Natufian culture

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jul 17, 2023

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The Natufian is an archaeological culture of the Epipaleolithic, attested in the Levant between 14500 and 11500 BC (12550-9550 BC). It is characterized by the setting up of the first experiences of sedentarization and therefore by the appearance of the first villages. It owes its name to the Wadi en-Natouf valley in the West Bank where it was identified (in the Shuqba cave) by the British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod in 1928.

Natufian sites have been discovered in the regions bordering the Mediterranean coast of the Near East, notably near Mount Carmel and in Galilee, in what seems to be the heart of this culture and the region where sedentarization is most advanced. More broadly, the sites associated closely or remotely with the Natufian extend from Sinai to the Middle Euphrates in present-day Syria.

The Natufian is commonly divided into two main periods. An early period, which coincides with a warmer and wetter climate than in the past, sees the retreat of mobility and the emergence of villages of hunter-gatherers whose subsistence relies on a wide range of resources, and who employ a wide variety of lithic tools. A recent period, which takes place in a cooling phase, sees a return to sedentary life, very marked in the southern Levant, while more important sites develop on the Middle Euphrates.

In the current state of knowledge, nothing indicates that the Natoufians were farmers, but it is possible that they carried out tests of domestication of the plants.

The Natufian was discovered by the British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod, who came to the Middle East with the aim of identifying prehistoric cultures (she is also at the origin of the Zarzian of the Zagros). In 1928, she undertook the excavation of a cave located near the village of Shuqba in the Wadi en-Natouf valley, in the western hills of Judea, where various prehistoric objects had previously been discovered. It identifies a set of Mesolithic microliths between the Upper Paleolithic and Bronze Age levels.

In the following years, she conducted other excavations seeking to specify the characteristics of the lithic industry of this period, in Wadi el-Mughara, a valley located on the western flank of Mount Carmel (notably the cave of el-Wad). In 1929, she proposed to designate this industry as "Natufian", after the name of the first site where it was identified: "As it will be convenient to have a name for this culture, I propose to call it Natufian, after the Wadi en-Natouf at Shuqba, where we first found it" (D. Garrod).

In the same years, the excavations of the Frenchman René Neuville in various caves led to a first proposal of periodization of this lithic industry. The Natufians were gradually defined as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who practiced cereal cultivation (with regard to the sickles found on the sites) and also the beginning of animal domestication, domestication being seen as a cause of sedentarization and therefore prior to or contemporary with it. In the 1950s, Israeli excavations at Nahal Oren and French excavations at Mallaha (or Eynan) overturned this conception.

The discovery of the houses thus makes it possible to identify the Natoufians as the oldest known sedentary communities. Jean Perrot highlights the fact that agriculture and animal husbandry were not known at this time. He proposes to qualify the period as "Epipaleolithic" to mark the continuity with previous phases. This interpretation of a period of sedentarization without domestication, therefore prior to the Neolithic (which, strictly speaking, marks the transition between the "predatory" economy of hunter-gatherers and the "productive" economy of farmer-breeders), remains the basis of current proposals.

The study of this period remains fundamental to the understanding of the Neolithization of the Near East, since it lays the foundations for it, since sedentary life is commonly seen as a necessary condition for the development of agriculture. Research has since clarified the knowledge of the Natufian thanks to new excavations and new research begun in the 1970s, which have notably broadened the geographical horizon of the Natufian (works of the Israelis O. Bar-Yosef, A. Belfer-Cohen, A. N. Goring-Morris, the French F. Valla, the Americans D. O. Henry and A. E. Marks). These studies have placed the Natufian, and more broadly the Epipaleolithic of the Levant (c. 22000-11500 AP) as an essential phase for understanding the Neolithization of the Near East. Indeed, the Neolithic proper does not mark the beginning of the transition to the Neolithic way of life in this region of the world, but rather must be seen as "a recent stage or end point within a larger transformation in cultural dynamics that began during the Epipaleolithic" (N. Munro and L. Grosman).

The Natufian is a culture considered to belong to the Late Epipaleolithic, which in the context of the Near East corresponds to the last phase of the Upper Paleolithic, before the beginning of the Neolithic, or to a transitional phase between the two periods. Some have proposed to speak of "Protonéolithic" to designate more precisely the Natoufian and the neighbouring cultures of the same period.

In its geographical area, it succeeds the Kebarian (Early Epipaleolithic, c. 21000-18000 AP), and the Geometric Kebarian (Middle Epipaleolithic, c. 18000-14500 AP).

