Ohalo II, a hunter-gatherer site 19,000 years old near Sea of Galilee, Israel

Mordechai Kislev ; Ehud Weiss ; Orit Simchoni



Ohalo II is a submerged early Epipalaeolithic site on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel. The site is exposed only in years following severe droughts. Excavations at the site revealed six huts, several hearths, a grave and a stone installation. Botanical material from the site was AMS C14 dated and found to average 19,400 uncalibrated years BP. Ohalo II revealed very-well-preserved botanical finds from a period hardly studied before from this aspect. It is, by far, the most unique site of this period now under investigation. The plant remains provide a rare opportunity for reconstructing the daily life and site environment during the last Glacial Maximum, a period preceding the agriculture revolution.





The botanical material from Ohalo II was preserved by charring. In this state of preservation most of the grains carry their fine morphological characters, which enables us to identify them to species level.

The initial archaeobotanical studies of Ohalo II were carried out in our lab in 1991 and were continued by Dr. O. Simchoni in her Ph.D. thesis and E. Weiss in his Ph.D. thesis. These investigations primarily reconstructed the diet of the site inhabitants, the site-area ecosystems, as well as the lake systems of the Dead Sea Rift Valley.

Three excavation seasons were carried out during 1989-1991 by Dr. D. Nadel. An additional season, during summer 1999, has added much to our understanding of the site. This season revealed that Ohalo II is much larger then formally thought, more than 2000 mē. It is also denser with habitations and has more diverse loci. Moreover, the site was found to continue below ground.

Ohalo II and its finds initiated many studies in a broad spectrum of fields that illustrates the significance of the site and this information adds to our understanding of its time and space, such as camp organization, brush huts construction, fuel/construction wood, twisted fibers, burial customs and complex social structure, landscape and human economy reconstruction (Table 1) and seasonality of avifauna use.

 

Vitis sylvestris, pip, dorsal view

Puccinellia distans/gigantea, grain, side view

Grains and Fruits

Charred plant remains of wild barley and other edible grasses and fruits suggest, by their ripening seasons, that the site was occupied at least during spring and autumn (Table 2). The species found provide insights into the subsistence strategy of the earliest known hunter-gatherer community of the Levantine Epi-Palaeolithic period. In addition, the remains of barley rachis nodes provide new evidence distinguishing between domesticated and wild types.

 


Triticum discoccoides, rachis fragment


Hordeum spontaneum, part of spikelet


Nitraria schoberi, kernel


Reconstructing the palaeoecology

The plant assemblage identified at Ohalo II is obviously from the time of habitation and was found to include some desert, Irano-Turanian (continental) plants, which represent the dry conditions that prevailed in the close surroundings. Among these are Anabasis articulata, Astragalus aleppicus, Atriplex leucoclada, Malva aegyptia, Nitraria schoberi, Stipa barbata, Suaeda palaestina/fruticosa, Vulpia persica, and probably Artemisia sieberi and Centaurea glomerata as well, some of them in large quantities.

The evidence for dry conditions in 19,400 B.P can be compared to the significant pick of herbs in Tsukada's diagram, drawn from a rather contemporaneous sample. The desert plant macrofossils from the site, the large quantities of herb and grasses in the pollen diagram, and smaller but significant quantities of conifers led us to suggest that when Ohalo II was inhabited, the climate was dry and cold. The presence of the continental Nitraria schoberi instead of the local N. retusa confirms the reconstructed climate. It is also suggested that Quercus ithaburensis-Styrax officinalis association migrated a few km southwards, towards Ohalo II, compare to the situation today. So, the vegetation in the surrounding of Ohalo II includes mainly an oak steppe forest with annual grasses among the trees and a small saline nearby the fresh-water Lake Kinneret. Further investigation may reveal the extent of temperature and precipitation drop.