Archeology

International Team of Leading Israeli Universities Finds Oldest Evidence of the Controlled Use of Fire to Cook Food

International Team of Leading Israeli Universities Finds Oldest Evidence of the Controlled Use of Fire to Cook Food

15 November, 2022

The remains of a huge carp fish (2 meters/6.5 feet length), analyzed by the Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan University Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with Oranim Academic College, the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institution, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, mark the earliest signs of cooking by prehistoric human to 780,000 years ago, predating the available data by some 600,000 years.

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A remarkable scientific discovery has been made by researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU), Tel Aviv University (TAU), and Bar-Ilan University (BIU), in collaboration with the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Oranim Academic College, the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research (IOLR) institution, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. A close analysis of the remains of a carp-like fish found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (GBY) archaeological site in Israel shows that the fish were cooked roughly 780,000 years ago.  Cooking is defined as the ability to process food by controlling the temperature at which it is heated and includes a wide range of methods. Until now, the earliest evidence of cooking dates to approximately 170,000 years ago. The question of when early man began using fire to cook food has been the subject of much scientific discussion for over a century. These findings shed new light on the matter and was published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The study was led by a team of researchers:  Dr. Irit Zohar, a researcher at TAU’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and curator of the Beit Margolin Biological Collections at Oranim Academic College, and HU Professor Naama Goren-Inbar, director of the excavation site.  The research team also included Dr. Marion Prevost at HU’s Institute of Archaeology; Prof. Nira Alperson-Afil at BIU’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology; Dr. Jens Najorka of the Natural History Museum in London; Dr. Guy Sisma-Ventura of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute; Prof. Thomas Tütken of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz and Prof. Israel Hershkovitz at TAU’s Faculty of Medicine.

Dr. Zohar and Dr. Prevost: “This study demonstrates the huge importance of fish in the life of prehistoric humans, for their diet and economic stability. Further, by studying the fish remains found at Gesher Benot Ya’aqob we were able to reconstruct, for the first time, the fish population of the ancient Hula Lake and to show that the lake held fish species that became extinct over time. These species included giant barbs (carp like fish) that reached up to 2 meters in length. The large quantity of fish remains found at the site proves their frequent consumption by early humans, who developed special cooking techniques. These new findings demonstrate not only the importance of freshwater habitats and the fish they contained for the sustenance of prehistoric man, but also illustrate prehistoric humans’ ability to control fire in order to cook food, and their understanding the benefits of cooking fish before eating it.”

In the study, the researchers focused on pharyngeal teeth (used to grind up hard food such as shells) belonging to fish from the carp family. These teeth were found in large quantities at different archaeological strata at the site. By studying the structure of the crystals that form the teeth enamel (whose size increases through exposure to heat), the researchers were able to prove that the fish caught at the ancient Hula Lake, adjacent to the site, were exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking, and were not simply burned by a spontaneous fire.

Until now, evidence of the use of fire for cooking had been limited to sites that came into use much later than the GBY site--by some 600,000 years, and ones most are associated with the emergence of our own species, homo sapiens.

Prof. Goren-Inbar added: “The fact that the cooking of fish is evident over such a long and unbroken period of settlement at the site indicates a continuous tradition of cooking food. This is another in a series of discoveries relating to the high cognitive capabilities of the Acheulian hunter-gatherers who were active in the ancient Hula Valley region. These groups were deeply familiar with their environment and the various resources it offered them.  Further, it shows they had extensive knowledge of the life cycles of different plant and animal species. Gaining the skill required to cook food marks a significant evolutionary advance, as it provided an additional means for making optimal use of available food resources. It is even possible that cooking was not limited to fish, but also included various types of animals and plants.”

Prof. Hershkovitz and Dr. Zohar note that the transition from eating raw food to eating cooked food had dramatic implications for human development and behavior.  Eating cooked food reduces the bodily energy required to break down and digest food, allowing other physical systems to develop.  It also leads to changes in the structure of the human jaw and skull. This change freed humans from the daily, intensive work of searching for and digesting raw food, providing them free time in which to develop new social and behavioral systems. Some scientists view eating fish as a milestone in the quantum leap in human cognitive evolution, providing a central catalyst for the development of the human brain.  They claim that eating fish is what made us human. Even today, it is widely known that the contents of fish flesh, such as omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iodine and more, contribute greatly to brain development.

The research team believe that the location of freshwater areas, some of them in areas that have long since dried up and become arid deserts, determined the route of the migration of early man from Africa to the Levant and beyond. Not only did these habitats provide drinking water and attracted animals to the area but catching fish in shallow water is a relatively simple and safe task with a very high nutritional reward.

The team posits that exploiting fish in freshwater habitats was the first step on prehistoric humans’ route out of Africa. Early man began to eat fish around 2 million years ago but cooking fish—as found in this study—represented a real revolution in the Acheulian diet, and is an important foundation for understanding the relationship between man, the environment, climate, and migration when attempting to reconstruct the history of early humans.

