Since Dorothy A. E. Garrod’s 1928 excavations at a cave in Wadi en-Natuf (located about 10 miles northwest of Jerusalem), archaeologists have continued to define and explain the distinctive cultural phase that is called “Natufian.” As the type-site for this cultural subdivision of the late Epipalaeolithic period, Shuqba Cave’s Layer B yielded a configuration of material remains that has been discovered at a number of sites in the Levant. The behavior reflected in those remains represents a very significant step in human prehistory, because the Natufian people stood at the threshold of the “Neolithic Revolution,” just before the Near Eastern economy shifted dramatically as a result of plant cultivation and animal domestication. The landscape surrounding these Natufian sites, located primarily in the region whose southern limit runs across northern Sinai into southern Jordan and then stretches to the Euphrates Valley in North Syria, provided the conditions for the relatively rapid transition to plant and animal domestication. Along with Shuqba Cave, in Wadi en-Natuf (which is still under investigation), important Natufian sites are Beidha, Hayonim Cave and Terrace, Ain Mallaha, Salibiya I, Nahal Oren, el-Wad and Kebara Caves (Mount Carmel), and Tell Abu Hureyra and Mureybit (in Syria).
Scholars have reached general agreement concerning the material components of a Natufian site. On the basis of the early excavations in the caves of Mount Carmel and in the Judaean hill country, Garrod (and other pioneering researchers) identified this pivotal culture by means of a distinguishable inventory of stone and bone artifacts and mortuary practices. It is clear that the Natufian phase is transitional between the end of the Epipalaeolithic (the so-called Geometic Kebaran cultural complex) and the earliest stage of the Neolithic Period (defined as Pre-Pottery Neolithic A [PPNA] in Kathleen Kenyon’s work at Jericho/Tell essultan). By the nature of the case, there is some variation in the actual dates that are proposed to define this Natufian transition, although about 12,500-10,200 BP is a well-established range and a reasonable compromise.
There are further differences of opinion concerning the geographical range of a distinguishable Natufian artifactual and behavioral inventory; this has led to more chronological wrangling and the identification of Natufian and early Neolithic subdivisions, and distinctive but clearly related regional variations (for example, Harifian culture, in the Negev and Sinai). The most interesting debate regarding this Natufian phase concerns various factors that allowed/caused a segment of the Levantine population to give up its nomadic ways and adopt a sedentary lifestyle. In this important discussion, the most contentious question concerns the role of climate change (for example, the impact of the “Younger Dryas” on the Near Eastern environment as the determinative factor in demographic changes and the shift to cereal cultivation in the Natufian-PPNA transition).
Because of abundant food resources in the late Epipalaeolithic period, the Natufian population adopted a diversified subsistence economy that was based on hunting, fishing, and gathering. Their stone and bone tools enabled them to forage more intensively and settle down in permanent villages, although seasonal movement and the use of temporary camps probably continued in some areas. In this era, just before the Neolithic transformation took place, the diet of Natufian hunters and gatherers included meat from small game, gazelle, goats, birds, and (occasionally) large herbivores (among other animals). Such prey was often supplemented with fish and mollusks. Bones recovered from Natufian sites make this part of the picture clear, but seed remains are not as plentiful. Still, there is evidence for widespread consumption of nuts, legumes, and wild barley and wheat (among other plants). Because of this relative abundance of wild foods, the Natufian people could live in year-round villages before agriculture began.
As noted above, the distinguishable material components and behavioral patterns at sites associated with Natufian culture include a number of categories.
Small villages consisted of circular houses with stone foundations and organic superstructures. Some settlements include stone-lined or unlined pits, which have been interpreted as silos, although that was not necessarily their function in every case. Natufian sites include heavy limestone or basalt grinding implements of various kinds, which were necessary for food processing. Since Garrod’s work in Wadi en-Natuf, a key feature of a Natufian settlement is the distinguishable lithic industry, in which microliths and geometrics (including Helwan lunates) are present in large numbers. Of course, this flint toolkit is not unique to the Natufian culture, but flint sickle blades made their appearance for the first time. These sickle blades, which were hafted into bone or wooden handles, were used in the intensive collection of wild grains and often include the telltale sickle gloss that results from usage. The Natufian bone industry was also well developed and consisted of fishing hooks, harpoons, awls, needles, and pendants.
Natufian villages are characterized by the accumulation of considerable debris and the skeletons of rodents (i.e., commensalism), and graves and cemeteries were also present in these settlements. Mortuary practices varied widely, in terms of grave location, composition, mode of inhumation, and burial position; variations in the ornamentation found on some skeletons (for example, shell and stone jewelry) point to some level of social or familial differentiation. Simple forms of art were part of the Natufian cultural complex and included carved stone and bone figurines. Although it was practiced on a limited scale, long-distance trade was involved in the exchange of obsidian, shells, and stone for certain beads.
- Bar-Oz, G. (2005). Epipaleolithic subsistence strategies in the Levant: A zooarchaeological perspective. Leiden: Brill.
- Bar-Yosef, O., & Valla, F. R. (Eds.). (1991). The Natufian culture in the Levant. Ann Arbor, MI: International Monographs in Prehistory.
- Henry, D. O. (1989). From foraging to agriculture: The Levant at the end of the Ice Age. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.