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For some stone-agers, home was where the hearth was

Dec. 17, 2009
Courtesy Science
and World Science staff

Some of our stone-age hu­man an­ces­tors were or­gan­iz­ing their liv­ing spaces in­to dif­fer­ent ar­eas much ear­li­er than pre­vi­ously thought, new ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence from Is­ra­el sug­gests. 

The abil­ity to plan and or­gan­ize our liv­ing and work­ing spaces is con­sid­ered to be a key as­pect of hu­man in­tel­li­gence. It’s gen­er­ally been thought that this ca­pa­bil­ity arose rel­a­tively re­cent­ly, along with mod­ern hu­mans, in the past 100,000 years or so. 

Both sides of a bas­alt han­daxe (top) and bas­alt cleav­er (bot­tom) from Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov. (Cour­te­sy Leore Gros­man, He­brew U.)


Nira Alperson-Afil of He­brew Un­ivers­ity of Je­ru­sa­lem and col­leagues have found, how­ev­er, that there was ap­par­ently some or­gan­iz­a­tion at an early hu­man site, about 800,000 years ago. 

The site, at Gesher Benot Ya-aqov, Is­ra­el, was an open-air en­camp­ment on the shores of an an­cient lake. The re­search­ers found small pieces of burned flint, re­mains of bas­alt and lime­stone tools, bits of crab shell and fish bones, and var­i­ous re­mains of seeds, fruits, grains and wood. 

These types of re­mains were con­cen­trat­ed in spe­cif­ic spots in the site, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said: mainly in the north­west­ern re­gion, where there was probably a hearth, or fire­place ar­ea, and in the south­east­ern re­gion. 

The re­search­ers con­clud­ed that spe­cif­ic ac­ti­vi­ties, in­clud­ing stone tool mak­ing, tool use, and the prepara­t­ion and eat­ing of food, were car­ried out in these spots. The hearth ap­pears to have been a pri­ma­ry cen­ter of ac­ti­vity, they added. For ex­am­ple, the bo­tan­i­cal re­mains and ev­i­dence of tool mak­ing are con­cen­trat­ed there. In con­trast, the ma­jor­ity of the bas­alt and lime­stone tool re­mains were found in the south­east­ern site, they not­ed.

The find­ings are pub­lished in the Dec. 18 issue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.


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Some of our stone-age human ancestors were organizing their living areas into different areas much earlier than previously thought, new archaeological evidence from Israel suggests. The ability to plan and organize our living and working spaces is considered to be a key aspect of human intelligence. It’s generally been thought that this capability arose relatively recently, along with modern humans, in the past 100,000 years or so. Nira Alperson-Afil of Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues have found, however, that there was apparently some organization at an early human site, about 800,000 years ago. This site, at Gesher Benot Ya-aqov, Israel was an open-air encampment on the shores of an ancient lake. The researchers found small pieces of burned flint, remains of basalt and limestone tools, bits of crab shell and fish bones, and various remains of seeds, fruits, grains and wood. These types of remains were concentrated in specific spots in the site, the investigators said: mainly in the northwestern region, where there was probably a hearth, or fireplace area, and in the southeastern region. The researchers concluded that specific activities, including stone tool making, tool use, and the preparation and eating of food, were carried out in these spots. The hearth appears to have been a primary center of activity, they added. For example, the botanical remains and evidence of tool making are concentrated there. In contrast, the majority of the basalt and limestone tool remains were found in the southeastern site, they noted.