Kebara Cave (Israel) - Neanderthal Life on Mount Carmel

Middle Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic and Natufian Occupations

Mount Carmel Looking West into Mediterranean Coastal Plain
Mount Carmel Looking West into Mediterranean Coastal Plain. Dan Porges / Getty Images

Kebara Cave is a multicomponent Middle and Upper Paleolithic archaeological site, located on the steep western escarpment of Mount Carmel in Israel, facing the Mediterranean Sea. The site is near two other important Middle Paleolithic sites, being 15 kilometers (9 miles) south of Tabun Cave and 35 km (22 mi) west of Qafzeh cave.

Kebara Cave has two important components within its 18x25 meter (60x82 foot) floor area and 8 m (26 ft) deep deposits, Middle Paleolithic (MP) Aurignacian and Mousterian occupations, and Epi-Paleolithic Natufian occupations.

First occupied about 60,000 years ago, Kebara Cave contains many hearths and midden deposits, in addition to a comprehensive Levallois stone tool assemblage, and human remains, both Neanderthal and early modern human.

Chronology / Stratigraphy

The original excavations in 1931 identified and excavated the Natufian levels (A-B), as described in Bocquentin et al. Archaeologists working in the 1980s identified an additional 14 stratigraphic levels within Kebara cave, spanning 10,000 and 60,000 years ago. The following chronological sequence was collected from Lev et al.; calibrated radiocarbon dates (cal BP) dates for the MP-UP transition are from Rebollo et al.; and thermoluminescence dates for the Middle Paleolithic are from Valladas et al.

  • Units A-B, Natufian, 11,150-12,470 RCYBP on human bone
  • Units I-II, UP, Aurignacian
  • Units II-IV, IUP (?), Early Ahmarian, 46,700-49,000 cal BP
  • Unit V, very few archaeological remains
  • Units V-VI, MP-UP Transition, 48,000-49,000 cal BP
  • Units VII-XIII, MP, Mousterian, 51,900-61,600
  • Units XIV-XVI, no archaeological remains

Middle Paleolithic at Kebara Cave

The oldest occupations at Kebara Cave are associated with Neanderthals, including Middle Paleolithic Aurignacian stone tool tradition.

Radiocarbon and thermoluminescence dates indicate there were several occupations dated between 60,000 and 48,000 years ago. These oldest levels yielded thousands of animal bone, primarily mountain gazelle and Persian fallow deer, many exhibiting cut marks from butchering. These levels also included burned bones, hearths, ash lenses, and lithic artifacts leading researchers to believe Kebara Cave was a long-term occupied base camp for its residents.

The recovery of a nearly complete skeleton of a Neanderthal at Kebara (called Kebara 2) bolsters academic opinion that the Middle Paleolithic occupations were strictly Neanderthal. Kebara 2 has allowed researchers to study Neanderthal skeletal morphology in detail, providing rarely available information concerning Neanderthal lumbar spines (essential for upright posture and bipedal locomotion) and hyoid bones (necessary for complex speech).

The hyoid bone from Kebara 2 has an overall similarity to that from modern humans, and investigation of how it fit in the man's body has suggested to D'Anastasio and colleagues that it was used in very similar ways to humans. They argue that this suggests, but doesn't prove, that Kebara 2 practiced speech.

Investigations into the lumbar spine of Kebara 2 (Been and colleagues) found a difference from modern humans, in that the Neanderthal had a significant advantage in lateral flexion of the spine--the ability to tilt one's body to the right and left—compared to modern humans, which may be related to the wide span of Kebara 2's pelvic bones.

Initial Upper Paleolithic

Excavations at Kebara in the 1990s identified an Initial Upper Paleolithic: this is believed to represent an early modern human use of the cave. Features and artifacts associated with this component include hearth areas and Mousterian artifacts with an intensive use of the Levallois technique, attributed to the Early Ahmanian cultural designation.

Recent redating of this component suggests that what has been labeled an IUP occupation likely dates between 46,700-49,000 cal BP, reducing the gap between the MP and UP occupations of Kebara cave to a few thousand years, and supporting an argument for redating the movement of humans into the Levant.

See Rebollo et al. for further information.

Natufian at Kebara Cave

The Natufian component, dated between 11,000 and 12,000 years old, includes a large communal burial pit, with many sickle blades, lunates, mortars and pestles. Skeletal remains recently subjected to investigation at the site included a burial pit, in which 17 people (11 children and six adults) were buried sequentially, such as that identified at the site of El-Wad.

One of the individuals, a mature male, has a lunate stone artifact embedded in his vertebra, and it is apparent that the individual did not live long after his injury. Of the other five individuals buried in the cemetery at Kebara Cave, two exhibit evidence of violence as well.