It should be noted that evidence of the use of fire at the site—the oldest such evidence in Eurasia—was identified first by BIU’s Prof. Nira Alperson-Afil. “The use of fire is a behavior that characterizes the entire continuum of settlement at the site,” she explained. “This affected the spatial organization of the site and the activity conducted there, which revolved around fireplaces.” Alperson-Afil’s research of fire at the site was revolutionary for its time and showed that the use of fire began hundreds of thousands of years before previously thought.

HU’s Goren-Inbar added that the archaeological site of GBY documents a continuum of repeated settlement by groups of hunter-gatherers on the shores of the ancient Hula Lake which lasting tens of thousands of years. “These groups made use of the rich array of resources provided by the ancient Hula Valley, and left behind a long settlement continuum with over 20 settlement strata,” Goren-Inbar explained. The excavations at the site have uncovered the material culture of these ancient hominins, including flint, basalt, and limestone tools, as well as their food sources, which were characterized by a rich diversity of plant species from the lake and its shores (including fruit, nuts, and seeds) and by many species of land mammals, both medium-sized and large.

Dr. Jens Najorka of the Natural History Museum in London explained: “In this study, we used geochemical methods to identify changes in the size of the tooth enamel crystals, as a result of exposure to different cooking temperatures. When they are burnt by fire, it is easy to identify the dramatic change in the size of the enamel crystals, but it is more difficult to identify the changes caused by cooking at temperatures between 200 and 500 degrees Celsius. The experiments I conducted with Dr. Zohar allowed us to identify the changes caused by cooking at low temperatures. We do not know exactly how the fish were cooked but given the lack of evidence of exposure to high temperatures, it is clear that they were not cooked directly in fire, and were not thrown into a fire as waste or as material for burning.”

Dr. Guy Sisma-Ventura of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute and Prof. Thomas Tütken of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz were also part of the research group, providing analysis of the isotope composition of oxygen and carbon in the enamel of the fishes’ teeth. “This study of isotopes is a real breakthrough, as it allowed us to reconstruct the hydrological conditions in this ancient lake throughout the seasons, and thus to determine that the fish were not a seasonal economic resource but were caught and eaten all year round. Thus, fish provided a constant source of nutrition that reduced the need for seasonal migration.”

 

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First Sentence Ever Written in Canaanite Language Discovered at Tel Lachish:

First Sentence Ever Written in Canaanite Language Discovered at Tel Lachish:

9 November, 2022

Hebrew U. Unearths Ivory Comb from 1700 BCE Inscribed with Plea to Eradicate Lice —"May this [ivory] tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard”

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The alphabet was invented around 1800 BCE and was used by the Canaanites and later by most other languages in the world.  Until recently, no meaningful Canaanite inscriptions had been discovered in the Land of Israel, save only two or three words here and there. Now an amazing discovery presents an entire sentence in Canaanite, dating to about 1700 BCE. It is engraved on a small ivory comb and includes a spell against lice.

The comb was unearthed at Tel Lachish in Israel by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) and Southern Adventist University in the United States, under the direction of Professors Yosef Garfinkel, Michael Hasel and Martin Klingbeil.  The inscription was deciphered by semitic epigraphist Dr. Daniel Vainstub at Ben Gurion University (BGU). The ivory was tested by HU Prof. Rivka Rabinovich and BGU Prof. Yuval Goren and was found to originate from an elephant tusk.  Their findings were published in Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology.

The letters of the inscription were engraved in a very shallow manner. It was excavated in 2017 but the letters were noticed only in subsequent post-processing in 2022 by Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu. It was cleaned and preserved by Miriam Lavi.

The ivory comb is small, measuring roughly 3.5 by 2.5 cm.  The comb has teeth on both sides. Although their bases are still visible, the comb teeth themselves were broken in antiquity. The central part of the comb is somewhat eroded, possibly by the pressure of fingers holding the comb during haircare or removal of lice from the head or beard. The side of the comb with six thick teeth was used to untangle knots in the hair, while the other side, with 14 fine teeth, was used to remove lice and their eggs, much like the current-day two-sided lice combs sold in stores.

There are 17 Canaanite letters on the comb. They are archaic in form—from the first stage of the invention of the alphabet script. They form seven words in Canaanite, reading: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

“This is the first sentence ever found in the Canaanite language in Israel. There are Canaanites in Ugarit in Syria, but they write in a different script, not the alphabet that is used till today. The Canaanite cities are mentioned in Egyptian documents, the Amarna letters that were written in Akkadian, and in the Hebrew Bible. The comb inscription is direct evidence for the use of the alphabet in daily activities some 3700 years ago. This is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write,” shared Garfinkel.

Ancient combs were made from wood, bone, or ivory. Ivory was a very expensive material and likely an imported luxury object.  As there were no elephants in Canaan during that time period, the comb likely came from nearby Egypt—factors indicating that even people of high social status suffered from lice.

The research team analyzed the comb itself for the presence of lice under a microscope and photographs were taken of both sides. Remains of head lice, 0.5–0.6 mm in size, were found on the second tooth. The climatic conditions of Lachish, however, did not allow preservation of whole head lice but only those of the outer chitin membrane of the nymph stage head louse.

