Natufian Period - Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors of Pre-Pottery Neolithic

Natufian Hunter-Gatherers were Ancestral to Humanity's First Farmers

Shell Mound People, 4000-2000 BC (c1880).
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The Natufian culture is the name given to the sedentary Late Epi-Paleolithic hunter-gatherers living in the Levant region of the near east between about 12,500 and 10,200 years ago. The Natufians foraged for food such as emmer wheat, barley, and almonds, and hunted gazelle, deer, cattle, horse, and wild boar.

The direct descendants of the Natufian (known as the pre-pottery Neolithic or PPN) were among the earliest farmers on the planet.

Natufian Communities

For at least part of the year, Natufian people lived in communities, some quite large, of semi-subterranean houses. These semi-circular one-room structures were excavated partly into the soil and built of stone, wood and perhaps brush roofs. The largest Natufian communities (called 'base camps') found to date include Jericho, Ain Mallaha, and Wadi Hammeh 27. Smaller, short-range dry season foraging camps may have been part of the settlement pattern, although evidence for them is scarce.

The Natufians located their settlements at the boundaries between coastal plains and hill country, to maximize their access to a wide variety of food. They buried their dead in cemeteries, with grave goods including stone bowls and dentalium shell. Some Natufian groups were seasonally mobile, while some sites show evidence of multiple-season occupation, along with long-term reoccupation, long-distance travel, and exchange.

Neolithic tools and weapons
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Natufian Artifacts

Artifacts found at Natufian sites include grinding stones, which were used to process seeds, dried meats, and fish for planned meals and to process ochre for likely ritual practices. Flint and bone tools and dentalium shell ornaments are also part of Natufian cultural material. Over 1,000 pierced marine shells have been recovered from Epipaleolithic sites in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region.

Specific tools such as stone sickles created for harvesting various crops are also a hallmark of Natufian assemblages. Large middens (organic rubbish dumps) are known at Natufian sites, located where they were created (rather than recycled and placed in secondary refuse pits). Dealing with refuse is one defining characteristics of the descendants of the Natufians, the Pre-Pottery Neolithic.

Grains and Beer Making in the Natufian

Some fairly rare evidence suggests that that the Natufian people may have cultivated barley and wheat. The line between horticulture (tending wild stands of crops) and agriculture (planting new specific stands) is a fuzzy one and difficult to discern in the archaeological record. Most scholars believe that moving to agriculture was not a one-time decision, but rather a series of experiments that may well have taken place during the Natufian or other hunter-gatherer subsistence regimes.

Researchers Hayden et al. (2013) compiled circumstantial evidence that the Natufians brewed beer and used it in the context of feasting. They argue that production of beverages from fermented barley, wheat, and/or rye may well have been an impetus for early agriculture, for assuring that a ready source of barley was available.

Israeli Archaeologists Discover She-Shaman Burial
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Natufian Archaeological Sites

Natufian sites are located in the Fertile Crescent region of western Asia. Some of the important ones include:

  • Israel: Mt. Carmel, Ain Mallaha (Eynan), Hayonim Cave, Nahal Oren, Rosh Zin, Rosh Horesha, Skhul Cave, Hilazon Tachtit, Kebara Cave, Raqefet Cave
  • Jordan: Wadi Hammeh, Wadi Judayid, Kharaneh IV, Jilat 6
  • Syria: Abu Hureyra
  • Palestine: Jericho
  • Turkey: Gobekli Tepe

Sources

This article is part of the About.com guide to the Origins of Agriculture, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology

Bar-Yosef O. 2008. ASIA, WEST: Palaeolithic Cultures. In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 865-875.

Grosman L, and Munro ND. 2016. A Natufian Ritual Event. Current Anthropology 57(3):311-331.

Grosman L, Munro ND, and Belfer-Cohen A. 2008. A 12,000-year-old burial from the southern Levant (Israel) – A case for early Shamanism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(46):17665–17669.

Hayden, Brian. "What Was Brewing in the Natufian? An Archaeological Assessment of Brewing Technology in the Epipaleolithic." Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Neil Canuel, Jennifer Shanse, Volume 20, Issue 1, SpringerLink, January 31, 2012.

Hayden BD. 2008. AGRICULTURE: Social Consequences. In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 123-131.

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Maher LA, Stock JT, Finney S, Heywood JJN, Miracle PT, and Banning EB. 2011. A Unique Human-Fox Burial from a Pre-Natufian Cemetery in the Levant (Jordan). PLoS ONE 6(1):e15815.

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Nadel D, Danin A, Power RC, Rosen AM, Bocquentin F, Tsatskin A, Rosenberg D, Yeshurun R, Weissbrod L, Rebollo NR et al. 2013. Earliest floral grave lining from 13,700–11,700-y-old Natufian burials at Raqefet Cave, Mt. Carmel, Israel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(29):11774-11778.

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Yeshurun R, Bar-Oz G, Kaufman D, and Weinstein-Evron M. 2013. Domestic refuse maintenance in the Natufian: Faunal evidence from el-Wad terrace, Mount Carmel. In: Bar-Yosef O, and Valla FR, editors. Natufian Foragers in the Levant: Terminal Pleistocene Social Changes in Western Asia. Ann Arbor, Michigan: International Monographs in Prehistory. p 118-138.

Yeshurun R, Bar-Oz G, Kaufman D, and Weinstein-Evron M. 2014. Purpose, permanence, and perception of 14,000-year-old architecture: Contextual taphony of food refuse. Current Anthropology 55(5):591-618.

Yeshurun R, Bar-Oz G, and Nadel D. 2013. The social role of food in the Natufian cemetery of Raqefet Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 32(4):511-526.