Research Article: Persistent Neanderthal occupation of the open-air site of ‘Ein Qashish, Israel

Date Published: June 26, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Ravid Ekshtain, Ariel Malinsky-Buller, Noam Greenbaum, Netta Mitki, Mareike C. Stahlschmidt, Ruth Shahack-Gross, Nadav Nir, Naomi Porat, Daniella E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, Reuven Yeshurun, Ella Been, Yoel Rak, Nuha Agha, Lena Brailovsky, Masha Krakovsky, Polina Spivak, Micka Ullman, Ariel Vered, Omry Barzilai, Erella Hovers, Michael D. Petraglia.


Over the last two decades, much of the recent efforts dedicated to the Levantine Middle Paleolithic has concentrated on the role of open-air sites in the settlement system in the region. Here focus on the site of ‘Ein Qashish as a cases study. Located in present-day northern Israel, the area of this site is estimated to have been >1300 m2, of which ca. 670 were excavated. The site is located at the confluence of the Qishon stream with a small tributary running off the eastern flanks of the Mt. Carmel. At the area of this confluence, water channels and alluvial deposits created a dynamic depositional environment. Four Archaeological Units were identified in a 4.5-m thick stratigraphic sequence were dated by Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) to between—71 and 54 ka, and probably shorter time span–~70-~60 ka. Here we present the diverse material culture remains from the site (lithics, including refitted sequences; modified limestone pieces; molluscs; faunal remains) against their changing paleogeographic backdrop. Skeletal evidence suggests that these remains were associated with Neanderthals. The large-scale repeated accumulation of late Middle Paleolithic remains in the same place on the landscape provides a unique opportunity to address questions of occupation duration and intensity in open-air sites. We find that each occupation was of ephemeral nature, yet presents a range of activities, suggesting that the locale has been used as a generalized residential site rather than specialized task-specific ones. This role of ‘Ein Qashish did not change through time, suggesting that during the late Middle Paleolithic settlement system in this part of the southern Levant were stable.

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The location of sites on the ancient landscape is the result of complex decision-making that was based on the environmental, ecological and social preferences of prehistoric groups. Researchers have approached the issue of location decisions from a dichotomous perspective placing sheltered (caves, rock shelters) habitation sites vs. short-term task specific open-air sites. Such an approach is anchored in the perception biases of both prehistoric groups and present-day scholars. In the past, the fixed locations of sheltered sites and their visibility on the paleo-landscape drew the attention of humans, leading to repeated occupations that formed long and rich sequences. Although closed sites provide less opportunities for resource procurement (e.g., they cannot be used for hunting or for raw material acquisition), they offer better shelter especially to the more vulnerable members of the group (very young; very old; pregnant females), and are likely to preserve the variable (albeit time-averaged) signatures of social groups. Combined with their visibility on the modern landscape, such characteristics have attracted prehistorians, who targeted sheltered sites as their primary research focus and were often rewarded by spectacular findings. This in turn often biased research in favor of sheltered sites (see [1,2]: appendix 3 for the Levant and [3] for the European record). In the Levant, specifically, material culture remains from caves (mainly stone tools and bones) have constituted the main source of information for comprehending Middle Paleolithic lifeways. In contrast, the location of open-air would often be decided upon in relation to specific traits or activities (e.g., permanent water sources, raw material procurement, hunting and/or plant processing) that cannot take place within sheltered sites. The range of behavioral activities at open-air sites may be more variable than that of cave sites [4,5]. Still, the lack of physical boundaries to such sites suggested to many researchers that prehistoric groups did not necessarily return to the exact same spot on the landscape, rendering excavated sequences shorter and less useful for diachronic studies. Also, open-air sites are susceptible to landscape-scale processes in addition to localized anthropogenic, geochemical and taphonomic depositional processes (e.g., [1,6–10]), which affect both site preservation and opportunities for archaeological discovery.

The 2013 excavations at the site were conducted under permit # A-6686 from the Israel Antiquity Authority as a salvage excavation after accidental damage to the then-known MP deposits. The study of finds from this excavation has been conducted under the same permit.

The stratigraphy of the site is influenced by its location at the contact zone between the gravel-and-reddish clay alluvial fan of Wadi Qashish and the silty clay floodplain of the Qishon stream. The sediments that contain the archaeological materials generally consist of black to greyish-brown loamy clay deposited along the Qishon stream by low-energy flows and accumulated as floodplain/overbank deposits. Throughout the sequence the sediments are dominated by smectitic clay derived from thick vertisols upstream. In addition, the sediments contain aeolian silt and windblown marine fine sand, and are rich in aeolian and reworked quartz and calcite [19,33,35]. Gravel clusters, present in some of the units, may be related to rare larger floods of the Qishon stream. It is more likely, however, that such gravels derived from episodic flows from a steep tributary, Wadi Qashish, which runs off the eastern flanks of Mt. Carmel (Fig 2), indicating the toe of its alluvial fan. The field relations between the clay and gravel differ spatially from one place to another on the floodplain and diachronically, as is apparent through the sequence within each excavation area. The shifts in the location of the dynamic contacts between the two facies are controlled by the fluvial activity of the ephemeral Wadi Qashish and the perennial flows in the Qishon stream. The increased fluvial activity of Wadi Qashish between 15–10 ka pushed the alluvial fan contact eastward into the Qishon floodplain and changed its location compared to its presumed location during MP times (Fig 2 and see below).

The rich archaeological record of EQ consists of lithics, faunal remains and a few unusual finds such as antlers, a marine mollusk, potentially anvils and human remains.

The hominin remains found in EQ represent belong to individuals in three distinct stratigraphic units [33]. EQH-1, a non-diagnostic human skull fragment, was recovered from waterlogged sediments of Unit 1 in a geological trench outside the excavation area (Fig 4 in supplementary information of [33]). The second fossil, EQH-2, is an upper third molar from Unit 5a in Area A. Diagnostic traits of the specimen place it with high statistical probability within the Neanderthal population [33].

One of the characteristic of Levantine late MP caves, typically identified as residential sites, is the intensive use of fire ([51] and references therein). In MP open-air sites in the Levant, such evidence is less comprehensive or clear. Importantly, not every use of fire or hearth leaves a durable and recognisable footprint in the archaeological record [52]), whereas burnt lithic or faunal remains may be the result of accidental introduction into the fireplace [53,54]. As a result, the relative frequency of heated bones and stones found at most sites, especially in open-air contexts, is expected to be low (e.g. [9,55,56]. In this section we discuss several proxies that may be related to the use of fire in EQ (e.g., geoarchaeological detection of heated sediments, as well as heated stones and bones, and their spatial associations; [55] and references therein, [57–59]).

The data presented in this paper provide information about three aspects of hominin behavior at the site of ‘Ein Qashish. The first relates to the activities carried out at the site. The second pertains to the intensity of occupation at the site over time. A third topic of interest is the role of the site in the Levantine late MP settlement pattern.

EQ includes minimally four diachronic occupations and potentially more than one occupation on a given landscape. At least some of the occupations were short-lived and underwent rapid burial. Unlike other stratified open-air sites currently known from the southern Levant, the series of occupations at EQ does not show drastic changes in site function or in activities carried out. Rather, this locale seems to have been used repeatedly as a generalized residential site (‘home base’), albeit occupations were of an ephemeral nature.