Wednesday, 23 May 2018

A million years of hominins in the Middle East

In my last post, I pointed out that as a medical professional educated in the genomics era, evolution denialism is simply not an option. The evidence against universal human descent from two people a mere six thousand years ago and for human-ape common ancestry just from human genetics is overwhelming.  This is however not something exclusively restricted to believers who are medical or life sciences professionals. Anyone who studies science at high school or takes an interest in natural history will be well aware of the evidence for human antiquity stretching back far beyond six thousand years. While a parental scrawl of "Not True!" in the "Human Evolution" section of the family copy of the Junior World Encyclopaedia may have been enough forty years ago, given the widespread availability of material on human evolution today [1-8], the fundamentalist battle to censor palaeoanthropology has been lost before it even starts.

Fundamentalists assert, based on a highly literal reading of the creation narratives, that the human race began 6000 years ago in south-west Asia. However, what the archaeological and palaeoanthropological data from this area show is that not only does evidence of human settlement in this area extend back well before 4000 BCE without any evidence of discontinuity, human fossils can be found back well over 100,000 years ago, with hominin fossils appearing in Turkey around one million years ago. It is impossible to dogmatically assert that no human was alive more than six thousand years ago, Adam was the first human being to exist or that every human who has ever lived descended exclusively from Adam. Just the fossil evidence from the near East flatly refutes these dogmatic assertions, and pretending they do not exist or threatening to excommunicate people who point out these facts will not make them go away.

The first thing you notice when you look at the first volume of the Yale University Press series Archaeology of the Land of the Bible is its full title:

The date 10,000 BCE, six thousand years before the creation of Adam according to fundamentalist readings of the Bible strongly implies that Syro-Palestinian archaeologists regard the evidence for human settlement stretching back to that date to be strong enough to include in a standard reference.

Mazar notes that the transition in the ancient Near East from hunter-gatherer to agriculture and pastoralism [9] took place around 12,500 years ago:
During the last two thousand years of the Epi-Paleolithic period, from ca. 10,500–8500 B.C.E. (radiocarbon dates), specific local cultures emerged in the Levant with a more developed social organization, subsistence economy, and religious beliefs. The best known is the Natufian culture, which was widespread throughout Palestine and Syria as far as the Euphrates River. The Natufian form of life, which probably developed from that of the Kebaran which preceded it, was in its floruit at the time when climatic fluctuations marked the end of the glacial age. The melting of the glaciers brought about a rise in sea level. The coastal line was reduced, rainfall was more excessive than in our own day, and large parts of the country were covered with forests. Hunters abounded in the Negev and Sinai, which were rich in vegetation. [10]
Following after this period is the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, which took place over 4000 years,
The four millennia of the Neolithic period (New Stone Age) in the ancient Near East saw numerous changes and developments of far-reaching consequence. The basis of human subsistence changed from food gathering to food production, a revolution introducing agriculture and, later, herding as principal economic factors. [11]
In fact, we are able to differentiate this period into four distinct periods based on differences in material culture:
  • Pre-Pottery Neolithic A   8500–7500 B.C.E.
  • Pre-Pottery Neolithic B   7500–6000 B.C.E.
  • Pottery Neolithic A          6000–5000 B.C.E.
  • Pottery Neolithic B          5000–4300 B.C.E.
Keep in mind that Pottery Neolithic B ends in 4300 BCE, around three centuries before the creation of Adam according to the fundamentalist reading of Genesis. The traditional date for the creation of Adam falls in the Chalcolithic period, which extended from 4300 BCE to 3300 BCE. Incidentally, the 'Gap Theory', which asserts that around 6000 years ago a previous creation came into ruin, with a re-creation afterwards, finds zero support given that no such "zone of destruction" exists in the Chalcolithic:
The key site for the study of this period is Teleilat Ghassul, 50 acres in area, located on a slope overlooking the northeastern shore of the Dead Sea. The excavation of the uppermost occupation levels of Teleilat Ghassul, carried out during the thirties, provided the basis for the definition of the term “Ghassulian culture.” A sequence of ten occupation phases uncovered in more recent excavations was estimated by J. B. Hennessy (on the basis of carbon 14 tests) as spanning a period of approximately one thousand years. [12]
Mazar notes that Hennessy's dates range from around 4600 BCE to 3600 BCE. What we see when we look even in relatively recent human prehistory is human settlement extending back well before the date usually assigned to Adam, without any sign of discontinuity.

