Natufian culture

Natufian culture
A map of the Levant with Natufian regions across present-day Israel, Palestine, and a long arm extending into Lebanon and Syria
Geographical range Levant
Period Epipaleolithic
Dates c. 12,500–9,500 BC
Type site Wadi an-Natuf
Major sites Shuqba cave, Ain Mallaha, Ein Gev, Tell Abu Hureyra
Preceded by Kebaran
Followed by Khiamian, Shepherd Neolithic
The Mesolithic
The Epipaleolithic
Mesolithic Europe
Epipaleolithic Europe
Fosna–Hensbacka culture
Komsa culture
Maglemosian culture
Lepenski vir culture
Kunda culture
Narva culture
Komornica culture
Swiderian culture
Epipaleolithic Transylvania
Mesolithic Transylvania
Schela Cladovei culture
Mesolithic Southeastern Europe
Levantine corridor
Stone Age

The Natufian culture /nəˈtjfiən/ was an Epipaleolithic culture that existed from around 12,500 to 9,500 BC 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 may be the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements of the region, which may have been the earliest in the world. Some evidence suggests deliberate cultivation of cereals, specifically rye, by the Natufian culture, at Tell Abu Hureyra, the site of earliest evidence of agriculture in the world.[1] Generally, though, Natufians exploited wild cereals. Animals hunted included gazelles.[2] According to Christy G. Turner II, there is an archaeological and physical anthropological reason for a relationship between the modern Semitic-speaking populations of the Levant and the Natufians.[3]

The term "Natufian" was coined by Dorothy Garrod who studied the Shuqba cave in Wadi an-Natuf, in the western Judean Mountains, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Ramallah.[4]


Map of Israel, Palestinian territories, and Golan Heights showing important sites that were occupied by the Natufian culture (clickable map)

Radiocarbon dating places this culture from the terminal Pleistocene to the very beginning of the Holocene, from 12,500 to 9,500 BC.[5]

The period is commonly split into two subperiods: Early Natufian (12,500–10,800 BC) and Late Natufian (10,800–9,500 BC). The Late Natufian most likely occurred in tandem with the Younger Dryas (10,800 to 9,500 BC). The Levant hosts 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 rather woodland.[6]

Precursors and associated cultures

The Natufian developed in the same region as the earlier Kebaran industry. It is generally seen as a successor, which evolved out of elements within that preceding culture. There were also other industries in the region, such as the Mushabian culture of the Negev and Sinai, which are sometimes distinguished from the Kebaran or believed to have been involved in the evolution 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".[7]

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.”[8] 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.[9] 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."[10]

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.[11][12] 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.[13][14] Anthropologist C. Loring Brace (1993) cross-analysed the craniometric traits of Natufian specimens with those of various ancient and modern groups from the Near East, Africa and Europe. The Late Pleistocene Epipalaeolithic Natufian sample was described as problematic due to its small size (consisting of only three males and one female), as well as the lack of a comparative sample from the Natufians' putative descendants in the Neolithic Near East. Brace observed that the Natufian fossils lay between those of the Niger-Congo-speaking populations and the other samples, which he suggested may point to a Sub-Saharan influence in their constitution.[15] Subsequent ancient DNA analysis of Natufian skeletal remains by Lazaridis et al. (2016) found that the specimens instead mainly belonged to a Basal Eurasian ancestral component (see genetics).[16]

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."[17]


Remains of a wall of a Natufian house

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.[18]

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 people, but there are three categories: small, median, and large, ranging from 15 sq. m to 1,000 sq. m. There are no definite indications of storage facilities.


The Natufian had a microlithic industry centered 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 use it to define a separate culture, the Harifian.

Sickle blades also appear for the first time in the Natufian lithic industry. The characteristic sickle-gloss shows that they were used to cut the silica-rich stems of cereals, indirectly suggesting the existence of incipient agriculture. Shaft straighteners made of ground stone indicate the practice of archery. There are heavy ground-stone bowl mortars as well.

Other finds

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.

Development of agriculture

According to one theory,[19] it was a sudden change in climate, the Younger Dryas event (ca. 10,800 to 9500 BCE), 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.[20]

Domesticated dog

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 BCE, the remains of an elderly human and a four-to-five-month-old puppy were found buried together.[21] At another Natufian site at the cave of Hayonim, humans were found buried with two canids.[21]


Main article: Ain Sakhri lovers
The Ain Sakhri lovers. British Museum: 1958,1007.1

The Ain Sakhri lovers, a carved stone object held at the British Museum, is the oldest known depiction of a couple having sex. It was found in the Ain Sakhri cave in the Judean desert.[22]


Burials made of shell, teeth (of red deer), bones, and stone. There are pendants, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and belt-ornaments as well.