Despite its small size, the inscription on the comb from Lachish has very special features, some of which are unique and fill in gaps and lacunas in our knowledge of many aspects of the culture of Canaan in the Bronze Age.  For the first time, we have an entire verbal sentence written in the dialect spoken by the Canaanite inhabitants of Lachish, enabling us to compare this language in all its aspects with the other sources for it. Second, the inscription on the comb sheds light on some hitherto poorly attested aspects of the everyday life of the time, haircare and dealing with lice.

Third, this is the first discovery in the region of an inscription referring to the purpose of the object on which it was written, as opposed to dedicatory or ownership inscriptions on objects. Further, the engraver’s skill in successfully executing such tiny letters (1–3 mm wide) is a fact that from now on should be taken into account in any attempt to summarize and draw conclusions on literacy in Canaan in the Bronze Age.

Lachish was a major Canaanite city state in the second millennium BCE and the second most important city in the Biblical Kingdom of Judah. To date, 10 Canaanite inscriptions have been found in Lachish, more than at any other site in Israel. The city was the major center for the use and preservation of the alphabet during some 600 years, from 1800-1150 BCE. The site of Tel Lachish is under the protection of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.   

 

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archeology

HEBREW UNIVERSITY UNCOVERS RITUAL BATH USED BY JERUSALEM’S ELITES ON EVE OF DESTRUCTION OF SECOND TEMPLE

20 July, 2022

Archaeological Excavations near Temple Mount Also Unearth Pool Built by Soldiers from Rome’s 10th Legion and Byzantine lamp inscribed, “The light of Christ shines for all”

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A salvage excavation near the Temple Mount by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology has unearthed a unique ritual bath (“mikveh”) dating back to the Late Second Temple period (1st Century CE).   These excavations, begun in February 2021 to provide handicap access between Jerusalem’s Old City and the Western Wall, were overseen by HU’s Michal Haber and Dr. Oren Gutfeld, funded in part by Israel’s Ministry for Jerusalem Affairs and the William Davidson Foundation, and spearheaded by the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

 

The ritual bath was found within a private villa, hewn into the bedrock and featuring a vaulted ceiling with fine masonry typical of the Herodian period.  It is located on top of a cliff in the “Upper City”—a phrase coined by historian Josephus Flavius to describe the area of Herod’s City which housed Jerusalem’s elites.  A plastered water cistern was uncovered near the same villa.  It had been in use until the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 CE, and held the remains of nearly 40 cooking pots, some still intact.

 

In addition to the ritual bath, the excavations unearthed additional artifacts that span the Second Temple, Roman-Byzantine and Ottoman periods, including a network of plastered pools and channels.  Among the finds were a section of the Ottoman-period phase of the “Lower Aqueduct” which transported water from Solomon’s Pools near Bethlehem all the way to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period; and an industrial pool built by soldiers of Rome’s Tenth Legion who were stationed in Jerusalem after the establishment of the Roman colony of “Aelia Capitolina” in 130 CE. The pool lies on top of the remains of an earlier Roman oven, also installed by soldiers of the Legion.  The bottom contains a layer of tile bricks, one of which was stamped with the letters “LXF,” alluding to “Legio X Fretensis,” the full name of the Tenth Legion. 

 

Also discovered over the course of excavation was a fragment of Late Byzantine-period ceramic oil lamp, inscribed with the Greek formula "The Light of Christ shines for all." This phrase may have its source in the ceremony of the Holy Fire, part of the Orthodox Easter celebrations in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Such oil lamps, dated primarily to the 6th and 7th centuries CE, may have been purchased by Christian pilgrims thronging to the Byzantine city -- by now known as “Hierosolyma”. 

 

Zeev Elkin, Israel’s Minister of Construction and Housing and of Jerusalem Affairs, inaugurated the Western Wall Elevator Project, noting “these rare finds, made during the Western Wall Elevator Project excavations, are truly exciting.  They provide proof of a continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem for millennia.  Under my leadership, Israel’s Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage will continue to preserve and develop Jerusalem’s rich Jewish past and to transform the capital into a modern, innovative city.”

 

Surveying the unique finds, Gutfeld shared, “The excavation revealed remains dating from the Second Temple, Roman-Byzantine, and Ottoman periods. The amount of water channels, cisterns and pools discovered in the area reflect the central role played by Jerusalem’s water supply throughout the ages.”

 

As noted, the highlight of the archaeological dig was the ritual bath. Haber explained the significance of this find, “during the Herodian period, the area in question was home to the city’s wealthiest residents. While several other ritual baths have been unearthed in the area, the importance of this particular discovery stems from its striking proximity to the Temple Mount—raising the question of who lived in this grand villa on the eve of the city’s destruction. It may well have been a priestly family.”

 

With the help of Dr. Amit Reem, chief archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem District, the ritual bath will be preserved and incorporated into the new Western Wall Elevator complex.

 

The Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs, headed by Minister Elkin, continues to develop Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter.  Current projects include the Western Wall Elevator, the Tiferet Israel synagogue, upgrades to the Herodian Quarter and the Broad Wall archaeological site.

 

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