Researchers from Tel Aviv University and Tel-Hai College have finally unraveled an ancient mystery surrounding the origin of prehistoric tools known as handaxes found in the Hula Valley. Through advanced chemical analysis and the assistance of AI, the team determined the geochemical fingerprints of handaxes discovered at the Ma’ayan Barukh and Gesher Benot Ya’aqov sites, the oldest prehistoric sites in the valley.
The study’s findings reveal that the raw materials used to create these handaxes came from high-quality flint located in the Dishon Plateau, approximately 20km west and hundreds of meters above the Hula Valley. This discovery highlights the impressive social and cognitive abilities of early humans. They possessed an intimate understanding of their surroundings, knowledge of available resources, and demonstrated great effort in procuring the essential materials they required. The fact that they planned and undertook long journeys for this purpose suggests a remarkable level of sophistication. This crucial knowledge was then passed down to future generations, demonstrating the continuity of this resource acquisition strategy.
The research was spearheaded by Dr. Meir Finkel from the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near East Cultures at Tel Aviv University and Prof. Gonen Sharon from the MA Program in Galilee Studies at Tel-Hai College. They collaborated with Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef from Tel Aviv University, Dr. Oded Bar and Dr. Yoav Ben Dor from the Geological Survey of Israel, and Ofir Tirosh from the Hebrew University. Their findings were published in the journal Geoarchaeology.
Dr. Finkel emphasized that the Hula Valley, situated along the Dead Sea Transform Rift, boasts numerous prehistoric sites, some dating back an astounding 750,000 years before the present. This valley provided early humans with abundant water sources, vegetation, and game, making it an ideal location on the northward migration route from Africa via the Great African Rift Valley.
The handaxe, one of the earliest and most widespread tools used by humans, served as a versatile tool for various tasks, such as cutting game meat, digging for water, and extracting roots. It was employed across different regions of the Old World, including Africa, Asia, and Europe, over a period of approximately 1.5 million years.
Specifically, the researchers focused on two Acheulian culture sites in the Hula Valley: Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, dating back 750,000 years, and Ma’ayan Barukh, dating back 500,000 years. By tracing the origin of the raw materials used in creating these handaxes, the team has shed new light on the resourcefulness and intelligence of our early human ancestors.
The ancient enigma of how early humans in the Hula Valley acquired flint to craft handaxes has been cracked, thanks to groundbreaking research by Tel Aviv University and Tel-Hai College. Professor Gonen Sharon reveals that an astounding 3,500 handaxes were scattered at Ma’ayan Barukh, with even more discovered at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov. To create just one handaxe, they had to reduce stones five times larger, using at least 1kg of raw material. Such a massive amount of flint raised questions about its origin, spurring the team to employ innovative 21st-century technologies, including advanced chemical analysis and an AI algorithm.
The researchers selected 20 handaxe samples—10 from each site—and analyzed them using an ICP-MS device to measure the concentration of approximately 40 chemical elements. Concurrently, they conducted a comprehensive field survey across various flint exposures and stream cobbles to identify potential sources. Dr. Yoav Ben Dor played a crucial role in developing a dedicated algorithm, utilizing machine learning models to compare the archaeological artifacts with geological samples.
The outcome was groundbreaking. All 20 handaxe artifacts were found to originate from a single source—the Dishon Plateau’s flint exposures, located about 20km west of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov and Ma’ayan Barukh sites. The Dishon Plateau was an ancient flint extraction and reduction complex, serving as a significant flint source for countless millennia. Additionally, cobbles from streams in the Hula Valley were too small for handaxe production, ruling out their use as raw materials.
Dr. Meir Finkel highlights the remarkable capabilities of the early humans who inhabited the Hula Valley hundreds of thousands of years ago, most likely homo erectus. The procurement of suitable raw materials for crafting handaxes involved meticulous planning and long hikes of 20km, which included an ascent from 70 to 800 meters above sea level. These findings attest to their advanced cognitive and social abilities, dispelling previous misconceptions about the sophistication of prehistoric humans during that era.
Source: Tel-Aviv University