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Archaeology in Israel: The Carmel Caves

The caves are located on the western slopes of Mt. Carmel, some 20 km. south of Haifa, where Nahal Me'arot (Valley of the Caves) emerges into the Coastal Plain. They were first excavated in the 1920s and 1930s. Then new digs were conducted from the late 1960s onwards, using advanced scientific methods based on modern geological, archeological and palynological (paleontological study of pollen, fossils, etc.) research.

Flint tools, animal bones and human burials found in the Carmel Caves contribute greatly to the understanding of the physical and cultural evolution of man in the early phases of his existence.

The Tabun Cave (Cave of the Oven)

The Tabun Cave was occupied intermittently during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic ages (half a million to some 40,000 years ago). In the course of this extremely long period of time, deposits of sand, silt and clay of up to 25 m. accumulated in the cave. Excavation proved that it has one of the longest sequences of human occupation in the Levant.

The earliest deposits contain large amounts of sea sand. This, and pollen traces found, suggest a relatively warm climate. The melting glaciers which covered large parts of the globe caused the sea level to rise and the Mediterranean coastline to recede. The Coastal Plain was narrower than it is today, and was covered with savannah vegetation. The cave dwellers used handaxes of flint or limestone for killing animals (gazelle, hippopotamus, rhinoceros and wild cattle which roamed the Coastal Plain) and for digging out plant roots. The tools improved slowly over a period of tens of thousands of years. The handaxes became smaller and better shaped and scrapers, made of thick flakes chipped off flint cores, were probably used for scraping meat off bones and for processing animal skins.

The upper levels in the Tabun Cave consist mainly of clay and silt, indicating that a colder, more humid climate prevailed when glaciers formed once more; this caused the Mediterranean Sea level to drop some 100 m., to its present level. It also produced a wider coastal strip, covered by dense forests and swamps.

The material remains from the upper strata in the Tabun Cave are of the Mousterian culture (about 200,000 - 45,000 years ago). Small flint tools, made of thin flakes, predominate here, many produced by the Levallois technique: a method of carefully trimming the flint core before the desired shape of the flake is struck off. Tools typical of this culture are elongated points, flakes of various shapes used as scrapers, end scrapers and many denticulate tools used for cutting and sawing.

The diet of the people who manufactured and used these tools consisted of fruit, seeds, roots and leaves with a supplement of meat - gazelle, fallow deer, roe deer, and wild boar. The large number of bones of fallow deer found in the upper layers of the Tabun Cave may be due to the chimney-like opening in the back of the cave which functioned as a natural trap. The animals were probably herded towards it and fell into the cave where they were butchered.

The Tabun Cave contains a Neanderthal-type burial of a female, dated to about 120,000 years ago. It is one of the most ancient human skeletal remains found in Israel.

The Skhul Cave (Cave of the Kids)

Numerous human burials dated to approximately the same time were found in this nearby cave. Fourteen skeletons were uncovered, including three complete ones; they were defined as an archaic type of Homo sapiens, closely related to modern humans in physical appearance. It is believed that this human, with delicate facial features, a protruding chin and straight forehead, was fully developed around 100,000 years ago. The finds from these graves also show evidence of cult and rituals related to death and the spiritual realm.

The finds in the cave are of major importance to anthropological prehistoric research of the development of the human species. The theory that Homo sapiens did not develop from Neanderthal man, but that both lived contemporaneously, is becoming increasingly accepted: Neanderthal man became extinct while Homo sapiens developed into the modern human race.

The El-Wad Cave (Cave of the Valley)

This is the largest of the Mt. Carmel caves. The accumulated layers provide evidence of human presence from the end of the occupation of the Tabun Cave (approximately 45,000 years ago).

Important finds from this cave are of the Natufian culture (10,500 to 8,500 BCE), a highly developed culture relative to those preceding it. It signals the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic cultures, from plant-gathering and animal-hunting to plant-growing and animal-domestication. During this period, the level of the Mediterranean Sea rose again, as the glacial period came to an end, and the coastline stabilized, to roughly its present contours. The Coastal Plain became narrower and was covered by sparse forest and grasslands, with swamps in low-lying areas. The number of animal species had declined and consisted mainly of gazelles and wild cattle.

The population of the El-Wad cave used both the cave and the broad terrace in front of it. The settlement is believed to have been permanent, a unique development in terms of previous lifestyles in the caves. It consisted of a few families living in a tent-village which served as the base for hunting expeditions and food gathering.

The Natufian flint tools are of very high quality and delicacy, very small and carefully retouched. These microliths were primarily scrapers for treating animal skins, points for wood- and bone-working, awls for piercing stones used as fishing weights, skins and decorative beads, blades for cutting meat and sawing bone and sickle blades (secured in wooden or bone scythes) for harvesting grain (which left a characteristic gloss on the edge of the blades). There were also microliths of lunate shape, used as arrowheads, for harpoons and as fish hooks and larger tools made of rough chunks of flint for cracking bones and hard-shelled seeds. Grinding tools, mortars and pestles made of stone, were used for food processing.

On the terrace in front of the cave, more then one hundred individual human burials were excavated. The dead were buried in a tightly flexed position, some with ornaments made of stone, bone or dentalia shell. The large number of skeletons provided anthropologists with the opportunity to study the physical characteristics of this Natufian population. The average height was between 1.58 and 1.65 m., the heads relatively large with wide and rather low foreheads, characteristics typical of populations of this period in the eastern Mediterranean Basin.

The El-Wad cave is now open to the public and visitors may appraise the many prehistoric finds and their place in the development of the human race.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry