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The Natufian culture // was an Epipaleolithic culture that existed from 13,000 to 9,800 B.C. in the Levant, a region in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was unusual in that it was sedentary, or semi-sedentary, before the introduction of agriculture. The Natufian communities are possibly the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements of the region, which may have been the earliest in the world. There is some evidence for the deliberate cultivation of cereals, specifically rye, by the Natufian culture, at the Tell Abu Hureyra site, the site for earliest evidence of agriculture in the world. Generally, though, Natufians made use of wild cereals. Animals hunted included gazelles.
The period is commonly split into two subperiods: Early Natufian (12,500–10,800 BC) and Late Natufian (10,800–9500 BC). The Late Natufian most likely occurred in tandem with the Younger Dryas (10,800 to 9500 BC). In the Levant, there are more than a hundred kinds of cereals, fruits, nuts and other edible parts of plants, and the flora of the Levant during the Natufian period was not the dry, barren, and thorny landscape of today, but woodland.
The Natufian developed in the same region as the earlier Kebaran complex, and is generally seen as a successor which developed from at least elements within that earlier culture. There were also other cultures in the region, such as the Mushabian culture of the Negev and Sinai, which are sometimes distinguished from the Kebaran, and sometimes also seen as having played a role in the development of the Natufian.
More generally there has been discussion of the similarities of these cultures with those found in coastal North Africa. Graeme Barker notes there are: "similarities in the respective archaeological records of the Natufian culture of the Levant and of contemporary foragers in coastal North Africa across the late Pleistocene and early Holocene boundary".
Ofer Bar-Yosef has argued that there are signs of influences coming from North Africa to the Levant, citing the microburin technique and “microlithic forms such as arched backed bladelets and La Mouillah points.” But recent research has shown that the presence of arched backed bladelets, La Mouillah points, and the use of the microburin technique was already apparent in the Nebekian industry of the Eastern Levant. And Maher et al. state that, "Many technological nuances that have often been always highlighted as signiﬁcant during the Natuﬁan were already present during the Early and Middle EP [Epipalaeolithic] and do not, in most cases, represent a radical departure in knowledge, tradition, or behavior."
Authors such as Christopher Ehret have built upon the little evidence available to develop scenarios of intensive usage of plants having built up first in North Africa, as a precursor to the development of true farming in the Fertile Crescent, but such suggestions are considered highly speculative until more North African archaeological evidence can be gathered. In fact, Weiss et al. have shown that the earliest known intensive usage of plants was in the Levant 23,000 years ago at the Ohalo II site. Anthropologist C. Loring Brace in a recent study on cranial metric traits however, was also able to identify a "clear link" to Sub-Saharan African populations for early Natufians based on his observation of gross anatomical similarity with extant populations found mostly in the Sahara. Brace believes that these populations later became assimilated into the broader continuum of Southwest Asian populations.
According to Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen, "It seems that certain preadaptive traits, developed already by the Kebaran and Geometric Kebaran populations within the Mediterranean park forest, played an important role in the emergence of the new socioeconomic system known as the Natufian culture."
Settlements occur in the woodland belt where oak and Pistacia species dominated. The underbrush of this open woodland was grass with high frequencies of grain. The high mountains of Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon, the steppe areas of the Negev desert in Israel and Sinai, and the Syro-Arabian desert in the east were much less favoured for Natufian settlement, presumably due to both their lower carrying capacity and the company of other groups of foragers who exploited this region.
The habitations of the Natufian are semi-subterranean, often with a dry-stone foundation. The superstructure was probably made of brushwood. No traces of mudbrick have been found, which became common in the following Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA). The round houses have a diameter between three and six meters, and they contain a central round or subrectangular fireplace. In Ain Mallaha traces of postholes have been identified. "Villages" can cover over 1,000 square meters. Smaller settlements have been interpreted by some researchers as camps. Traces of rebuilding in almost all excavated settlements seem to point to a frequent relocation, indicating a temporary abandonment of the settlement. Settlements have been estimated to house 100–150, but there are three categories: small, median, and large, ranging from 15 sq. m to 1,000 sq. m of people. There are no definite indications of storage facilities.
A semi-sedentary life may have been made possible by abundant resources due to a favourable climate at the time, with a culture living from hunting, fishing and gathering, including the use of wild cereals. Tools were available for making use of cereals: flint-bladed sickles for harvesting, and mortars, grinding stones, and storage pits.
