The remains of a Neanderthal foot found in Amud Cave in the Galilee have offered insights into the lives of the region’s prehistoric population more than 55,000 years ago.
As explained in a paper published in the most recent issue of the journal Paleoanthropology, the cave is a key site for questions related to the transition between Middle and Upper Paleolithic in the Levant.
“Amud Cave was inhabited between 70,000 and 55,000 years ago, obviously with a sequence of many occupations over this time,” Prof. Erella Hovers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a coauthor of the study, told The Jerusalem Post. “Traces of human presence are numerous and include the stone tools that were made on site or brought into it.”
Among the findings from different periods of excavation, including three seasons of fieldwork carried out in a joint project by the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University between 1991 and 1994, were the remains of 14 hominins, including the foot analyzed in the study.
The study highlighted that because of the intensity of the occupation of the site and the richness of the findings, the researchers are still analyzing – after almost three decades – what was uncovered.
THE RESULTS of the different lines of studies have offered archaeologists several insights on the life of the site’s prehistoric inhabitants.
“Based on the work of Dr. Ravid Ekshtain from the Hebrew University, we know that most of the raw material for making the tools was obtained locally, probably not more than a few kilometers from the cave,” Hovers said. “But there are also some indications in all the occupation horizons of imports of raw material from much longer distances. The stone tools were snapped and used at the site.”
Researchers also analyzed the fireplaces, as well as the numerous animal remains, including gazelles, fallow deer and goats.
“Hebrew University Prof. Rivka Rabinovich identified numerous cut marks made by sharp stone tools on many of the bones,” Hovers said. “From the isotopic work of Dr. Gideon Hartman of the University of Connecticut, we also learned that the animals were hunted in different areas of the Galilee and at different distances from the cave, which he attributed to changes in the climate.”
“Of course, there are also the remains of humans themselves, at least some of which we think were purposeful burials clustered in one area of the cave,” she added.
The Neanderthals’ skeletal specimens belonged to the latest known members of the species living in the region, on the eve of the period when the interbreeding between Neanderthals and Sapiens (modern humans) is believed to have taken place.
The authors of the paper believe the foot analyzed belonged to a female individual who was about 160-166 centimeters tall and weighed around 60 kilos. The remains of the partial right distal leg and foot include portions of the distal tibia, talus, first metatarsal, first proximal phalanx and a middle and distal phalanx.
The results of the analysis support previous studies that suggested that the time just prior to the disappearance of the Neanderthals from the region was not “a time of stress for them, and we cannot attribute their disappearance directly or exclusively to changes in the environment,” Hovers said.
Asked about insights this piece of research offers regarding the relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans, she said, “It’s complicated.”
“The site’s inhabitants show many morphological characteristics of Neanderthals,” Hovers said. “In Europe, Neanderthals are the only actors of Middle Paleolithic material culture, and they were followed by modern humans who made different types of stone tools and carried out many activities that the Neanderthals did not engage in [cave art, for example].
“However, in our region, the picture has always been more complicated because some fossils were identified as modern humans, and some of the giveaway anatomical traits of Neanderthals in the individuals from the Near East have been less clear than those of the European Neanderthals.
“From the material culture point of view, the groups in the Levant cannot be separated. We have learned in recent years from paleo-genomic studies from other locations, since in our region the molecules do not seem to preserve well, that there was interbreeding between populations of ancient humans for a very long time. In the Levant, these populations may have met and interbred, which might explain the mixture of anatomical features,” Hovers said.