Israeli expedition to unlock mystery of human origins

Keren Oren, a third-year student at the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Culture, works at the site near Beit Shemesh which has yielded the earliest known iron workshop in the eastern Mediterranean. Since the discovery …

Keren Oren, a third-year student at the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Culture, works at the site near Beit Shemesh which has yielded the earliest known iron workshop in the eastern Mediterranean. Since the discovery of a 160,000-year old human-like skull in Ethiopia in 2002, scientists have been refocusing their interest on questions relating to the evolution of Homo sapiens. Where and when did modern humans first appear and what were their routes of dispersal?

The only way to solve this puzzle, say scientists, is to uncover human remains in archeological layers older than those found in Ethiopia – dating to between 150,000 to 250,000 years ago. However, no accurately dated well-preserved hominid fossils from this period have been discovered.

Now, through a grant given by the Dan David Foundation a project is underway in northern Israel to unearth the oldest remnants of Homo sapiens outside of Africa. The foundation was launched by Dan David, a Tel Aviv University honorary doctor and founder of the annual Dan David Prize administered by TAU.

The four-year excavation in the Misliya cave on Mount Carmel is being conducted by TAU paleoanthropologist Prof. Israel Hershkovitz together with Haifa University archeologist Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron. Prof. Hershkovitz is the incumbent of the Tassia and Dr. Joseph Meychan Chair in the History and Philosophy of Medicine at TAU?s Sackler Faculty of Medicine.

Excavations on Mount Carmel conducted some 70 years ago already yielded human remains dating back 100,000 years. However, the Misliya cave, which has yet to be excavated, contains four-meter deep prehistoric layers dating back 500,000 years, says Hershkovitz. The now collapsed roof of the cave has protected the sediments from erosion during thousands of years.

Preliminary excavations at the site have already yielded animal bones and a fragment of an ancient human upper jaw (with teeth intact) and a finger bone.

Hershkovitz notes that the 160,000-year old Ethiopian skulls are on the verge of anatomical modernity, but are not yet fully modern and this why they were assigned to a new subspecies: Homo sapiens Idaltu. These skulls are very distinct from the anatomically modern Homo sapiens skulls found in Israel which are dated to 100,000 years ago.

Dan David became interested in the project when he toured the site together with Prof Hershkovitz and 2003 Dan David Prize laureate Prof. Michel Brunet of France. Brunet was awarded the prize for his 2002 discovery of the cranium of the oldest human ancestor to date, a nearly 7 million-year old hominid species.

For David the field of paleoanthropology is an intellectual passion and he is extremely knowledgeable on the subject, notes Hershkovitz. After learning about the cave’s potential to reveal ancient human remains and the importance of paleoanthropological research in Israel, he offered the assistance of the Dan David Foundation in funding the project.

DNA analysis has indicated that the earliest form of Homo sapiens could date back 250,000 years, says Hershkovitz.

“If we find fragments that old at Misliya, it would provide historical depth for Homo sapiens, as well as crucial evolutionary, cultural and genetic information about the earliest form of the species and its migration routes. It will also put Israel on the map as a major center for research into paleontology,” he says.

Israel needs no help, however in being at the center of the world’s archaeological map. Two TAU archaeologists have shed light on the development of Iron Age technology as well as on ninth-century BCE Israel by uncovering the earliest known iron workshop in the Eastern Mediterranean, discovered in Beit Shemesh.

The transition from bronze to iron around the beginning of the first millennium BCE brought many advantages: warriors gained fiercer weapons and chariots; farmers stronger ploughs, scythes and sickles; and craftsmen sturdier hammers and chisels. But these benefits were not achieved overnight; it took about 200 years and several technological leaps to transform inferior wrought iron into superior tempered steel.

According to the Bible, the Philistines, archrivals of the ancient Hebrews in the 12th and 11th centuries BCE, jealously guarded iron production in Israel. “There was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel,” the First Book of Samuel recounts, “for the Philistines said: ‘Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.’”

By King David’s time in the 10th century, however, iron had become commonplace – and the recent finding by the TAU team provides the first close-up look at how the iron industry might have developed. A 9th-century BCE iron forge, complete with hearths, tools, raw material, slag and hundreds of iron items, was unearthed in Beih-Shemesh, near Jerusalem, by two researchers at TAU’s Nadler Institute of Archaeology. Drs. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman, co-directors of the excavations, say that this is the earliest iron workshop to be found in the entire eastern Mediterranean region.

“Until now,” explains Bunivomitz, “the scientific study of the blacksmith’s technical abilities during the transition to iron relied on the analysis of finished articles, rather than on industrial remains. The workshop excavated in Beth-Shemesh allows, for the first time, a detailed study of what the ancient blacksmith knew about smelting, steeling and cooling the iron,” he says.

Lederman added: “The process of turning iron into steel was a complex one, and now by reconstructing the workshop we can better visualize how it was achieved.”

Modern scientific techniques are invaluable for studying the forge, notes Bunivomitz. For example, magnetic scanning of the distribution of hammerscales – the tiny filaments of iron struck off by the anvil – allows the reconstruction of the blacksmith’s arrangement of his workspace.

Notable among the items found at the site are square-shaped clay blowpipes used to raise the temperature of the hearth, and bronze arrowheads that may have served as prototypes for iron arrowheads.

Along with answering technological questions, the iron workshop sheds light on the political economy of the area. Recent excavations at Beih Shemesh reveal that the transformation of the site from a large unfortified village in the 12-11th centuries BCE into a well-organized administrative center in the 10th and 9th centuries BCE provide archaeological confirmation of the emerging monarchy in Judah. Since the iron workshop is located between the public buildings in town, it can be presumed to have been governmental, which could be further evidence of the developing importance and strength of monarchical Judah.

Study of the iron workshop is being conducted together with University College, London, and is being supported by the Israel Science Foundation and the Tayler family of Washington, DC. Collaborating in the Beit Shemesh excavations are Indiana University, Harding University and Louisiana College, US, and Lethbridge University, Canada.