Wadi Jilat (Jordan)

Epipaleolithic Archaeological Sites in Jordan

Location of Wadi Jilat in Jordan
Location of Wadi Jilat in Jordan. CIA Map, 1994

Wadi Jilat is the name of a wadi--an Arabic term meaning a desert valley--and several dozen archaeological sites located within it. Jilat is part of the southwestern Azraq Basin of eastern Jordan, a region of dry steppe-desert and oasis, to the east of the Jordan River HIghlands and the Dead Sea-Jordan Rift Valley, where large villages such as 'Ain Ghazal, Beidha, Wadi Faynan and Jericho emerged during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (12,000 to 9,000 years ago).

Human occupation of the Azraq basin begins in the Late Upper Paleolithic and continues through until the late Neolithic, or between about 30,000-7,500 calendar years ago [cal BP]. (see Garrard, Baird and Byrd 1994). A ravine in Wadi Jilat traps water after winter storms, making it an attractive place for prehistoric people and animals.

Wadi Jilat as a whole is important for the information it provides concerning the Levantine Epipaleolithic, that transitional period in human history at the end of which people shifted their living strategies from hunting towards agriculture, while also increasing in cultural complexity. Two important epipaleolithic sites in the wadi are Wadi Jilat 6 and 22.

Wadi Jilat 6

Wadi Jilat 6 is a "mega site", one of two highly unusual and anomalous sites in the Azraq basin--the other is Kharaneh IV. Most Epipaleolithic sites in the basin are ephemeral sites, such as Wadi Jilat 22, briefly occupied as special purpose camps.

Unlike Wadi Jilat 22, Wadi Jilat 6 and Kharaneh IV, between them, include evidence of structures and human burials, living floors and hearths, highly atypical of the period. (see Garrard & Byrd 1992, 2013, and Maher et al. 2012)

Wadi Jilat 6 is located 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Kharaneh IV and covers an area of some 1.8 hectares (~4.4 acres).

Occupation at Wadi Jilat 6 occurred at intervals over thousands of years, and is associated with the Early Epipaleolithic cultures known as the Nebekian, Qalkhan and Nizzanian. In contrast, Kharaneh contained Kebaran and Geometric Kebaran cultural material, suggesting that two separate groups were using these base camps at the same period.

Two theories exist in the literature about the "mega sites". One of these suggests that they represent seasonal locations where groups of people aggregated; a counter argument suggests that these were used on a more permanent basis. Analysis of goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutterosa) cementum--deposits on teeth which accumulate seasonally not unlike tree rings (Jones 2012)--suggests that the occupations were in fact multi-seasonal. But, the jury is still out.

Wadi Jilat 22

  • Upper (Late Epipaleolithic) 14,229-13,320 cal BP, geometric and non-geometric microliths (cf Mushabian)
  • Middle (Middle Epipaleolithic) 16,601-14,718 cal BP, Jilat knives
  • Lower (Middle Epipaleolithic) 16,986-15,985 cal BP, Jilat knives

Wadi Jilat 22 is located near the eastern end of the wadi, and its occupations are dated between the Middle and Late Epipaleolithic, essentially during the warming trend following the end of the Last Glacial Maximum.

Lithic artifacts are contemporary with the Levantine Geometric Kebaran, although those at Wadi Jilat include the distinctive tanged, truncated points called Jilat knives, which are typically missing from Geometric Kebaran assemblages.

The site includes a surface scatter of artifacts measuring 45x25 meters (~150x80 feet) on the top of a mound. A 2x2 m (6.5x6.5 ft) trench excavated in 1987 by Garrard and colleagues identified the stratigraphy and occupation history (Garrard & Byrd 1992, 2013). Overall, they found that the occupations at Wadi Jilat 22 were short-term camps used seasonally. Archaeological evidence suggests that Wadi Jilat was a raptor procurement and processing site for other Epipaleolithic sites elsewhere.

Animal Bone at Jilat 22

Animal bone found within Wadi Jilat 22 is dominated by gazelle (probably goitered gazelle G. subgutturosa), with some lesser representation of wild horse or onager.

Also in the assemblage are birds (mostly raptors such as eagles, vultures, buzzards and kites), tortoises, hares, wolves/jackals and foxes.

The dominance of raptors in the assemblage, particularly in the Middle Phase, shows an absence of wing bones. By contrast, wing bones alone are often found in Epipaleolithic sites such as Ohalo II and Jerf al Ahmar, where they are interpreted as objects used for symbolic purposes. This circumstance leads researchers Martin and colleagues to interpret Wadi Jilat as a raptor procurement and processing site, where eagles and buzzards were snared on a seasonal basis and then processed, and the wings and feathers traded on.

The presence of tortoise shell and bone is also interpreted not as food for the hunters, but rather to have been used as bait for the raptors, additional support for the hypothesized 'birding' activity.


This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Natufian, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Garrard AN, Baird D, and Byrd BF. 1994. The chronological basis and significance of the Late Palaeolithic and Neolithic sequence in the Azraq Basin, Jordan. In: Bar-Yosef O, and Kra RS, editors. Late Quaternary Chronology and Paleoclimates of the Eastern Mediterranean. Tucson: University of Arizona.

Garrard AN, and Byrd BF. 1992. New dimensions to the epipalaeolithic of the Wadi el-Jilat in central Jordan. Paleórient 18(1):47-62.

Garrard AN, and Byrd B. 2013. Beyond the Fertile Crescent: Late Palaeolithic and Neolithic communities of the Jordanian steppe. The Azraq Basin Project Volume 1: Procject Background and the Late Palaeolithic (Geological Context and Technology). Oxford: Oxbow Press.

Jones JR. 2012. Using gazelle dental cementum studies to explore seasonality and mobility patterns of the Early-Middle Epipalaeolithic Azraq Basin, Jordan. Quaternary International 252(0):195-201.

Maher LA, Richter T, Macdonald D, Jones MD, Martin L, and Stock JT. 2012. Twenty Thousand-Year-Old Huts at a Hunter-Gatherer Settlement in Eastern Jordan.

PLoS ONE 7(2):e31447.

Martin L, Edwards Y, and Garrard A. 2013. Broad spectrum or specialised activity? Birds and tortoises at the Epipalaeolithic site of Wadi Jilat 22 in the eastern Jordan steppe. Antiquity 87(337):649-665.

Wright KI, and Garrard A. 2003. Social identities and the expansion of stone bead-making in Neolithic Western Asia: new evidence from Jordan. Antiquity 77(296):267-284.