Episode 10: Settling down in the Later Epipalaeolithic

Last time we saw how the earlier part of the Epipalaeolithic differed from the Upper Palaeolithic mostly in terms of the degree of changes which had been gathering over the course of the later Upper Palaeolithic, rather than the sudden appearance of new techniques and traditions. The later Epipalaeolithic is more of a change than we saw in this previous transition.

First, the later Epipalaeolithic takes place largely at the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene. While the exact point where the earlier and later Epipalaeolithic are divided differs in different parts of the Near East, the later Epipalaeolithic usually falls during this stage at the beginning of the Holocene. This first part of the Holocene has two phases, the Bølling Allerød is the first of these from about 14,500 to 12,750 years ago, when things began to warm up, more rain fell, glaciers in northern Europe began to melt and sea levels began to rise. Then came the Younger Dryas from about 12,750 to 11,500 years ago, when the climate changed its mind a little bit and went back towards a time of cold and dry for a thousand years. This meant that communities across the Near East had to deal with more than one major change in climate during the later Epipalaeolithic.

Many trends which we saw from the Upper Palaeolithic and earlier Epipalaeolithic continued and grew in the later Epipalaeolithic. The trade of exotic goods – such as sea shell beads and obsidian – continued to happen between communities across the Near East. In the later Epipalaeolithic we actually see a wider range of things being traded around, with the addition of stone beads to the repertoire of travelling exotics.

Some of the later Epipalaeolothic stone beads found at Direkli Cave, Turkey. Images adapted from Baysal et al 2018.

The later Epipalaeolithic also continued the earlier trends of greater use and greater processing of plant foods. The finds of grinding stones, mortars and pestles and other tools for processing plant remains not only continue in the later Epipalaeolithic of the Near East, but these tools become more common and more varieties are seen on sites across the region. One potential use of these tools has been found from the later Epipalaeolithic, making it by far the oldest evidence of its kind in the archaeological record – bread. Lumps of charred food remains were found at the site of Shubayqa 1 in Jordan dating from about 14,400 years ago were identified as preserved lumps of charred bread, making them the oldest evidence for the making of bread anywhere in the world.

These preserved chunks of charred bread were found inside the fireplace of Structure 1 at Shubayqa 1, which links this site not only to the oldest evidence for bread but to another new development which we see across the Near East in the later Epipalaeolithic – houses. Stone house foundations begin to appear across sites in the later Epipalaeolithic, indicating that people were routinely putting greater effort into setting up house, and is one of the lines of evidence which suggests that people were more permanently living within one site rather than moving frequently across the landscape between camps.

Structure 1 from Shubayqa 1. This is both a good example of Natufan houses as well as the fireplace wherein the oldest remains of bread ever found were discovered. Image adapted from Arranz-Otaegui et al 2018.

This increased sedentism – staying in one place rather than constantly moving – is suggested by a series of other things which either resulted from this longer-term residence or allowed it to continue. The first of these is evidence for storage – for the storing of food reserves for times of the year when food might not be as plentiful around the site. Another of these is some slight indications of over-hunting in the areas around a few sites in the southern Levant, although such evidence of over-hunting is not consistently seen across the Near East during the later Epipalaeolithic, and is not necessarily even seen across all of the southern Levant in this period. Another indication of less frequent human movement is the appearance of the house mouse, which changes during the late Epipalaeolithic from a local species of wild mouse to a commensal species with humans. This means that mice took advantage of our longer residences and our stored food and moved themselves in alongside us to help themselves when we were not looking, ultimately domesticating themselves into animals adapted to living alongside and off of human communities.

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