Shelters date to Stone Age

Hunter-gatherers hung out in huts long before farmers built villages

The remains of a couple of nearly 20,000-year-old huts, excavated in a Jordanian desert basin, add to evidence that hunter-gatherers built long-term dwellings 10,000 years before farming villages debuted in the Middle East.

HUT TWO Remains of a pair of almost 20,000-year-old huts, indicated here by dotted lines, support an emerging scenario in which Middle Eastern hunter-gatherers built long-term dwellings 10,000 years before the appearance of farming villages. L. Maher, EFAP Archive

EVER SO HUMBLE Excavations in Jordan have revealed dwellings dating back millennia before the development of agricultural settlements. The finds suggest that hunter-gatherers could sustain at least partially sedentary lives. L. Maher, EFAP Archive

These new discoveries come from a time of social transition, when mobile hunter-gatherers hunkered down for months at a time in spots that featured rivers, lakes and plentiful game, say archaeologist Lisa Maher of the University of California, Berkeley and her colleagues. Discoveries in and around hut remnants at a Stone Age site called Kharaneh IV include hearths, animal bones and caches of pierced seashells and other apparently ritual items, Maher’s team reports in a paper published online February 15 in PLoS ONE.

Graves containing human skeletons were previously excavated beneath what have now been identified as hut floors covered by burned wood and shrubs that once served as walls.

Maher expects evidence of additional four- to five-person huts will turn up at the site, which is about the size of four U.S. football fields. Over a 1,000-year span, groups totaling between 50 and 100 people spent about half of each year at Kharaneh IV, she estimates.

“This type of attachment to one place by ancient hunter-gatherers may have been similar to early farmers’ perceptions of their villages,” Maher says.

Ancient huts at Kharaneh IV join a handful of other Stone Age hunter-gatherer structures excavated in the Middle East. Remains of six brushwood huts at Israel’s Ohalo II site, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, date to as early as 23,000 years ago.

The ancient huts at Ohalo II were probably occupied year-round, based on extensive plant and animal finds at that site, says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef. In his view, those huts — but not the Kharaneh IV huts — were precursors of 14,500-year-old oval structures with stone foundations built at several Middle Eastern locations by the Natufians, the first foraging society known to inhabit permanent settlements (SN: 9/25/10, p. 14).

New Kharaneh IV finds show that, by 20,000 years ago, “perishable brush huts were common from the lush Sea of Galilee basin into now-arid plains to the east,” says archaeologist Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa in Israel, who directs Ohalo II excavations.

Ancient hunter-gatherers may not have lived at Kharaneh IV permanently, but they returned annually for long stretches over many generations, Maher says. Gazelle hunting was a prime draw, along with opportunities for trading goods, forming alliances and arranging marriages, she suggests.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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