When Did Humans Start Settling Down? (Smithsonian Magazine, July/August 2023)

Leore Grosman of Hebrew University directs excavations at Ein Gev. “What’s extraordinary is that we find things that later on would be ordinary.” (Daniel Rolider)

Matti Friedman

Twelve thousand years ago, long before the beginning of recorded history, a group of perhaps 200 people lived in a small village by a stream flowing into the Sea of Galilee, in what today is northern Israel. The villagers hunted gazelle and hares, fished for carp, built stone houses, and buried their dead in a cemetery next to their homes. When I hiked to the site early one morning, it was easy to imagine them: A few figures setting off with nets to the lakeshore, others walking toward the hills with bows and arrows to look for game, and more down by the riverbank, spinning thread or crushing barley, shooing children out of the way—a community waking up together and getting to work, unaware of their position at the dawn of a new age.

I came to the village with Leore Grosman, an archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We turned up a dirt track off the two-lane road that circles the Sea of Galilee. On the far shore, across five miles of placid water, lights in the city of Tiberias were blinking off. The sun wasn’t quite up, but the caffeine was kicking in. Grosman lit a cigarette and told me about herself in a gravelly voice. She started out studying math, then moved to Egyptology. She loved hieroglyphics. “But it’s a lot of sitting in libraries, and it’s a matter of personality,” she said. “I need to be outside.” She began digging here in 2010 with a feeling that the site, known as Nahal Ein Gev II, had something to say about a great change in the human story. She has returned each summer since.

Her team of 30 arrived in work pants and sun hats from their quarters at a nearby kibbutz. At first light, they fanned out across the hill by the stream. Soon a few were squatting in the remains of a round house. Several diggers under the direction of Natalie Munro, an archaeologist from the University of Connecticut, were busy in the adjacent cemetery, brushing off an adult cranium and treading carefully around the skeleton of a 3-year-old. One team member set up a geolocation tripod that precisely locates every artifact on a grid. A PhD student looked for gazelle bones. The pace picked up as the sun rose, the same atmosphere of industry you might have sensed if you had come when the villagers were here 12 millennia ago.

Every summer this village yields a wealth of new artifacts that bring the place and its ancient residents more vividly to life. Grosman and her colleagues have found hundreds of flint sickle-blades bearing the telltale sheen of an implement used to cut stems, evidence that residents harvested plants. They found a stone-lined food-storage pit, about a yard across, suggesting the villagers were not only harvesting as needed but also managing surpluses. They’ve uncovered tools for spinning thread, little stone sculptures of people and animals, and lime plaster that required advanced technical knowledge to produce. While I was there, they found a flat granite stone that weighed 200 pounds and was used to grind grains, not the sort of thing that is easily moved—a sign of the permanence of this village. But the finds themselves are perhaps less striking than the fact that none of them is supposed to be here. …

(Read the rest here.)