Qesem Cave (Israel)

Transitional Lower to Middle Paleolithic Qesem Cave

Qesem Cave Excavations
Qesem Cave Excavations. Qesem Cave Project ©2010

Qesem cave is a karst cave located on the lower, western slopes of the Judean Hills in Israel, 90 meters above the sea level and about 12 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea. The cave's known limits are approximately 200 square meters (~20x15 meters and ~10 meters high), although there are several partly visible passages which have yet to be excavated.

Hominid occupation of the cave has been documented in a 7.5-8 meter-thick layer of sediment, divided into an Upper Sequence (~4 meters thick) and a Lower Sequence (~3.5 meters thick). Both sequences are believed to be associated with the Acheulo-Yabrudian Cultural Complex (AYCC), which in the Levant is transitional between the Acheulean period of the late Lower Paleolithic and the Mousterian of the early Middle Paleolithic.

The stone tool assemblage at Qesem Cave is dominated by blades and shaped blades, called the "Amudian industry", with a small percentage of Quina scraper-dominated "Yabrudian industry". A few Acheulean hand axes were found sporadically throughout the sequence. Faunal material discovered in the cave exhibited a good state of preservation, and included fallow deer, auroch, horse, wild pig, tortoise, and red deer.

Cutmarks on the bones suggest butchery and marrow extraction; the selection of bones within the cave suggest that the animals were field-butchered, with only specific parts returned to the cave where they were consumed. These, and the presence of blade technology, are early examples of modern human behaviors.

Qesem Cave Chronology

Qesem Cave's stratigraphy has been dated by Uranium-Thorium (U-Th) series on speleotherms--natural cave deposits such as stalagmites and stalactites, and, at Qesem Cave, calcite flowstone and pool deposits. Dates from the speleotherms are from in situ samples, although not all of them are clearly associated with the human occupations.

Speleotherm U/Th dates recorded within the top 4 meters of the cave deposits range between 320,000 and 245,000 years ago. A speleotherm crust at 470-480 cm below the surface returned a date of 300,000 years ago. Based on similar sites in the region, and these suite of dates, the excavators believe that occupation of the cave began as long ago as 420,000 years ago. Acheulo-Yabrudian Cultural Complex (AYCC) sites such as Tabun Cave, Jamal Cave and Zuttiyeh in Israel and Yabrud I and Hummal Cave in Syria also contain date ranges between 420,000-225,000 years ago, fitting with the data from Qesem.

Sometime between 220,000 and 194,000 years ago, Qesem cave was abandoned.

Note (Jan 2011): Ran Barkai, director of the Qesem Cave Project at Tel Aviv University, reports that a paper to be submitted for publication soon provides dates on burnt flints and animal teeth within the archaeological sediments.

Faunal Assemblage

Animals represented at Qesem cave include approximately 10,000 microvertebrate remains, including reptiles (there are an abundance of chameleons), birds, and micromammals such as shrews.

Human Remains at Qesem Cave

Human remains found within the cave are restricted to teeth, found in three different contexts, but all within the AYCC of the late Lower Paleolithic period. A total of eight teeth were found, six permanent teeth and two deciduous teeth, probably representing at least six different individuals. All of the permanent teeth are mandibular teeth, containing some traits of Neanderthal affinities and some suggesting a similarity to hominids from Skhul/Qafzeh caves. Qesem's excavators are convinced that the teeth are Anatomically Modern Human.

Archaeological Excavations at Qesem Cave

Qesem Cave was discovered in 2000, during road construction, when the cave's ceiling was almost entirely removed. Two brief salvage excavations were conducted by the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority; those studies identified the 7.5 meter sequence, and the presence of AYCC. Planned field seasons were conducted between 2004 and 2009, led by Tel Aviv University.


See Tel Aviv University's Qesem Cave Project for additional information. See page two for a list of resources used in this article.


See Tel Aviv University's Qesem Cave Project for additional information.

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Paleolithic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Barkai R, Gopher A, Lauritzen SE, and Frumkin A. 2003. Uranium series dates from Qesem Cave, Israel, and the end of the Lower Palaeolithic. Nature 423(6943):977-979. doi:10.1038/nature01718

Boaretto E, Barkai R, Gopher A, Berna F, Kubik PW, and Weiner S. 2009. Specialized Flint Procurement Strategies for Hand Axes, Scrapers and Blades in the Late Lower Paleolithic: A 10Be Study at Qesem Cave, Israel. Human Evolution 24(1):1-12.

Frumkin A, Karkanas P, Bar-Matthews M, Barkai R, Gopher A, Shahack-Gross R, and Vaks A. 2009. Gravitational deformations and fillings of aging caves: The example of Qesem karst system, Israel. Geomorphology 106(1-2):154-164. doi:10.1016/j.geomorph.2008.09.018

Gopher A, Ayalon A, Bar-Matthews M, Barkai R, Frumkin A, Karkanas P, and Shahack-Gross R. 2010. The chronology of the late Lower Paleolithic in the Levant based on U-Th ages of speleothems from Qesem Cave, Israel. Quaternary Geochronology 5(6):644-656. doi: 10.1016/j.quageo.2010.03.003

Gopher A, Barkai R, Shimelmitz R, Khalaily M, Lemorini C, Heshkovitz I, and Stiner MC. 2005. Qesem Cave: An Amudian Site in Central Israel. Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society 35:69-92.

Hershkovitz I, Smith P, Sarig R, Quam R, Rodríguez L, García R, Arsuaga JL, Barkai R, and Gopher A. 2010. Middle Pleistocene dental remains from Qesem Cave (Israel). American Journal of Physical Anthropology 144(4):575-592. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21446

Karkanas P, Shahack-Gross R, Ayalon A, Bar-Matthews M, Barkai R, Frumkin AG, Avi , and Stiner MC. 2007. Evidence for habitual use of fire at the end of the Lower Paleolithic: Site-formation processes at Qesem Cave, Israel. Journal of Human Evolution 53(2):197-212. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.04.002

Lemorini C, Stiner MC, Gopher A, Shimelmitz R, and Barkai R. 2006. Use-wear analysis of an Amudian laminar assemblage from the Acheuleo-Yabrudian of Qesem Cave, Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science 33(7):921-934. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2005.10.019

Maul LC, Smith KT, Barkai R, Barash A, Karkanas P, Shahack-Gross R, and Gopher A. 2011. Microfaunal remains at Middle Pleistocene Qesem Cave, Israel: Preliminary results on small vertebrates, environment and biostratigraphy. Journal of Human Evolution 60(4):464-480. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2010.03.015

Verri G, Barkai R, Bordeanu C, Gopher A, Hass M, Kaufman A, Kubik P, Montanari E, Paul M, Ronen A et al. 2004. Flint mining in prehistory recorded by in situ-produced cosmogenic 10Be. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101(21):7880-7884.

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