that earlier culture. There were also other cultures in the region, such as the Mushabian culture of the Negev and Sinai, which are sometimes distinguished from the Kebaran, and sometimes also seen as having played a role in the development of the Natufian.
More generally there has been discussion of the similarities of these cultures with those found in coastal North Africa. Graeme Barker notes there are: “similarities in the respective archaeological records of the Natufian culture of the Levant and of contemporary foragers in coastal North Africa across the late Pleistocene and early Holocene boundary”.
Ofer Bar-Yosef has argued that there are signs of influences coming from North Africa to the Levant, citing the microburin technique and “microlithic forms such as arched backed bladelets and La Mouillah points.” But recent research has shown that the presence of arched backed bladelets, La Mouillah points, and the use of the microburin technique was already apparent in the Nebekian industry of the Eastern Levant. And Maher et al. state that, “Many technological nuances that have often been always highlighted as signiﬁcant during the Natuﬁan were already present during the Early and Middle EP [Epipalaeolithic] and do not, in most cases, represent a radical departure in knowledge, tradition, or behavior.”
Authors such as Christopher Ehret have built upon the little evidence available to develop scenarios of intensive usage of plants having built up first in North Africa, as a precursor to the development of true farming in the Fertile Crescent, but such suggestions are considered highly speculative until more North African archaeological evidence can be gathered. In fact, Weiss et al. have shown that the earliest known intensive usage of plants was in the Levant 23,000 years ago at the Ohalo II site. Anthropologist C. Loring Brace in a recent study on cranial metric traits however, was also able to identify a “clear link” to Sub-Saharan African populations for early Natufians based on his observation of gross anatomical similarity with extant populations found mostly in the Sahara. Brace believes that these populations later became assimilated into the broader continuum of Southwest Asian populations.
According to Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen, “It seems that certain preadaptive traits, developed already by the Kebaran and Geometric Kebaran populations within the Mediterranean park forest, played an important role in the emergence of the new socioeconomic system known as the Natufian culture.”
The Natufian people lived by hunting and gathering. The preservation of plant remains is poor because of the soil conditions, but wild cereals, legumes, almonds, acorns and pistachios may have been collected. Animal bones show that gazelle (Gazella gazella and Gazella subgutturosa) were the main prey. Additionally deer, aurochs and wild boar were hunted in the steppe zone, as well as onagers and caprids (ibex). Water fowl and freshwater fish formed part of the diet in the Jordan River valley. Animal bones from Salibiya I (12,300 – 10,800 BP) have been interpreted as evidence for communal hunts with nets.
According to one theory, it was a sudden change in climate, the Younger Dryas event (ca. 10,800 to 9500 BCE), that inspired the development of agriculture. The Younger Dryas was a 1,000-year-long interruption in the higher temperatures prevailing since the Last Glacial Maximum, which produced a sudden drought in the Levant. This would have endangered the wild cereals, which could no longer compete with dryland scrub, but upon which the population had become dependent to sustain a relatively large sedentary population. By artificially clearing scrub and planting seeds obtained from elsewhere, they began to practice agriculture. However, this theory of the origin of agriculture is controversial in the scientific community.
It is at Natufian sites that some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the domestication of the dog is found. At the Natufian site of Ain Mallaha in Israel, dated to 12,000 BCE, the remains of an elderly human and a four-to-five-month-old puppy were found buried together. At another Natufian site at the cave of Hayonim, humans were found buried with two canids.
The Ain Sakhri lovers, a carved stone object held at the British Museum, is the oldest known depiction of a couple having sex. It was found in the Ain Sakhri cave in the Judean desert.
Burials made of shell, teeth (of red deer), bones, and stone. There are pendants, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and belt-ornaments as well.
In 2008, the grave of a Natufian ‘priestess’ was discovered (in most media reports referred to as a shaman or witch doctor). The burial contained complete shells of 50 tortoises, which are thought to have been brought to the site and eaten during the funeral feast.
The Epipalaeolithic Natufian of Israel from whom the Neolithic realm was assumed to arise is described as having a clear link to Sub-Saharan Africa. The Sub-Saharan element in the remains is also said to be of almost equal importance to that of the Eurasian element. The authors, however, remain cautious because of the small sample size. The authors further speculate that the admixture process between Neolithic people and in situ foragers diluted any discoverable trace of Sub-Saharan ancestry that may have been present.
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Munro, Natalie D. (August–October 2004), “Zooarchaeological measures of hunting pressure and occupation intensity in the Natufian: Implications for agricultural origins” (PDF), Current Anthropology 45: S5, doi:10.1086/422084 S6-S33.
Simmons, Alan H. (2007), The Neolithic Revolution in the Near East: Transforming the Human Landscape, University of Arizona Press, ISBN 978-0816529667