In 2008, the 12,000-years-old grave of an apparently significant Natufian female was discovered in a ceremonial pit located in the Hilazon Tachtit cave in northern Israel. Media reports referred to this person as a shaman[19] or witch doctor.[23] The burial contained the remains of at least at least three aurochs and 70 tortoises, all of which are thought to have been brought to the site during a funeral feast. The body was surrounded by tortoise shells, the pelvis of a leopard, forearm of a wild boar, wingtip of a golden eagle, and skull of a stone marten.[24][25]

Long distance exchange

At Ain Mallaha (in Northern Israel), Anatolian obsidian and shellfish from the Nile valley have been found. The source of malachite beads is still unknown.


According to ancient DNA analyses conducted by Lazaridis et al. (2016) on six Natufian skeletal remains from present-day northern Israel, the Natufians carried the Y-DNA haplogroup E-Z830, which is ancestral to the E1b1b-M123 paternal clade. One Natufian individual was also found to belong to the N1b mtDNA haplogroup. In terms of autosomal DNA, these Natufians carried high frequencies of the Basal Eurasian component, but were slightly distinct from the northern Anatolian populations that contributed to the peopling of Europe. The scientists suggest that the Levantine early farmers may instead have spread southward into East Africa, bringing along a West Eurasian ancestral component separate from that which would arrive later in North Africa. Elsewhere on the continent, the Natufians were found to share no significant genetic affinities with Subequatorial African populations.[16]


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. The view that the Natufians spoke an Afro-Asiatic language is accepted by Vitaly Shevoroshkin.[26] Alexander Militarev and others have argued that the Natufian may represent the culture which spoke Proto-Afroasiatic,[27] which he in turn believes has a Eurasian origin associated with the concept of Nostratic languages. The possibility of Natufians speaking proto-Afro-Asiatic, and that the language was introduced into Africa from the Levant, is approved by Colin Renfrew with caution, as a possible hypothesis for proto-Afro-Asiatic dispersal.[28]

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.[29][30][31][32][33] 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 skeletons from Nahal Oren.

Osteological analysis of skeletal remains that were excavated from Natufian sites has identified two distinct but related physical types. The earlier Natufian skulls are dolichocephalic, with a large, thick-walled and robust structure and a wide, straight and rounded brow. Additionally, the facial skeleton is broad, the supraorbital ridge is quite prominent, the orbits are low, wide and rectangular, the orbital index is correspondingly low, and the nasal root is moderately elevated. Among such crania are the skull of a woman found at the Erg el Ahmar site. On the whole, these earliest Natufian specimens most closely resemble Upper Paleolithic skulls from Europe as well as Iberomaurusian crania from Afalou bou Rummel in northwest Africa, but have a slightly more narrow nasal aperture.[34]

Later Natufian skeletal remains are more abundant, and were excavated from sites like Shuqbah and Kebara. They are considerably shorter and less muscular and robust than their predecessors. The males average 160 cm in height (with a maximum of 165 cm), and the women stand around 152 cm. Individuals have small hands, feet, lower jaws and chins, with some alveolar prognathism and wide, low-vaulted noses. Likewise, the facial skeleton is small, and the neurocranium is of medium size. The skulls are generally sub-dolichocephalic (cephalic index values of 72 to 78), and the supraorbital ridges are not prominent. Overall, these late Natufian specimens are Mediterranean in physical type, but possibly also have a minor Negroid element.[34]


Natufian sites include:

See also


  1. 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 0-19-510806-X
  2. Kottak, Conrad P. (2005), Window on Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Anthropology, Boston: McGraw-Hill, pp. 155156, ISBN 0-07-289028-2
  3. John D. Bengtson. In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory: Essays in the four fields of anthropology. In honor of Harold Crane Fleming. p. 22.
  4. New fieldwork at Shuqba Cave and in Wadi en-Natuf, Western Judea
  5. Munro, Natalie D. (2003), "Small game, the Younger Dryas, and the transition to agriculture in the southern Levant" (PDF), Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte, 12: 4771
  6. Bar-Yosef, Ofer (1998), "The Natufian Culture in the Levant, Threshold to the Origins of Agriculture" (PDF), Evolutionary Anthropology, 6 (5): 159–177, doi:10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1998)6:5<159::AID-EVAN4>3.0.CO;2-7
  7. 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.
  8. Bar-Yosef O (1987) Pleistocene connections between Africa and SouthWest Asia: an archaeological perspective. The African Archaeological Review; Chapter 5, pg 29-38
  9. Richter, Tobias. Interaction before Agriculture: Exchanging Material and Sharing Knowledge in the Final Pleistocene Levant (2011)doi:10.1017/S0959774311000060
  10. Maher, Lisa A. Richter, Tobias. Stock, Jay T. The Pre-Natufian Epipaleolithic: Long-Term Behavioral Trends in the Levant. Evolutionary Anthropology 21:69–81 (2012).
  11. Ehret (2002) The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia
  12. Bellwood P (2005) Blackwell, Oxford. Page 97
  13. Weiss E, Kislev ME, Simchoni O, Nadel D, and Tschauner H. 2008. Plant-food preparation area on an Upper Paleolithic brush hut floor at Ohalo II, Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(8):2400-2414.
  14. Nadel D, Piperno DR, Holst I, Snir A, and Weiss E. 2012. New evidence for the processing of wild cereal grains at Ohalo II, a 23 000-year-old campsite on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel. Antiquity 86(334):990-1003.
  15. Brace, C. Loring et al. (2006). "The questionable contribution of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age to European craniofacial form" (PDF). PNAS. 103 (1). Retrieved 3 November 2016. The Natufian sample from Israel is also problematic because it is so small, being constituted of three males and one female from the Late Pleistocene Epipalaeolithic (34) of Israel, and there was no usable Neolithic sample for the Near East... the small Natufian sample falls between the Niger-Congo group and the other samples used. Fig. 2 shows the plot produced by the first two canonical variates, but the same thing happens when canonical variates 1 and 3 (not shown here) are used. This placement suggests that there may have been a Sub-Saharan African element in the make-up of the Natufians (the putative ancestors of the subsequent Neolithic)
  16. 1 2 Lazaridis, Iosif; et al. (17 June 2016), The genetic structure of the world's first farmers (PDF), biorxiv, retrieved 17 June 2016
  17. Ofer Bar-Yosef and Anna Belfer-Cohen. The Origins of Sedentism and Farming Communities in the Levant. Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 3, No. 4 (December 1989), pp. 447-498
  18. 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.
  19. 1 2 "Oldest Shaman Grave Found". National Geographic 04-Nov-2008
  20. Balter, Michael (2010), "Archaeology: The Tangled Roots of Agriculture", Science, 327 (5964): 404–406, doi:10.1126/science.327.5964.404, PMID 20093449, retrieved 4 February 2010
  21. 1 2 Clutton-Brock, Juliet (1995), "Origins of the dog: domestication and early history", in Serpell, James, The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-41529-2
  22. BBC. A History of the World. Ain Sakhri Lovers
  23. "Archaeologists discover 12,000 year-old grave of witch doctor". Daily Mail 04-Nov-2008
  24. "Hebrew U. unearths 12,000-year-old skeleton of 'petite' Natufian priestess". By Bradley Burston. Haaretz, 05-Nov-2008
  25. Hogenboom, Melissa (24 May 2016), Secrets of the world's oldest funeral feast, earth, BBC, retrieved 24 May 2016
  26. Winfried Nöth (1994). Origins of Semiosis: Sign Evolution in Nature and Culture. p. 293.
  27. Roger Blench,Matthew Spriggs (2003). Archaeology and Language IV: Language Change and Cultural Transformation. p. 70.
  28. John A. Hall, I. C. Jarvie (2005). Transition to Modernity: Essays on Power, Wealth and Belief. p. 27.
  29. Blench R (2006) Archaeology, Language, and the African Past, Rowman Altamira, ISBN 0-7591-0466-2, ISBN 978-0-7591-0466-2,
  30. Ehret C, Keita SOY, Newman P (2004) The Origins of Afroasiatic a response to Diamond and Bellwood (2003) in the Letters of SCIENCE 306, no. 5702, p. 1680 10.1126/science.306.5702.1680c
  31. Bernal M (1987) Black Athena: the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0-8135-3655-3, ISBN 978-0-8135-3655-2.
  32. Bender ML (1997), Upside Down Afrasian, Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 50, pp. 19-34
  33. Militarev A (2005) Once more about glottochronology and comparative method: the Omotic-Afrasian case, Аспекты компаративистики - 1 (Aspects of comparative linguistics - 1). FS S. Starostin. Orientalia et Classica II (Moscow), p. 339-408.
  34. 1 2 Coon, Carleton (1939). The Races of Europe (PDF). The Macmillan Company. pp. 61–62. Retrieved 12 July 2016.

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