Saturday 18 February 2012

20 000 year old stone huts from Kharaneh in Eastern Jordan.

The earliest stone structures are generally associated with the Epipalaeolithic Natufian culture of Southwest Asia (the term Epipalaeololithic applies to cultures outside the extent of the last glaciation that showed the same level of technology as Mesolithic cultures in Europe; Mesolithic being used to describe post-Ice Age cultures), from about 14 500 years ago onwards. Earlier non-stone structures are known from a number of Middle Eastern sites, with the Ohalo site on the Sea of Galilee, where brushwood structures were being constructed about 23 000 years ago, generally being accepted as the oldest.

On 15 February 2012 a paper appeared in the journal PLoS One by a team of scientists lead by Lisa Maher of the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, describing the excavation of a pair of stone huts from the Kharaneh excavation site in Eastern Jordan, dated at 20 000 years old.

Map of the Kharaneh Site. From Maher et al. (2012).

The Kharaneh Site is well studied by archaeologists; it is an extensive Pleistocene site covering 21 000 m² which has yielded thousands of stone tools as well as worked bone objects, shell beads made from both Mediterranean and Red Sea shells, significant amounts of red ochre (a dye made from the mineral hematite), the remains of a large number of game animals, particularly Gazelle, and large amounts of charcoal. The site would have been much cooler and wetter during the Pleistocene, and the area is thought to have been a grassland environment with rivers and pools of water, as well as stands of Chenopod, Tamarisk and Wild Pistachio trees. It is thought the area was inhabited at least seasonally by hunter-gatherers for over a thousand years.

The first hut was roughly oval in shape, roughly 3.2 m by 2.2 m with foundations sunk into the layers beneath the floor, which was of packed clay 2-3 cm thick. The whole structure was overlain by a layer of charcoal interpreted as the burnt remains of a roof or superstructure. On top of this was a layer of sterile yellow sand, which is not local to the site and was presumably deliberately brought into the area and scattered with on the burnt hut. Within the hut were two grindstones, a large flat stone, part of the spine of an Auroch (a sort of large, wild cattle), and on top of the burned layer, a large flat stone surrounded by three clusters of pierced shells, each accompanied by a chunk of red ochre. The shells came from both the Mediterranean (130 km away) and the Red Sea (270 km away), and were pierced in a way that suggests they had been used as jewelry). Two adult male skeletons excavated by an earlier dig are now known to be within the confines of the hut, though it is unclear if these predate the hut.

The second hut appears to have been contemporary with the first. It shows no signs of burning, but was covered by the same yellow sand as the first. The hut contains a cache of Auroch and Gazelle horns, a hearth containing a grindstone, and near this a flint core surrounded by four fox paws, interpreted as the remains of an ornamented pouch. Also by the hearth were two upright gazelle skulls, burned but with their horns intact. The floor comprised several layers of compacted clay, containing a large number of stone tools and animal bones, as well as some human bones; it is unclear if these were deliberately placed or were the result of the disturbance of earlier burials by the hut-makers.

Plan of the site, showing the location of the artifacts found. The grey area labeled as Mulheisen's Trench indicates the earlier dig that excavated to skeletons in 1988. From Maher et al. (2012).

Photograph of the Kharaneh Site, showing (A) the cache of Auroch and Gazelle horns from the second hut, (B) the large flat stone associated with the shell and ochre caches, (C) the partial Auroch spine.