The Natoufian is generally divided into two sub-periods, sometimes three as some insert a final phase. The dates are given before the present calibrated :

The Natufian is succeeded by a set of cultures, located between the very end of the Epipaleolithic and the very beginning of the Neolithic: the Harifian identified on sites in the Negev, and especially the Khiamian, which is often grouped in the Preceramic Neolithic A

The Natufian develops in the south of the Levant, currently corresponding to the territories of Israel and Palestine, and to the western fringe of Jordan. It is a region split between several distinct geo-climatic zones with a north-south orientation: to the west, a narrow coastal plain, then a chain of mountains and plateaus, including the Upper Galilee, then a depression (the Jordan Valley) and finally another mountain chain. In the west, the climate is currently Mediterranean, becoming more arid (steppe) towards the east. The Natufians developed their villages mainly in the Mediterranean part, especially around Mount Carmel and the Galilee, which seem to be the focus of the early Natufian. In the Late Natufian, the geographical horizon expanded in all possible directions, including the desert areas, even if these were only temporary sites.

There has been some debate as to whether the sites in the northern Levant belong to the Natufian geographical area. The ancient sites discovered along the Middle Euphrates during the recent period, in particular (Abu Hureyra), clearly show similar features to those of the Natufian sites. The discovery of the sites of Jeftelik in Lebanon or of the Dederiyeh cave in central Syria (contemporary with the Early Natufian) have contributed to admitting an extension of the Natufian culture into the northern Levant, or at least to looking for a regional variant (a "Northern Natufian"?).

The Natufian is contemporary with the following neighboring cultures:

While archaeologists agree that links exist between Natoufian developments and climate fluctuations, there is not necessarily a consensus on the interpretation of these links.

The Natoufian begins at the moment when the last glacial maximum ends, characterized by a cold and dry climate, and when a phase of softening begins, marked by more important precipitations, called Bölling-Alleröd and which lasts approximately from 14500 to 13000 AP. These climatic conditions coincide with the ancient Natoufian and could explain the rise of sedentary life permitted by a more generous environment in food resources, nomadism no longer being the only viable way of life.

The Late Natufian coincides with a phase of abrupt cooling, the Late Dryas, which began around 13000-12800 AD, shortly after the beginning of the Late Natufian, and lasted a little over a millennium. These new climatic conditions seem to have had a major impact, and are generally considered to have driven the beginning of the Neolithization process. O. Bar-Yosef believes that the availability of plant and animal resources became more uncertain, leading the societies of the time to make a choice: either to become more mobile in order to obtain these resources, even if it meant seeking confrontation with other groups; or to settle permanently in a territory where these resources were available, and defend it. These two solutions would be visible in the archaeological corpus of the period. The increase in sedentary life for some could be the origin of the first experiments in domestication of plants and animals. On the contrary, other authors considered that the archaeological documentation pleads only in favor of a greater mobility and that the conditions were very unfavorable to the development of an agriculture. F. Valla is for his part more skeptical about the influence of the climate and refuses to see it as a unique or main explanatory factor.

A 2016 research, however, concluded that the Late Dryas in the Southern Levant, admittedly corresponding to a colder climate, was not drier than the Bölling-Alleröd; while sedentary communities fared worse in the Mediterranean region, in contrast, those in the Jordan Valley, where the climate is more favorable, seem to have survived better.

Sedentary lifestyle

"Sedentary life, which implies a permanent habitat, is opposed on this point to mobility, which implies a temporary or seasonal habitat. Acquired as early as the Natoufian period, this character differentiates the Near East from the surrounding regions, and is reflected in the presence of villages, centers of territories that may also include temporary habitats (camps)" (O. Aurenche and S. Kozlowski). Since the work of Jean Perrot at Mallaha, the appearance of sedentary life has become a central issue in studies of the Natoufian and more broadly of the Near Eastern Neolithic. However, much remains to be done to fully understand the process, its causes and its modalities.

The sedentary nature of a group can be concluded from a group of converging clues found on a given site, no clue being considered decisive if taken in isolation. Perennial architecture, the presence of heavy furniture (mortars) or funerary practices (presence of a cemetery) are elements often taken into consideration. The accumulation of material remains reflecting a prolonged occupation, and indications of occupation of the same site at each season of the year are more widely sought. Clues are also to be sought in the presence on the sites of animals "commensals" of men, attracted by the prospect of scrounging for food reserves or remains of the villagers: mice with the characteristics of the "domestic" species (Mus musculus) have been identified at Hayonim, whereas they are absent from earlier sites in the Near East; the presence of the domestic dog goes in the same direction, as well as the sparrow.

