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

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

Natufian burial found on Mount Carmel
Natufian burial found on Mount Carmel. De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty Images

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.

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 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.

Natufian Archaeological Sites

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

Sources

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