The Natufian had a microlithic industry, based on short blades and bladelets. The microburin technique was used. Geometric microliths include lunates, trapezes and triangles. There are backed blades as well. A special type of retouch (Helwan retouch) is characteristic for the early Natufian. In the late Natufian, the Harif-point, a typical arrowhead made from a regular blade, became common in the Negev. Some scholars[who?] use it to define a separate culture, the Harifian.
Sickle blades appear for the first time. The characteristic sickle-gloss shows that they have been used to cut the silica-rich stems of cereals and form an indirect proof for incipient agriculture. Shaft straighteners made of ground stone indicate the practice of archery. There are heavy ground-stone bowl mortars as well.
There was a rich bone industry, including harpoons and fish hooks. Stone and bone were worked into pendants and other ornaments. There are a few human figurines made of limestone (El-Wad, Ain Mallaha, Ain Sakhri), but the favourite subject of representative art seems to have been animals. Ostrich-shell containers have been found in the Negev.
The Natufian people lived by hunting and gathering. The preservation of plant remains is poor because of the soil conditions, but wild cereals, legumes, almonds, acorns and pistachios may have been collected. Animal bones show that gazelle (Gazella gazella and Gazella subgutturosa) were the main prey. Additionally deer, aurochs and wild boar were hunted in the steppe zone, as well as onagers and caprids (ibex). Water fowl and freshwater fish formed part of the diet in the Jordan River valley. Animal bones from Salibiya I (12,300 – 10,800 BP) have been interpreted as evidence for communal hunts with nets.
According to one theory, it was a sudden change in climate, the Younger Dryas event (ca. 10,800 to 9500 BC), that inspired the development of agriculture. The Younger Dryas was a 1,000-year-long interruption in the higher temperatures prevailing since the Last Glacial Maximum, which produced a sudden drought in the Levant. This would have endangered the wild cereals, which could no longer compete with dryland scrub, but upon which the population had become dependent to sustain a relatively large sedentary population. By artificially clearing scrub and planting seeds obtained from elsewhere, they began to practice agriculture. However, this theory of the origin of agriculture is controversial in the scientific community.
It is at Natufian sites that some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the domestication of the dog is found. At the Natufian site of Ain Mallaha in Israel, dated to 12,000 BC, the remains of an elderly human and a four-to-five-month-old puppy were found buried together. At another Natufian site at the cave of Hayonim, humans were found buried with two canids.
Burials are located in the settlements, commonly in pits in abandoned houses but also in caves in Mount Carmel and the Judean Hills. The pits were backfilled with settlement refuse, which sometimes makes the identification of grave-goods difficult. Sometimes the graves were covered with limestone slabs. The bodies are stretched on their backs or flexed, and there is no predominant orientation. There are both single and multiple burials, especially in the early Natufian, and scattered human remains in the settlements that point to disturbed earlier graves. The rate of child mortality was rather high—about one-third of the dead were between ages five and seven.
Grave goods consist mainly of personal ornaments, like beads made of shell, teeth (of red deer), bones and stone. There are pendants, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and belt-ornaments as well.
In 2008, the grave of a Natufian 'priestess' was discovered (in most media reports referred to as a shaman or witch doctor). The burial contained complete shells of 50 tortoises, which are thought to have been brought to the site and eaten during the funeral feast.
While the period involved makes it difficult to speculate on any language associated with the Natufian culture, linguists who believe it is possible to speculate this far back in time have written on this subject. As with other Natufian subjects, opinions tend to either emphasize North African connections or Eurasian connections. Hence, Alexander Militarev and others have argued that the Natufian may represent the culture which spoke Proto-Afroasiatic which he in turn believes has a Eurasian origin associated with the concept of Nostratic languages.
Some scholars, for example Christopher Ehret, Roger Blench and others, contend that the Afroasiatic Urheimat is to be found in North or North East Africa, probably in the area of Egypt, the Sahara, Horn of Africa or Sudan. Within this group, Ehret, who like Militarev believes Afroasiatic may already have been in existence in the Natufian period, would associate Natufians only with the Near Eastern pre-Proto-Semitic branch of Afroasiatic.
Natufian sites include:
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