The emergence of sedentary life is due to developments originating in the appearance of semi-permanent sites, such as at Ohalo II (site dated to the beginning of the Epipaleolithic c. 23,000 AP cal.), comprising circular, semi-buried huts, in some way the ancestors of the huts and houses of the Natufian period, occupied for several years and corresponding to several construction phases. More generally, the Epipaleolithic phases preceding the Natoufian are marked by an increase in the territoriality of human groups, which are more limited to specific territories and tend to return to the same place several times (this is the case of Ohalo II), as well as the appearance of aggregation sites on which a large population is found at times (notably during the Nizzanian, c. 20,000-18,000 AP cal.), evolutions that herald in many respects the sedentary nature of the Natoufian.

In the Early Natufian, traces of a more permanent architecture and other characteristics appear as markers of sedentarity, or at least a more durable occupation of sites. The shift to sedentary life (or at least the marked decrease in mobility) is generally attributed to the ability of human groups to sustain themselves in a smaller space than in the past, either because they developed subsistence strategies that allowed them to stay in one place longer without depleting its resources (in response to their increasing population, which would make older practices less viable), or because they are able to take advantage of a more resource-rich environment (due to climate improvement), or because they have sought to secure and defend resources in more difficult times by settling in a particular place.

In any case, one should not consider a generalized sedentary lifestyle at Natoufian. In fact, we observe, on the one hand, small sites of 15 to 100 m2, probably temporary settlements without permanent structures, and, on the other hand, "villages" or "hamlets" of about 1,000 m2 or more, with permanent structures; in between, there are intermediate sites that sometimes have permanent structures. It is generally considered that the organization of the settlement associates for the same group a permanent village, thus qualifying as sedentary, and a set of camps or "stations" occupied on a temporary, seasonal basis. In a community that had experienced sedentary life, there could therefore be sedentary people on the one hand, residing all year round in the same place, while other members had to leave the base camp on a seasonal basis, in the form of bands, to obtain resources. Other groups remained completely mobile, without a sedentary camp. The Natoufian society is therefore certainly less mobile than those that preceded it and introduced the first experiments in sedentariness, but it is not entirely sedentary and can be described as "semi-sedentary". It is a period of experimentation and fluidity in the residential (and more broadly social) structures, with diverse responses depending on the place and the time. This flexibility of adaptation also explains why returns to a more mobile lifestyle are sometimes observed.

T. Hardy-Smith and P. C. Edwards have questioned the existence of a truly sedentary lifestyle and sites in the Early Natufian, based on the study of the Wadi Hammeh site 27, notably the absence of evidence of practices to ensure long-term hygiene and sanitation of houses as would be expected in a sedentary lifestyle. In their view it would be better to think of the larger sites as main base camps, occupied long-term but with seasonal phases of abandonment. B. Boyd proposes to qualify and reconsider the use of the concept of sedentariness, transposed to the Early Natufian from the model provided by the later periods and which serves as a reference because it is the way of life that will triumph later in the Neolithic (a semantic bias that is also reflected in the fact that one prefers to speak of a "semi-sedentary" society rather than a "semi-mobile" one), since in the Late Natufian we observe a phase of "return of mobility".

Ancient Natoufian sites

The Early Natufian is the phase that saw the appearance of the first and most important villages of this period, thus "a flourishing semi-sedentary society" according to O. Bar-Yosef.

The Natoufians settled in sites that were favorable to the development of hunter-gatherer communities, at the meeting of different terroirs (valleys, plateaus and mountains, woods, swamps, etc.). They took advantage of the presence of perennial springs, even a lake in the case of Mallaha. The occupation sites were established in the open air or on terraces bordering a natural shelter, or at the entrance to a cave (as at Hayonim), as was already the case in the Upper Paleolithic.

The houses built are circular or semi-circular, semi-buried. Their diameter is generally between 5 and 7 meters and they cover around 25 m2 on the ground. The lower part of the walls rests in a basin sometimes covered with a layer of stone. These stones serve as a base for the superstructures whose walls are made of organic material (plants, skins). Sometimes, wooden posts support the roof. The houses have a fireplace, but generally no other interior equipment. They are often rebuilt in the same location by subsequent generations. In Mallaha, they are aligned with each other, while at sites such as Hayonim they are clustered together. Smaller constructions of 1.5 to 4 meters in diameter, as well as traces of stone circles that may correspond to mobile structures, have been observed and undoubtedly serve functions other than that of housing. Other structures that may have had ritual uses (undoubtedly mixed with "utilitarian" buildings) stand out for their size and other aspects. This is the case of house 131 at Mallaha, which had walls covered with red plaster, posts supporting its roof, three fireplaces, and included animal remains and a fragment of a human skull, all of which are unusual elements that allow it to be seen as a building for ritual use. The same is true of the Jordanian site of Wadi Hammeh 27 where there are two large structures with traces of posts, the larger (15 meters long) with benches included an engraved monolith. Estimating the population of these sites is complex, as we do not know exactly the surface area occupied (none of them having been completely excavated) nor how many people lived in the constructions that have been cleared. Estimates remain very vague: the villages of the time must have housed only a few families, between 45 and 200 individuals, the number of 59 individuals on average per site has been suggested.

