REL 433 - Biblical Archaeology

Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic Periods

The names for these periods all derive from the Greek word "lithos" - a stone - and refer to the material used for tools. Effective ways of producing and working metal had not yet been invented, so cutting, grinding, chopping all had to be done with stone, bone, or wood implements. "Palaeo-" means "old", "Meso-" means "middle" or "between", "Neo-" means "new".
Originally these were all thought of together as the "Stone Age", but it became apparent that there were various developments during the periods which enable archaeologists to classify and date a culture more precisely.

The Palaeolithic period is characterized by simple bands of hunters. They did not know how to grow crops and raise livestock, not did they build houses. Shelters of skins laid over bones may have been used, but mainly the people were cave-dwellers or wandering groups of hunters.
The Palaeolithic period was also the time of the "Ice Ages" - times when the earth's climate cooled, and glaciers spread over much of Europe. At such times the wandering tribes moved southward, then moved back as the weather warmed up again, probably over hundreds and thousands of years.
The "cultures" of this period are usually named for the places in which their remains were first found. The cave paintings in France, and some carved pebble figures of what appear to be pregnant women date to this period. Their implements included "hand axes" - stones which had been chipped to give a rounded base suitable for holding in the hand, then tapering to a point which could be used for pounding and chopping, also smaller stone scrapers for skinning animals and preparing hides, and bone awls - pointed needles without eyes which could punch holes in a hide so that it could be laced together into some sort of garment. During this period, spearheads were made from chipped stones, with grooves so that they could be fastened to a wooden shaft.
Some of the animals that were hunted during this period were larger and more powerful than one hunter alone could have killed. So men had already learned to work together, and societies were probably beginning to develop, in which different people had different functions - hunters; flint, stone or bone workers; the artists who painted animal portraits in caves, probably as part of a religious ritual; those who tended the fire and the children.

The Mesolithic period, roughly dated 10,000 BC to between 6,000 and 4,000 BC :
Towards the end of the Palaeolithic, the earth's climate gradually became warmer, the Ice Ages ended, glaciers retreated and melted, and some of the cold-weather animals such as the woolly mammoth died out. Some tribes of hunters followed the reindeer and mammoth northwards, but others remained or moved into Europe and learned to hunt the red deer and animals of the forests which grew with the warmer weather. Hunting in a forest demands other skills than hunting in the tundra. Men developed tools and weapons made of "microliths" - small chips and flakes of sharp stone or flint which could be set into a piece of wood or bone to give a cutting implement, or which could be used as arrow points.

The Neolithic period is characterized by the development of agriculture, the domestication of animals, settlements or semi-permanent dwellings, and eventually the invention of pottery. Also, the stone tools were often made by grinding and polishing, rather than by chipping flakes. These developments took place at different times in different places.
In the Middle East, Neolithic cultures started to develop at around 8,000 BC. In Greece and the Indus valley of India the earliest Neolithic cultures date from around 6,000 BC.
A key to the development of the Neolithic period is the harvesting and cultivation of plants as crops - particularly grain, which could be stored, ground to flour, and cooked. The forerunner of domesticated wheat appears to be "emmer" or "einkorn" - which still grows wild in the Middle East. In order to grow a crop and harvest it, people must settle in a region, at least long enough for the plants to grow and come to harvest.

Archaeological Sites

30,000-12,000 BC

  • Shanidar Cave, northern Iraq, near the border with Turkey - Palaeolithic layers, with older Neanderthal remains
  • Zarzi cave, north-eastern Iraq - Palaeolithic layers
  • Wadi Natuf - Carmel Caves, Israel - mainly hunting and fishing, but also evidence for harvesting grain with microlith sickles. The grain may have been cultivated, or the people may have been cutting wild grain. The dead were buried under the floors of the caves where the people lived, and they were buried with grave-goods such as necklaces of shell and bone. This culture was named "Natufian"
  • M'lefaat, Iraq
Natufian Burial Reconstruction of a Natufian Burial at El Wad - click on thumbnail for full-size photo Natufian skull Natufian skull with dentalia shell decoration - click on thumbnail for full-size photo

10,000 BC

  • Karim Shahir, Iraq - beginnings of cultivation of grain and baking of clay
  • Palegawra, in eastern Mesopotamia, on the Iraq-Iran border - cave with stone tools and microliths, arrowheads, beads, bones from wild animals that had been hunted and eaten, but no evidence for domesticated animals.

