The Epipalaeolithic Near East designates the Epipalaeolithic ("Final Old Stone Age", also known as Mesolithic) in the prehistory of the Near East. It is the period after the Upper Palaeolithic and before the Neolithic, between approximately 20,000 and 10,000 years Before Present (BP). The people of the Epipalaeolithic were nomadic hunter-gatherers who generally lived in small, seasonal camps rather than permanent villages. They made sophisticated stone tools using microliths—small, finely-produced blades that were hafted in wooden implements. These are the primary artifacts by which archaeologists recognise and classify Epipalaeolithic sites.
The start of the Epipalaeolithic is defined by the appearance of microliths. Although this is an arbitrary boundary, the Epipalaeolithic does differ significantly from the preceding Upper Palaeolithic. Epipalaeolithic sites are more numerous, better preserved, and can be accurately radiocarbon dated. The period coincides with the gradual retreat of glacial climatic conditions between the Last Glacial Maximum and the start of the Holocene, and it is characterised by population growth and economic intensification. The Epipalaeolithic ended with the "Neolithic Revolution" and the onset of domestication, food production, and sedentism, although archaeologists now recognise that these trends began in the Epipalaeolithic.
The period may be subdivided into Early, Middle and Late Epipalaeolithic: The Early Epipalaeolithic corresponds to the Kebaran culture, c. 20,000 to 14,500 years ago, the Middle Epipalaeolithic is the Geometric Kebaran or late phase of the Kebaran, and the Late Epipalaeolithic to the Natufian, 14,500–11,500 BP. The Natufian overlaps with the incipient Neolithic Revolution, the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A.
The Early Epipalaeolithic, also known as Kebaran, lasted from 20,000 to 12,150 BP. It followed the Upper Paleolithic Levantine Aurignacian (formerly called Antelian) period throughout the Levant. By the end of the Levantine Aurignacian, gradual changes took place in stone industries. Small stone tools called microliths and retouched bladelets can be found for the first time. The microliths of this culture period differ markedly from the Aurignacian artifacts.
By 18,000 BP the climate and environment had changed, starting a period of transition. The Levant became more arid and the forest vegetation retreated, to be replaced by steppe. The cool and dry period ended at the beginning of Mesolithic 1. The hunter-gatherers of the Aurignacian would have had to modify their way of living and their pattern of settlement to adapt to the changing conditions. The crystallization of these new patterns resulted in Mesolithic 1. The people developed new types of settlements and new stone industries.
The inhabitants of a small Mesolithic 1 site in the Levant left little more than their chipped stone tools behind. The industry was of small tools made of bladelets struck off single-platform cores. Besides bladelets, burins and end-scrapers have been found. A few bone tools and some ground stone have also been found. These so-called Mesolithic sites of Asia are far less numerous than those of the Neolithic, and the archeological remains are very poor.
The type site is Kebara Cave south of Haifa. The Kebaran was characterized by small, geometric microliths. The people were thought to lack the specialized grinders and pounders found in later Near Eastern cultures.
The Kebaran is preceded by the Athlitian phase of the Levantine Aurignacian (formerly called Antelian) and followed by the proto-agrarian Natufian culture of the Epipalaeolithic. The appearance of the Kebarian culture, of microlithic type, implies a significant rupture in the cultural continuity of Levantine Upper Paleolithic. The Kebaran culture, with its use of microliths, is associated also with the use of the bow and arrow and the domestication of the dog. The Kebaran is also characterised by the earliest collecting and processing of wild cereals, known due to the excavation of grain-grinding tools. This was the first step towards the Neolithic Revolution. The Kebaran people are believed to have migrated seasonally, dispersing to upland environments in the summer, and gathering in caves and rockshelters near lowland lakes in the winter. This diversity of environments may be the reason for the variety of tools found in their toolkits.
