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Open-air landscape in Israel was repeatedly occupied by Neanderthals

A team of experts led by Ravid Ekshtain at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found that the Middle Paleolithic site ‘Ein Qashish was repeatedly inhabited by Neanderthals. Located in northern Israel, this archeological site is an open-air landscape close to many major cave sites of the same time period.

In the Levant region of the Middle East, most of the information on human occupation during the Middle Paleolithic has been obtained from cave sites. Sheltered sites are not only easier to identify, but are also likely to hold longer records of occupation because they were usually visited more often. 

The open-air landscape of ‘Ein Qashish is significant for having been settled over an extended prehistoric time period, ranging between 71,000 and 54,000 years ago.

In collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the researchers identified human skeletal remains in ‘Ein Qashish as Neanderthal. The experts also observed more than 12,000 artifacts from four depositional units in the same location on the landscape. The units represent different settlements during changing environmental conditions.

Animal bones and modified artifacts at the site suggest that occupants were knapping tools and consuming animals on-site. There is also evidence that ‘Ein Qashish provided a stable and consistent place for settlement, hosting a range of activities instead of just a few specialized tasks. The research indicates that open-air sites may have been more important for prehistoric humans than previously thought.

“Ein Qashish is a 70-60 thousand years open-air site, with a series of stratified human occupations in a dynamic floodplain environment. The site stands out in the extensive excavated area and some unique finds for an open-air context, from which we deduce the diversity of human activities on the landscape. In contrast to other known open-air sites, the locality was not used for task-specific activities but rather served time and again as a habitation location,” explained Ekshtain. 

“The stratigraphy, dates and finds from the site allow a reconstruction of a robust settlement system of the late Neanderthals in northern Israel slightly before their disappearance from the regional record, raising questions about the reasons for their disappearance and about their interactions with contemporaneous modern humans.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer 

Image Credit: Ekshtain, 2019

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