Archaeologists working at the Shubayqa 1 site. Photo: University of Copenhagen

The Natufian culture emerged from southwest Asia during a time of hardship at the tail end of the last Ice Age, a period when the climate was becoming cooler and drier. Migrating into current-day Jordan, Israel and Syria, they built humanity’s first permanent homes and cultivated plants for food for the first time, according to many excavations.

But while it was believed these peoples’ innovations date as far back as 15,000 years ago, stemmed from a single community that diffused outward in the region, a new investigation determines it was instead a movement that was more varied and complex than traditional theories have held, a Danish and Israeli team writes today in the journal Scientific Reports.

“The dates indicate the Natufian emerged just as early in eastern Jordan as it did in the Mediterranean woodland zone,” they write. “This suggests that the origins and development of the Natufian were not tied to the ecological conditions of the Mediterranean woodlands, and that the evolution of this hunting and gathering society was more complex and heterogeneous than previously thought.”

The new findings were based on 27 separate Carbon-14 dates pulled from a site called Shubayqa 1 in northeastern Jordan, about 150 miles away from the city of Amman, they write.

Over three years of excavation at the site, the archaeologists under Tobias Richter of the University of Copenhagen uncovered the remnants of the pre-Neolithic ways of life for the Natufian. Fireplaces, walls, evidence of burials, and pavement structures emerged from the layers of soil.

“Measuring more than 1,000 square meters in extent, with impressive architecture, thick occupation deposits, burials, a large assemblage of ground stone artefacts, bone tool production and numerous bone and shell pendants, it fulfills all the criteria of a Natufian ‘base camp,’” they write.

The Accelerated Mass Spectrometry analyzed charred botanical material that had been excavated from the Natufian ruins. The materials were all short-lived plant species and short-lived seeds or twigs to lock down the most exacting date estimations based on the radioactive half-life of the isotopes, they write.

It was determined, through the dates established, which was inhabited on and off between 14,600 and 12,000 years ago.

The previous theory holding sway on these ancient peoples was that a core culture around Mount Carmel and Galilee was the seed from which other camps sprouted.

But the new dates at Shubayqa indicate that there were settlements that were geographically separate – and parallel on the timeline, they conclude.

The beginnings of agriculture and animal domestication were thus a more complex development process that didn’t have a single site of innovation, they conclude.

“These late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers were also able to live quite comfortably in more open parkland steppe zones further east,” said Richter, in a school statement on the work. “Some of their subsistence appears to have relied heavily on the exploitation of club rush tubers, as well as other wild plants. They also hunted birds, gazelle, and other animals.”