Nottingham academic reveals insight into early prehistoric human occupations

Image courtesy of EFAP (Epipalaeolithic Foragers in Azraq Project)

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Some of the earliest evidence of prehistoric architecture has been discovered in the Jordanian desert, providing archaeologists with a new perspective on how humans lived 20,000 years ago.

The ancient hut structures in eastern Jordan were discovered by a team of archaeologists including academics from The University of Nottingham. The finding suggests that the area was once intensively occupied and that the origins of architecture in the region date back 20 millennia, well before the emergence of agriculture.

The research by a joint British, Danish, American and Jordanian team, published recently in the peer-reviewed science journal PLoS One , describes huts that hunter-gatherers used as long-term homes and suggests that many behaviours associated with later cultures and communities, such as a growing attachment to a location and a far-reaching social network, existed up to 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Research by University of Nottingham geographer Matt Jones, alongside colleagues from University College London , suggests that although the area is starkly dry and barren today during the last Ice Age the deserts of Jordan were in bloom, with rivers, streams and seasonal lakes and ponds providing a rich environment for hunter-gatherers to settle in.

Ancient peoples

Jones said: “It’s amazing to think that 20,000 years ago people were thriving in significant numbers in an area that is today so dry and inhospitable. The evidence we are finding shows that significant resources, including water, were readily available to these ancient peoples.”

The archaeologists, who were funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK , spent three seasons excavating at the large open-air site covering two hectares. They recovered thousands of stone tools, animal bones and other finds from the site of Kharaneh IV, which today appears as little more than a mound three metres high rising above the desert landscape.

Based on the size and density of the site, the researchers had long suspected that it was frequented by large numbers of people for long periods of time and these latest findings now confirm their theory.

So far, the team has excavated two huts measuring around two to three metres in length and which would have been constructed using brush wood, but there may be several more hidden beneath the desert sands. Radiocarbon dating seems to suggest that the huts are between 19,300 and 18,600 years old. Although a team of archaeologists found the region’s oldest hut structures on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1989 which date from 23,000 years ago, the team working at the Kharaneh IV site believe their discovery to be no less significant.

Buried treasures

Inside the huts, the team found intentionally burnt piles of gazelle horn cores, clumps of red ochre pigment and a cache of hundreds of shell beads which were brought to the site from the Mediterranean and Red Seas more than 250 km away, showing that people were very well linked to regional social networks and exchanged items across considerable distances.

Also discovered were bones with regularly incised lines and a fragment of limestone with geometric carved patterns, and even evidence that the people living in the region buried their dead at the site.

A copy of the research paper can be viewed at the journal.

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