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Study: Prehistoric Hula Valley residents traveled far for high-quality flint

"Our findings provide compelling evidence of the remarkable cognitive and social abilities of the early humans inhabiting the Hula Valley,” says Tel Aviv University professor Erez Ben-Yosef.

Israelis visit the Hula Valley lake in northern Israel on Nov. 12, 2022. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Israelis visit the Hula Valley lake in northern Israel on Nov. 12, 2022. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.

Early humans living in the Hula Valley traveled great distances for high-quality flint, according to a new study by Israeli researchers. The findings challenge previously-held assumptions about prehistoric man.

Using chemical analysis and artificial intelligence, researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Tel Hai College in northern Israel found that early humans engaged in the systematic procurement of various raw materials, especially flint, hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The Hula Valley offered early humans rich sources of water, vegetation and game, right on the northward migration route from Africa—the Great African Rift Valley. These early inhabitants left behind many artifacts, including thousands of hand axes—flint stones chiseled to fit the human hand.

The researchers, led by Meir Finkel of Tel Aviv University and professor Gonen Sharon of Tel-Hai College, focused on uncovering the source of flint used to create hand axes found in the Hula Valley’s oldest prehistoric sites, Maayan Baruch and Gesher Benot Yaakov. More than 3,500 of the tools were found at those two sites alone, which would have required 3.5 tons of raw flint to produce, they explained.

To identify the source of the stone, the researchers took samples from 20 hand axes—10 from Gesher Benot Yaakov and 10 from Ma’ayan Baruch, ground them into powder and dissolved the powder in acid. For each sample, they measured the concentration of approximately 40 chemical elements using an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, down to a resolution of one particle per billion.

To locate possible flint sources available to the Hula Valley’s prehistoric inhabitants, the researchers conducted a field survey covering flint exposures in the Safed Mountains, Ramim Ridge, Golan Heights and Dishon Plateau. They also investigated cobbles from all the streams draining into the Hula Valley.

“Through the computational process we discovered that all 20 archaeological artifacts were made of flint from a single source: the Dishon Plateau’s flint exposures,” said Finkel.

When the researchers reached the Dishon Plateau, “We found a prehistoric flint extraction and reduction complex, indicating that the place served as a flint source for hundreds of thousands of years,” added Finkel.

Explaining the significance, professor Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University said,  “Our findings provide compelling evidence of the remarkable cognitive and social abilities of the early humans inhabiting the Hula Valley.”

He stressed that “these individuals, likely belonging to the Homo erectus species, displayed a level of sophistication and capability that researchers do not typically associate with prehistoric humans from such an early period. The procurement of high-quality flint required meticulous planning and execution of arduous journeys, spanning a distance of 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) and an elevation change from 70 to 800 meters (230 feet to 2625 feet) above sea level.”

Moreover, he said, “This vital knowledge was passed down through multiple generations over millennia.”

The findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed Geoarchaeology journal.

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