The situation is different at Beidha, in southern Jordan, which is a temporary occupation site, a hunter "station," that is repeatedly occupied during the Early Natufian but without the construction of a permanent habitat. The site contains only hearths, fire pits, and numerous burned bones, and has yielded mainly only lithic material.

Late Natufian sites

In the recent Natoufian period, the trend changes with a rise in mobility. The sites are smaller in size, as are the houses (around 10 m2 at Mallaha). The Shuqba cave dates from this period, where numerous sickles and hearths have been found, but very little grinding material. This cave may have served as a temporary site for gathering grain at mid-altitude before bringing it back to a base camp at the bottom of the valley. An egg-shaped structure on the Jericho platform (Tell es-Sultan), reminiscent of the Early Natufian structures at Wadi Hammeh 27 and Mallaha, may date to the very end of the period.

Further south, the Rosh Horesha-Saflulim site in the Negev covers a large area (4,000-5,000 m2) but has few perennial structures. It may have served as a temporary aggregation site for mobile bands that dispersed during the rest of the year. The nearby Rosh Zin site includes small houses (3 to 5 meters in diameter) clustered together, forming a sort of "beehive". This tendency is found on the Harifian sites, a culture that will later develop in the same region.

Generally speaking, it seems that in the southern Levant, sedentary life is receding, with groups becoming more mobile again, over a larger area. This may be linked to the cooling of the climate (recent Dryas), or to an overly intensive exploitation of the environment by the sedentary communities of the ancient Natoufian, which forced their successors to modify their social and economic organization. The most important villages are now located further north, in the Middle Euphrates region, an area whose "Natufian" character is debated, with Mureybet and Abu Hureyra, the latter perhaps reaching 100 to 300 inhabitants.

Gathering and consumption of cereals

The Natoufians are hunter-gatherers, and therefore in the broadest sense "collectors". Their diet is based primarily on the gathering of plants, growing around their villages and camps, which vary greatly depending on the season. As the sites preserve few archaeological traces of this, this assertion is largely based on the knowledge acquired from sites of the preceding periods (Ohalo II) and of the contemporary northern Levant during the final phases of the Natufian (Abu Hureyra and Mureybet). Their occupants consume cereals and other grasses, legumes, fruits, nuts and possibly acorns. The presence of sickle blades attests to the gathering of wild cereals (and also to the harvesting of straw for construction).

Cases of intensive plant gathering have been identified, based on evidence such as the presence of numerous sickles, milling equipment, and structures identified as "silos" (which is probably not the case for many of them). But the archaeological record does not provide evidence for domestication at this period. There again, we observe rather very selective and intensive gathering practices that would at best be considered as "pre-domestication". It seems, however, that plant cultivation experiments had already taken place earlier at Ohalo II, at the beginning of the Epipaleolithic.

In any case, the finds on Natufian sites indicate that the way of consuming cereals evolved decisively during this period. Methods of grinding grain existed before this period, since they are attested as early as the Kebarian. However, the Natufian sites, and in particular those of the recent period, testify to a development and improvement of grinding instruments. The appearance of conical mortars is an example: experimentation has shown that the use of mortars with a bottom that is narrower than the opening increases the efficiency of the grinding process and the production of flour. The Shubayqa 1 site in Jordan yielded remains of bread cakes, made from barley, wheat, oats, and water bulrush, a plant that grows in wet environments. According to M. Rowlands and D. Fuller, it was at this time that the basic culinary diet of southwest Asia (and, by influence, of Europe and part of Africa) began to take shape, based on the consumption of cereals ground and then cooked in ovens in the form of cakes and breads, in conjunction with the consumption of roasted meats, as opposed to the cuisine of East Asia, which relied more on cereals and other foods boiled or steamed. Another sign of the evolution in the use of grains is the use of fermentation of cereals and the brewing of a kind of beer in mortars dug directly into the rock, practices of which traces have been discovered in the cave of Raqefet, a Natufian site in Israel dedicated to the burial of the dead. Nevertheless, the use of these elaborate forms of grain consumption may have been limited to festive events. More generally, from a quantitative point of view, the Natufian sites have mostly yielded remains of wild plants that do not correspond to the future founding cereals domesticated in the Neolithic period, which then constitute only about 10% of the total botanical remains found for the period.