Harvesting of cereals
The earliest evidence for the use of composite cereal harvesting tools are the glossed flint blades that have been found at the site of Ohalo II, a 23,000-year-old fisher-hunter-gatherers’ camp on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Northern Israel. The Ohalo site is dated at the junction of the Upper Paleolithic and the Early Epipalaeolithic, and has been attributed to both periods. The wear traces on the tools indicate that these were used for harvesting near-ripe, semi-green wild cereals, shortly before grains ripen enough to disperse naturally. The study shows that the tools were not used intensively, and they reflect two harvesting modes: flint knives held by hand and inserts hafted into a handle. The finds reveal the existence of cereal harvesting techniques and tools some 8,000 years before the Natufian, and 12,000 years before the establishment of sedentary farming communities in the Near East during the Neolithic Revolution. Furthermore, the new finds accord well with evidence for the earliest ever cereal cultivation at the site, and for the use of stone-made grinding implements.
Artistic expression in the Kebaran culture
Evidence for symbolic behavior of Late Pleistocene foragers in the Levant has been found in engraved limestone plaquettes from the Epipalaeolithic open-air site Ein Qashish South in the Jezreel Valley, Israel. The engravings were uncovered in Kebaran and Geometric Kebaran deposits (ca. 23,000 and ca. 16,500 BP), and include the image of a bird, the first figurative representation known so far from a pre-Natufian Epipalaeolithic site, together with geometric motifs such as chevrons, cross-hatchings, and ladders. Some of the engravings closely resemble roughly contemporary European finds, and may be interpreted as "systems of notations" or "artificial memory systems" related to the timing of seasonal resources and related important events for nomadic groups.
The Late Epipalaeolithic is also called the Natufian culture. This period is characterized by the early rise of agriculture, which later emerged more fully in the Neolithic period. Radiocarbon dating places the Natufian culture between 12,500 and 9500 BCE, just before the end of the Pleistocene. This period is characterised by the beginning of agriculture. The earliest-known battle occurred during the Mesolithic period at a site in Sudan, known as Cemetery 117.
The Natufian culture is commonly split into two subperiods: Early Natufian (12,500–10,800 BCE) (Christopher Delage gives c. 13,000–11,500 BP uncalibrated, equivalent to c. 13,700–11,500 BCE) and Late Natufian (10,800–9500 BCE). The Late Natufian most likely occurred in tandem with the Younger Dryas. The following period is often called the Pre-Pottery Neolithic; specialists do not discuss "Mesolithic pottery" in terms of the Levant.
Bovine-rib dagger, HaYonim Cave, Natufian Culture, 12500-9500 BC.
Stone Mortars from Eynan, Natufian period, 12500-9500 BC
Until recently, it was thought that the Arabian peninsula was too arid and inhospitable for human settlement in the Late Pleistocene. The earliest known sites belonged to the early Neolithic, c. 9000 to 8000 BP, and it was supposed that people were able to recolonise the region then due to the wetter climate of the early Holocene.
However, in 2014, archaeologists working in the southern Nefud desert discovered an Epipalaeolithic site dating to between 12,000 and 10,000 BP. The site is located in the Jubbah basin, a palaeolake which retained water in the otherwise dry conditions of the Terminal Pleistocene. The stone tools found bore a close resemblance to the Geometric Kebaran, a Levantine industry associated with the Middle Epipalaeolithic. The excavators of the site therefore proposed that northern Arabia was colonised by foragers from the Levant around 15,000 years ago. These groups may then have been cut off by the drying climate and retreated to refugia like the Jubbah palaeolake.
The Epipalaeolithic is best understood when discussing the southern Levant, as the period is well documented due to good preservation at the sites, at least of animal remains. The most prevalent animal food sources in the Levant during this period were: deer, gazelle, and ibex of various species, and smaller animals including birds, lizard, fox, tortoise, and hare. Less common were aurochs, wild equids, wild boar, wild cattle, and hartebeest. At Neve David near Haifa, 15 mammal species were found, and two reptile species. Despite then being very close to the coast, the rather small number of seashells found (7 genera) and the piercing of many, suggests these may have been collected as ornaments rather than food.
However the period seems to be marked by an increase in plant foods and a decrease in meat eating. Over 40 plant species have been found by analysing one site in the Jordan Valley, and some grains were processed and baked. Stones with evidence of grinding have been found. These were most likely the main food sources throughout the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, which introduced the widespread agricultural growing of crops.
- List of archaeological periods (Levant)
- Levantine archaeology
- Levantine Aurignacian
- Caucasian Epipalaeolithic
- Mesolithic Europe
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