Episode 2: the Lower Palaeolithic in the Near East

The archaeological record in the ancient Near East begins with the Lower Palaeolithic, when Homo erectus wandered out of Africa some time a little less than two million years ago and spread out across Europe and Asia. It is the evidence from the lives of these people which we have across the Near East that form the Lower Palaeolithic.

The oldest evidence of people in the Near East that we currently know of is from about 1.2 to 1.6 million years ago and comes from two sites both dating to this time window. ‘Ubeidiya, an open-air site along a river in the Jordan Valley has provided a deep sequence of Acheulean stone tools and a few remains of people, which were probably Homo erectus. Kocabaş, a quarry site in Turkey, has yielded parts of the skull from a single Homo erectus from this same time. From the time of these earliest sites until the end of the Lower Palaeolithic about 215,000 years ago, we find evidence of Homo erectus and Acheulean stone tools across the Near East. To see how these Acheulean stone tools were made, check out a video of the process here.

How to make an Acheulean hand axe

We do not have a massive quantity of sites from the Lower Palaeolithic, and the number of sites which we have found increases as we get into younger periods of the Lower Palaeolithic. We have more sites from the Middle Acheulean (after about 800,000 years ago) than we do from the Early Acheulean (before this). We have enough sites from the Middle Acheulean to see differences in the shape of stone tools between sites of the coast and those of the more eastern parts of the Near East. This division seems to continue into the Late Acheulean, after about 600,000 years ago.

By 400,000 years ago, we see some significant changes in the way that people living in areas closer to the Mediterranean coast lived, made tools and used the landscape in the development of the Acheulo-Yabrudian complex. These people spent more time staying in caves, regularly made fires and improved their technology for making tools. Some of the best evidence that we for changes in the way that people lived during this final stage of the Lower Palaeolithic comes from a few recent cave excavations in the southern Levant, such as those at Qesem Cave and Zuttiyeh Cave.

Views of Qesem and Zuttiyeh caves.
To find out more about these cave sites, click on the links in the text above.

Episode Bibliography:

Agam, A. 2020. Late Lower Palaeolithic lithic procurement and exploitation strategies: a view from Acheulo-Yabrudian Qesem Cave (Israel). Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 33: 102447.

Agam, A., Azuri, I., Pinkas, I., Gopher, A. and Natalio, F. 2020. Estimating temperatures of heated Lower Palaeolithic flint artefacts. Nature Human Behaviour https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-00955-z

Barkai, R., Rosell, J., Blasco, R. and Gopher, A. 2017.Fire for a reason: barbecue at Middle Pleistocene Qesem Cave, Israel. Current Anthropology 58(S16): S314-S328.

Bar-Yosef, O., and Belfer-Cohen, A. 2001. From Africa to Eurasia – early dispersals. Quaternary International 75: 19-28.

Bar-Yosef, O. and Belmaker, M. 2011. Early and Middle Pleistocene faunal and hominins dispersals through southwestern Asia. Quaternary Science Reviews 30: 1318-1337.

Belmaker, M., Tchernov, E., Condemi, S. and Bar-Yosef, O. 2002. New evidence for hominid presence in the Lower Pleistocene of the southern Levant. Journal of Human Evolution 43(1): 43-56.

Ben-Dor, M., Gopher, A., Hershkovits, I. and Barkia, R. 2011. Man the fat hunter: the demise ofHomoerectus and the emergence of a new hominin lineage in the Middle Pleistocene (c.400 kyr) Levant. PLOS One 6(12): e28689.

Blasco, R., Rosell, J., Gopher, A. and Barkai, R. 2014.Subsistence economy and social life: a zooarchaeological view from the 300 kya central hearth at Qesem Cave, Israel. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 35:248-268.

Dennell, R.2003. Dispersal and colonisation, long and short chronologies: how continuous is the Early Pleistocene record for hominids outside East Africa? Journal of Human Evolution 45: 421-440.

Enzel, Y.and Bar-Yosef, O. (eds.). 2017. Quaternary of the Levant: Environments, Climate Change and Humans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gopher, A., Ayalon, A., Bar-Matthews, M., Barkai, R., Frumkin, A., Karkanas, P. and Shahack-Gross, R. 2010. The chronology of the late Lower Palaeolithic in the Levant based on U-Th ages of speleothems from Qesem Cave, Israel. Quaternary Geochronology 5: 644-656.

Hardy, K. 2018. Plant use in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic: food, medicine and raw materials. Quaternary Science Reviews 191: 393-405.

Hardy, K., Radini, A., Buckley, S., Sarig, R., Copeland, L., Gopher, A. and Barkai, R. 2016. Dental calculus reveals potential respiratory irritants and ingestion of essential plant-based nutrients at Lower Palaeolithic Qesem Cave Israel. Quaternary International 398: 129-135.

Kuhn, S.L. and Stiner, M.C. 2019. Hearth and home in the Middle Pleistocene. Journal of Anthropological Research 75(3): 305-327.

Porat, N., Chazan, M., Schwarcz, H., Horwitz, L.K., 2002. Timing of the Lower to Middle Palaeolithic boundary: new dates from the Levant. Journal of Human Evolution 43: 107-122.

Shea, J.J. 2007. The Boulevard of broken dreams: evolutionary discontinuity in the Late Pleistocene Levant. In P. Mellars, K. Boyle, O. Bar-Yosef and C. Stringer (eds.), Rethinking the Human Revolution: New Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origins and Dispersal of Modern Humans. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs: 219-234.

Shimelmitz, R., Kuhn, S.L., Jelinek, A.J., Ronen, A., Clark, A.E. and Weinstein-Evron, M. 2014. ‘Fire at will’: the emergence of habitual fire use 350,000 years ago. Journal of Human Evolution 77: 196-203.

Vialet, A., Prat, S., Wils, P. and Alçiçek, M.C. 2018. The Kocabaş hominin (Denizli Basin, Turkey) at the crossroads of Eurasia: new insights from morphometric and cladistic analysis. Comptes Rendus Palevol 17: 17-32.

Zupanich, A., Ninziante-Cesaro, S., Blasco, R., Rosell, J., Cristiani, E., Venditti, F., Lemori, C., Barkai, R. and Gopher, A. 2016. Early evidence of stone tool us in bone working activities at Qesem Cave, Israel. Nature Scientific Reports 6: 37686.

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