Hunting and fishing

Hunting also involves a wide variety of animals: deer, cattle, goats, horses, wild boars, gazelles, deer, hares, foxes, turtles, birds, etc. Fishing is also attested, in Mallaha located near a lake, or in Hayonim near the sea. In view of this diversity, the subsistence strategy of the Natufians is "broad spectrum".

The recurrent presence of the gazelle on Natoufian sites, where it constitutes between 40 and 85% of the large game, however, nuances this view, as it seems that its meat was the main source of animal protein for Natoufian communities. Suggestions for interpretation have been put forward concerning attempts to domesticate this animal, a sort of "proto-domestication". But, without doubt, it is more reasonable to consider that it is a matter of selective, intensive hunting of this animal.

Evolutions and adaptations

Livelihood practices are not viewed from a static perspective; they undergo change in response to a variety of factors, including in response to their own excesses and limitations.

The question of the "over-exploitation" of the environment during the two millennia that this period covers by sedentary village communities, whose apogee was during the ancient Natoufian, has been raised. F. Valla considers that the economic organization of the communities was no longer sustainable, as resources were consumed more rapidly than they were renewed, and that this led to a change in the organization of subsistence strategies (which is reflected in the modification of the settlement). In the recent period, a more important hunting of small game at the expense of the former majority of big game was underlined, probably reflecting a response to a greater food stress forcing the diversification of food sources. This may reflect a response to greater dietary stress, requiring a greater diversity of food sources, to which mobility may also be linked.

At Abu Hureyra, during the Late Dryas, these changes correspond to a reduced diversity of plants consumed, with an increased emphasis on seeds. In this context, three rye grains with domestic morphology were identified and dated to ca. 13

N. Munro considers the Natufian, and more broadly the Late Epipaleolithic of the Near East (c. 23000-12000 BP), as a period of experimentation, where changes in hunting practices reflect attempts to better control resources, especially because the human population would have become too large in proportion to that of the large game traditionally the most hunted. The evolution of hunting practices highlights a selection or an attempt to control certain species, sometimes with failures (the attempt to domesticate the gazelle being the most obvious, since this animal is clearly not suitable for domestication). The choice to resort more commonly to cereals, even though their collection is costly in terms of time and less "profitable" than other resources for the same quantity of food, would follow the same logic aimed at better resource management: cereals renew themselves more quickly than other resources (especially animal resources) and therefore allow for more sustainable subsistence strategies. Beyond this preparatory phase and as soon as climatic conditions became more favorable, domestications developed in several places in the Near East.

Bio-archaeological studies on skeletons discovered at Natoufian sites (which have yielded the remains of about 400 individuals) reveal few traces of violent trauma and few diseases or deficiencies. The most common pathology found is arthritis. The dentition is rather healthy. In many respects, the Natoufians would have enjoyed better health than their counterparts of the first Neolithic societies. Nevertheless, the (limited) Abu Hureyra sample shows evidence of deformities attributed to grain milling activities, mainly in women and more frequently than in Neolithic populations. It also seems that mortality is higher during the first phases of the Neolithic for individuals between 20 and 40 years of age and that the phenomenon concerns more the Natufians than the Natufian women. The latter would also seem to have had a longer life expectancy.

Findings from Natufian tombs (Mallaha, Hayonim), as well as from other sites in Europe and Asia, indicate a domestication of the dog that predates the Neolithic period, and precedes that of sheep, goats, pigs and cows. The fact that these Natufian dogs have a domestic (and not wild) morphology and that they are buried with humans indicates a proximity such that it seems to be a matter of familiarity and companionship. As the dog is not, or only very occasionally, a source of food, its place in the process of animal domestication should be considered separately (along with that of the cat, which came later): it is above all an auxiliary for security and hunting (and, with the later development of animal husbandry, for guarding flocks). Its greater use for hunting at Late Natufian sites and during the subsequent Early Neolithic periods is probably related to the greater presence of small, fast-moving game such as hares.

The process of domestication would have been initiated by a rapprochement between wolves and human groups of hunter-gatherers, perhaps on the initiative of the former (a "self-domestication"), before they were tamed and then fully integrated by domestication (which implies a control of reproduction by humans). In any case, this domestication predates the Natoufian. Genetic analyses of fossil specimens have shown that the dog was domesticated at an early stage of the Upper Paleolithic, generally between 20000 and 40000 BP. Although the precise location and time period remains unknown and is still under debate, it seems likely that there are two independent episodes in the domestication of the dog.