8,000 - 6,000 BC

  • Jericho is situated on the West bank of the Jordan river, commanding one of the east-west routes across the river. It has a constant supply of fresh water from a spring which flows from the mountains to the west, and which is still flowing even today. Jericho can claim to be probably the first "city".
    There is some evidence that Palaeolithic hunters camped by the spring (a Paleolithic hand-ax was found amongst the Neolithic layers there).
    A structure which may be the remains of a Mesolithic shrine contained three large stone blocks, two of which had had holes bored through them; the floor of the building had a cleared clay floor. Amongst the debris associated with the structure were typical Natufian objects, including a bone harpoon head (Carmel is near the Mediterranean Sea, Jericho is not.) Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated and reported these findings, concluded that this was a shrine used by hunter-gatherers allied to the people of the Natufian culture of the Carmel caves. The "shrine" was destroyed by fire; evidently it had had wood beams or branches as part of its construction, because the area was covered by charcoal. Carbon dating of the charcoal gives a range of possible dates, from 7,800 BC ±210 to 9,687 BC ±103
    Between bedrock and the Neolithic layers there was a layer, at one place 13 feet deep, of what Dr. Kenyon identified as the floors of hut-like structures, built one on top of another for a considerable length of time, probably by successive generations of nomadic hunter-gatherers who were starting to experiment with agriculture.
    The first identifiable house-structures were round, probably consisting of a pit or low wall with a domed roof of branches, hide, or sod. This marks the transition from Palaeolithic to Neolithic, and a more settled occupation of the site. Each "house" had a porch with steps or a slope down to the house floor from the higher ground outside - the house floor was at a lower level than the outside. The walls of the houses were built with hand-made bricks which were slightly curved on top like a loaf of bread. These early Neolithic houses covered a much larger area of the site than the earlier settlement of huts - evidently the town had began to grow and the population was increasing. This level is characterized as PPNA - "Pre-Pottery Neolithic A"
    The PPNA town must eventually have needed to build defenses, and had someone who took charge and gave orders which others obeyed. A stone wall 6 to 12 feet high was built around the town, and a 30 foot high stone tower was built - just INSIDE the wall, not outside it. The tower was not hollow, but was filled with dirt except for a set of steps inside it leading to an entrance onto the top level of the tower. Some archaeologists describe this as a "defensive" tower, but I have my doubts - it seems to me more like a tower for enacting religious rituals or making proclamations to the city. It is inside the wall, so anyone trying to shoot arrows or throw rocks or atlatls from the top of it would have to throw them across the city wall rather than directly at an enemy. It faces the high cliffs to the west of the town, which are very difficult to climb; one would expect enemy armies to come across the Jordan from the east, or north-south along the valley of the Jordan. Whatever the tower was built for, it is a remarkable structure to have been built by people who did not read or write, who had no metal implements, and who had not yet invented pottery.
    The PPNA period at Jericho seems to have lasted for about 1,000 years. From plant and animal remains, Dr. Kenyon concluded that food was produced by agriculture (varieties of grain) with meat supplied by hunting (mainly gazelles and foxes) rather than from domesticated animals. Towards the end of the PPNA period of occupation parts of the town wall collapsed and were not rebuilt. It is not clear what happened - a series of famines, earthquake, invading enemies, or the collapse of their system of irrigation - but something caused the PPNA inhabitants to abandon the site.
    The next layer of habitation, characterized as PPNB, gave evidence of a completely different culture - houses were rectilinear instead of round, and consisted of several rooms, surrounding a courtyard where cooking was carried out. They used plaster to finish the floors and walls, and also built plastered storage containers for rainwater. The flint and stone implements were different from those of the PPNA people. The bricks they made were slightly oval, marked on top with a pattern of thumbprints which gave a better key for the mortar when building a wall.
    The diet of the PPNB people differed from that of the PPNA - they still cultivated, harvested, and cooked grains (flint blades for sickles, stone querns, pestles) but their meat supply included sheep and goats in addition to gazelles, so this was probably the beginning of the domestication of animals.
    The PPNB culture shows spiritual, magic, or religious developments - little clay figures of animals, probable shrines, and the burials of plastered skulls under the floors of some houses.
    The PPNB culture was destroyed abruptly. There were some mass burials, and an indeterminate period of erosion and decay before a new group of people arrived - the Pottery Neolithic A people, who initially lived in pit-dwellings rather than houses, but who had discovered how to make pottery vessels. They used different flint and stone implements which were generally not so well made as those of the preceding PPNB culture.
    The site was then invaded or infiltrated by another group of people, the Pottery Neolithic B people who made much better pottery vessels than the PNA people, and who eventually started to build rectangular houses of rounded bricks (no thumb-prints), and later another wall round the town.
PPNA house PPNA round house at Jericho - click on thumbnail for full-size photo Jericho tower PPNA Tower at Jericho - click on thumbnail for full-size photo
PPNB skull PPNB plastered skull from Jericho - click on thumbnail for full-size photo PPNB bricks Wall of PPNB bricks at Jericho - click on thumbnail for full-size photo