The Natufian sites have yielded a wide range of lithic tools. The raw material is local, although obsidian from Anatolia has sometimes been found.

The Natufian lithic industry is defined, according to the proposals of D. Garrod, by tools cut by indirect percussion, so as to produce blades with rectilinear or non-rectilinear edges, in particular micro-liths in the form of half-circles or crescents, called lunates (which in fact are found over a vast area from the Taurus Mountains to the Sinai), and flakes with more rectilinear edges. The semi-abrupt bifacial retouch known as "Helwan" is a characteristic of the ancient period; other retouches are used to make teeth and notches on the blades. In the continuity of the Kebarian, microliths are by far the most attested and often have geometric shapes (triangles, semicircles), but we also find larger objects: points, chisels, perforators, scrapers, flakes, picks, adzes, etc. Over time, there is a tendency to reduce the size of microliths in the form of segments of circles, as well as an increase in geometric shapes, and regional variants appear such as the presence of curved-back knives in the southern Levant and massive points and adzes in the Middle Euphrates. On the other hand, the projectile points used during this period are not clearly identified, although this is a characteristic marker of the later historical phases. Some of the microliths must have been used to arm arrows and their insertion into the microliths was obviously done in groups of two or three. Some of the blades have a shiny sheen on their edge, which seems to be due to their use for cutting silica-rich plant stems; they would thus have been fitted to sickles.

The polished stone includes sickles, polishers and grinding tools: flat and knurled wheels, pestles and mortars. This heavy furniture is characteristic of the Natoufian period, notably the large deep mortar (50-60 cm) and the sorts of "basins" of about 30 cm, dug into rocks, which are sometimes fixed. Stoneware is also common in the southern Levant: basalt vases, 15 cm in diameter, sometimes with incised or scalloped decorations. The "grooved stones", flattened oval pebbles with a large groove on their side, are also characteristic of sites from this period, but their use is undetermined (used as arrowheads?).

Bone objects are very present in the Natoufian period, after having been rather neglected in the Kebarian period. Bone tools are very diverse, probably because they are used for various purposes: points (some of which are barbed), punches, knives, hooks (barbed or curved), handles (sometimes decorated with animal figures), tools for sewing, hunting or fishing. Beads made of bone and pierced teeth are used to make ornaments. The bones worked come from large game (gazelle, aurochs, deer) as well as small game (foxes, hares, birds). The techniques for working the bone are varied (scraping, abrasion, grooving, sawing, percussion, etc.) and perforation is developing.

The deceased are sometimes buried with ornaments made from "dentale", shells. The shells are used to form necklaces, belts, headbands, etc., sometimes combined with bone beads. These ornaments are obviously prestigious goods. These objects are sometimes found in sites located well inland, which implies long-distance exchanges and also a form of cultural community between all these regions. In contrast, the use of fox canines at Hayonim and deer spits at El-Wad seem to be local specificities.

Some tools are decorated, usually with incisions forming simple geometric patterns. On some objects, however, the work results in real sculptures, in bone or limestone. The Natufian sites provided the first known animal figurines in the Levant: the ends of sickle and knife handles in the shape of ruminants, representing the head alone or the whole body. Why did they choose to decorate in this way objects that in principle have a utilitarian function? Perhaps they were the object of exchange, or were intended for special occasions, or intended to serve as funerary goods. The incisions may have been used to identify certain individuals.

Human representations are rare. In the round, they are more schematic than animal representations. It can be a human head, a female figurine, the most original being a representation of a man and a woman mating found at Ain Sakhri.

Graves are common on Natoufian sites and particularly on village sites. Compared to earlier periods, which yielded few burials, it seems that "the burial of the dead in the habitat became commonplace" and the groups of this period proceeded to a "grouping of burials" that "reflects not only the lengthening of the occupation of the sites but also a real new desire to group the dead in the same place. (F. Bocquentin). For B. Boyd, the presence of tombs and cemeteries would even precede the establishment of habitat sites, and would be at the origin of the choice to settle in these places. It is in any case a major evolution in the history of human societies. Obviously linked to the stronger territorial anchoring of human groups and to sedentariness, it reflects at least the lasting establishment on the site. But it also, and perhaps more so, has a symbolic purpose, referring to a desire to associate the living with their deceased ancestors, to affirm the continuity of the community, implying a selection of who the buried are, and in what way they are buried, by means of various rites, sometimes post-mortem manipulations that seem to invest the deceased with an important role in the collective identity.