6,000 BC

  • Jarmo, in Northern Iraq - a large Neolithic village, covering probably 3 acres, on the edge of a deep wadi. Square houses of touf (like adobe) with mud ovens, stone and bone tools, and pottery in later levels. Some of the dried clay surfaces had the impress of woven reed matting, and there were small baked clay figurines of animals and women. The dead were buried beneath the floors of the houses.
  • Catal Huyuk, in Turkey - a large Neolithic village; their houses did not have doors, but were entered by a ladder through a hole in the roof. There is evidence that they had a religion involving bulls - there was a shrine decorated with skulls of cattle. Some of the inside walls of the houses were decorated with paintings in a variety of styles and colors, often of hunting scenes. Agriculture was ion its early stages - wheat and barley were grown, and donkeys and cattle were kept. There is also evidence for obsidian trade, and eventually pottery. The settlement appears not to have been fortified - there was no evidence for a city wall.
    Each house consisted of a rectangular room with a couple of storage rooms at the sides and a raised bank of earth for seating or sleeping. Ventilation and light in the houses were poor, and it is thought that most of the daily activities took place in the open areas of the rooftops.
  • Umm Dabaghiyah in Iraq, northern Mesopotamia - a settlement with storage rooms
  • Hassuna, in Iraq, northern Mesopotamia - a Neolithic village of rectangular houses. The houses had rooms which showed evidence of specialization - some used for storage, or cooking, or general living quarters. Traces of murals survived on some of the walls, and the pottery was decorated with distinctive painted patterns. The dead were either buried in the corner of a room, or in graves outside the houses, sometimes with grave goods - offerings which probably indicate a belief in an afterlife existence. The Hassuna culture shows the first known evidence for a "stamp-seal" - pressed into damp clay it left an impress of its pattern, probably to indicate ownership of an object. Molded baked or sun-dried mud bricks were beginning to be used - another important step, as this allowed larger and stronger houses to be built.

5,500 BC

  • Samarra, in northern Mesopotamia. The Samarra culture overlaps Halaf and Hassuna in time. There were walled towns and large houses and the earliest known examples of irrigation
  • Tell es-Sawwan - Samarran site with large houses, protected by a defensive wall and a moat. The culture developed pottery dishes with distinctive geometrical patterns of animal figures. Some of the dead were buried with rich burial goods.
  • Choga Mami - Samarran site with large irrigation canal
  • Halaf, in northern Mesopotamia - advanced Neolithic village culture, with beautifully decorated pottery. The later strata belong to the Chalcolithic.

5,400-3,600 BC

  • Ubaid, in southern Mesopotamia - probably the earliest known settlement of southern Mesopotamia. Irrigation channels were dug to carry water from the river to cultivated fields - the rainfall in Southern Mesopotamia is not sufficient for growing crops without irrigation. Some toy models of boats with holes for masts were discovered, so there must have been sail boats on the rivers Tigris and Euphrates by this time. Bricks were used to build platforms, upon which temples were erected. The temple buildings were small, not large enough to hold many worshippers, so probably only religious leaders or priests were allowed inside, and the worshippers gathered outside, below the platform.
  • Eridu, in southern Mesopotamia - an early Ubaid settlement with a succession of temples, and clay figurines probably standing in for worshippers.

4,900-4,500 BC

  • Merimde, in Egypt - farming village in Lower Egypt, near the Nile delta

4,700-3,100 BC

  • Badarian, Amratian, and Gerzean cultures in Upper Egypt

4,000-3,000 BC

  • Neolithic farming communities of Europe - megalithic tombs, built with great stones; construction of Stonehenge in England


Copyright © 1999 Shirley J. Rollinson, all Rights Reserved

Dr. Rollinson

ENMU Station 19
Portales, NM 88130

Last Updated : January 6, 2018

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