About sixty graves have been uncovered at Mallaha, about fifteen at Hayonim, about twenty at El-Wad, about forty at Nahal Oren. On the other hand, they are less numerous in the "peripheral" sites located outside the Natufi hearth. In all, more than 400 skeletons have been unearthed. Analysis of the grave groupings indicates that a selection is made among people as to who is entitled to a burial close to a dwelling place; children and women in particular are under-represented. It is possible that other burial sites were located far from permanent habitation sites, and that the burial sites of groups that remained mobile did not leave traces. The sample is therefore not representative of the majority of the Natufian population, and the burial practices that can be studied therefore concern only a minority of it. Moreover, among what is known, practices vary according to place and time. At Mallaha, graves have been found in the location of houses, but they do not date from the time they were occupied. Rather, they predate their construction, and the deceased buried in them could have the status of ancestors. The creation of specialized burial sites, thus a sort of "cemetery," is especially characteristic of the Late Natufian period, which saw a distancing of the dead from the living.

Developments also concern the grouping of bodies. In the Early Natufian period, most Hayonim burials are multiple, but at Mallaha they are individual. The bodies are generally arranged in a more or less flexed position, but in various postures. In the Late Natufian, collective graves are the most common at Mallaha, but during the final phase individual graves become the norm. Some graves were manipulated and reorganized after an initial burial, especially during the Late Period; in some cases (Hayonim) the skulls were even removed, which inaugurates a practice of handling corpses that was to become common during the Near Eastern Neolithic. In an Azraq collective tomb from the late Early Natufian period, skulls were removed, pigmented with ochre, and then placed back in the tomb. Ornaments or animal remains are sometimes associated with the bodies. A hearth surrounded by post holes in the Nahal Oren cemetery may reflect ritual practices. There is clearly a symbolic meaning behind these practices, but it remains enigmatic.

Various proposals have been made concerning the social organization of the Natufian period.

Family and group organization

It is difficult to determine the demographic size of the sites and the nature of the relationships between the inhabitants of a site. Was it a set of nuclear families, or extended families, or some other form of intermediate social organization? Analysis of the remains of 17 individuals buried in the Hayonim cemetery revealed that 8 of them did not have a third molar (the "wisdom tooth"): the repetition of this genetic trait could indicate that unions were made within a limited group. But it is difficult to generalize this isolated case. The extended family organization is commonly recognized as more secure in this context for subsistence, as it is more able to organize the sharing of food and supplies, which must have played an important social role, perhaps during festive rites. For K. Flannery and J. Marcus, the most common houses seem to be intended for nuclear families, the smallest for isolated individuals (widows, widowers, second wives). Concerning the larger constructions of Mallaha and Wadi Hammeh 27, they propose to see them as "bachelor houses", which in certain societies studied by ethnography serve as residences for unmarried young men, or as places where they pass initiation rites.

In any case, many social changes appear in the Natufian. With the development of permanent villages, the first community buildings appear. Parts of the occupation sites were designed for specific functions, notably the cemeteries, and open spaces with the presence of grinding furniture seem to indicate a collective form of work organization. The variations observed between mortuary practices and the diversity of elaboration of ornaments, figurines and engraved objects seem to reflect both the affirmation of a sense of collectivity and the appearance of differentiated statuses. Sedentarization may have led to a greater affirmation of the territoriality of groups and their identity. The village groups must also have been linked to each other by matrimonial networks. However, there are almost no traces of violence that would indicate the existence of tensions between the groups.

Social Differences

The study of the burials (which are already a sample that probably does not represent the entire social spectrum because of the selection of the dead being buried) has given rise to divergent interpretations with regard to social inequalities. Dentate necklaces, found in 8% of the Natufian graves, could serve to distinguish prominent individuals. Some have seen in these individuals buried with ornaments evidence of increased social stratification, while others believe that there is no evidence of social hierarchy in the necropolises. Thus, one could just as easily characterize the Natufian social organization as being that of a chieftaincy, thus with marked inequalities, or conversely as being an egalitarian society.

Other cases of distinction of particular individuals exist, as in the dog graves of Mallaha and Hayonim. The most spectacular burial was found at Hilazon Tachtit, a Late Natufian burial site located about 10 km from Hayonim. It consists of the body of a woman aged about 45 years at her death, surrounded by various funerary objects arranged near her body in an obviously very studied arrangement: about fifty complete tortoise shells and parts of the bodies of a boar, an eagle, a cow, a leopard and two martens, as well as a complete human foot, a pestle and a mortar. This unusual accumulation for the period indicates that this woman had a special social status. The discoverers of the burial have proposed that she be identified as a shaman.

The shift from group to individual burials, which occurs between the ancient and recent periods, has also given rise to contradictory hypotheses. It could reflect a shift from an egalitarian community organization to one in which the rank of individuals is more marked, or, on the contrary, reflect stronger social cohesion. O. Bar-Yosef, in his analysis of the transition from a sedentary to a more mobile society during the Late Natufian, considers the former to be more unequal than the latter.

B. Hayden is among those who interpret burials with more material than is customary as evidence of a desire to distinguish the status of individuals, by burying them with prestige goods (obsidian, basalt tableware, feathers, shells). He identifies some skeletons of collective burials and skulls taken as evidence of accompanying sacrifices or anthropophagy, intended to distinguish the main deceased. The presence of numerous animal remains associated with hearths could also attest to feasts organized by the social elites, and thus testify to the appearance of more marked inequalities. For him, Natoufian society is of the "house" type, according to the concept due to Claude Lévi-Strauss, directed by dominant families while others are devoted to work. The idea that festive rites are used by individuals for personal purposes to assert their social pre-eminence is defended by other researchers.

Gender and activities

As for the differences between men and women, the analysis of skeletons and their pathologies has also led to proposals concerning the division of tasks between Natoufians and Natoufian women. According to J. Peterson, it is not very marked. Although the musculature of the women would indicate that they practiced bilateral movements related to grinding, and that of the men a more common exercise of hunting, both performed arduous tasks.

Russian linguists Alexander Militarev and Viktor Aleksandrovich Shnirelman consider the Natufians to be among the earliest speakers of "Proto-Afroasiatic". If we follow this proposal, then their descendants would have spread to the rest of the Middle East and to North and East Africa during the following millennia, along with the Neolithic way of life developed in the Near East. Nevertheless, most researchers investigating the origins of Afro-Asian language-speaking populations place them rather on the African continent.


  1. Natufian culture
  2. Natoufien
  3. D.-A.-E. Garrod, « Fouilles paléolithiques en Palestine, 1928-1929 », Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, vol. 27, no 3,‎ 1930, p. 151-160 (lire en ligne).
  4. « As it will be convenient to have a name for this culture, I propose to call it Natufian, after the Wady en-Natuf at Shukba, where we first found it in place. » : (en) D.-A.-E. Garrod, « Excavations in the Mugharet el-Wad, near Athlit, April–June 1929 », Quarterly Statement of the Palestine Exploration Fund, vol. 61,‎ 1929, p. 220–222.
  5. a b c et d (en) Brian Boyd, « 'Twisting the kaleidoscope': Dorothy Garrod and the 'Natufian Culture'" », dans William Davies et Ruth Charles (dir.), Dorothy Garrod and the progress of the Palaeolithic, Oxford, Oxbow, 1999, p. 209–223.
  6. ^ a b Moore, Andrew M. T.; Hillman, Gordon C.; Legge, Anthony J. (2000), Village on the Euphrates: From Foraging to Farming at Abu Hureyra, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-510806-4
  7. ^ Eitam, David (2019). "'Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of [beer]!' (R.L. Stevenson) no beer but rather cereal-Food. Commentary: Liu et al. 2018". Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. 28: 101913. doi:10.1016/j.jasrep.2019.101913. S2CID 198454176.
  8. Poyato, 2000, p. 10
  9. Poyato, 2000, p. 11
  10. Ain Sakhri lovers figurine. En BBC. History of the world. Consultado el 6 de julio de 2012.
  11. Clutton-Brock, Juliet, Origins of the dog: domestication and early history, en Serpell, James, The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-521-41529-2.
  12. ^ Kottak, Conrad P. (2005). Window on Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Anthropology. Boston: McGraw-Hill. pp. 155–156. ISBN 0072890282.
  13. ^ Barker G (2002) Transitions to farming and pastoralism in North Africa, in Bellwood P, Renfrew C (2002), Examining the Farming/Language Dispersal Hypothesis, pp 151–161.
  14. ^ Bar-Yosef O (1987) Pleistocene connections between Africa and SouthWest Asia: an archaeological perspective. The African Archaeological Review; Chapter 5, pg 29-38
  15. ^ Bellwood P. (2005) Blackwell, Oxford. pp. 97.
  16. ^ Ofer Bar-Yosef, The Natufian culture and the Early Neolithic: Social and economic trends in Southwestern Asia, chapter 10 in Peter Bellwood and Colin Renfrew (eds.), Examining the Farming/Language Dispersal Hypothesis (2002), p.114.

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