Back before History - Hominins in the Holy Land


In 1961, a near-complete Neanderthal skeleton was found in the Amund Cave in the upper Galilee. This skeleton, known as Amund 1 has been dated via ESR to around 55,000 years. [13]

A skull of Neanderthal man, Amud Cave, Middle Paleolithic Period, ca. 60,000 years ago (Courtesy Israel Museum) 

Apart from the near-complete Amund 1 skeleton, the remains of two other hominins have been found at Amund, also around the same age.

Kebara Cave

Located on the western escarpment of the Carmel Range, Kebara Cave is where more Neanderthal remains were found in Israel including Kebara 2, a mostly-complete post-cranial skeleton dating back around 60,000 years ago.

Kebara 2 replica as found in situ. By Nicolas Perrault III - Own work, CC0,

Qafzeh Cave

Located in Lower Galilee, Qafzeh Cave, along with Es Skul is renown for being where some of the oldest Homo sapiens fossils were found. Fifteen hominin fossils to date have been found at Qafzeh. The fossils are dated between 80 to 120,000 years.

Qafzeh 6

Qafzeh 9

Qafzeh 11

Es Skhul Cave

Located on the slopes of Mt Carmel, Es Skhul likewise has been a palaeoanthropological treasure-trove. The remains have been dated between 80 to 120,000 years of age.

Skhul 5

Tabun Cave

Located at the Mt Carmel range, this cave is where the Tabun 1 hominin, a Neanderthal dated at around 120,000 years of age was found.

Tabun 1

 Misliya Cave

The Mt Carmel range is a particularly rich site for palaaeoanthropology, and early this year, the oldest Homo sapiens fossil outside of Africa was found here. Misliya 1, aged between 177-200,000 years is a partial jaw.

Misliya 1

Mugharet el Zuttiyeh

The cave, located in the Upper Galilee is where a partial Homo heidelbergensis skull was found in 1925. Homo heidelbergensis is generally regarded as ancestral to Homo neanderthalensis. This partial skull is dated between 200 to 300 thousand years ago.
 Galilee skull
It is utterly fascinating to realise that beneath the ground on Mt Carmel, where the prophet Elijah stood when confronting the priests of Baal, fossil remains of human ancestors dating back close to 200,000 years ago lay buried, awaiting discovery ~2800 years later.

Outside Israel

While I have concentrated exclusively on hominin fossils in Israel to show that even if we restrict ourselves to a tiny geographical area, evidence for human antiquity hundreds of thousands of years before Adam and continuity of human existence through the time period we attribute to his appearance on Earth is real, and undeniable. However, if we expand our focus to the middle East, then we can find fossils dating back to just over one million years.

The Kocabaş hominid, first discovered in 2002 in a quarry in Turkey was initially dated to around half a million years. In 2014, this fossil was redated to between 1.1 and 1.3 million years of age. [14]

Kocabaş calvarium


Even now, fundamentalists still insist that the human fossil record is a fragmentary collection of bone splinters barely able to cover a billiards table. Even if we restrict the evidence to the Middle East, this article has shown that this assertion is nonsense. As the palaeoanthropologists Matt Cartmill and Fred Smith note:
Opponents of scientific biology are fond of dismissing that record as a pathetic handful of controversial fragments. If that were so, this book would be a lot shorter. An often-repeated creationist canard insists that all known human fossils would fit on a billiard table. This was probably true in the late 19th century but it has not been true for a hundred years. Known human fossils number in the thousands and represent the remains of hundreds of individuals. They are more numerous and better-studied than the fossils of any comparable vertebrate group, because the intense interest that people have in the bones of their ancestors has driven them to devote far more effort to collecting and studying fossil humans than (say) fossil horses or herring. Having seen most of the major collections of human fossils in the world’s museums, we can assure our readers that those collections can no longer be laid out on a billiard table. It would be hard to cram them all into a boxcar. [15]
It is a sad reflection of how fear and dogma can blind people that evidence this obvious can remain hidden (or given the fundamentalist mania for control and censorship, forbidden) from the conservative Christian world. Evangelical geologist Davis Young noted with no little despondency that:
The modern evangelical church is extremely sensitive about open discussion of scientific issues that bear on Genesis 1–11. Enough Christians are so afraid of what might turn up in such discussions that anyone who does try to explore the issues is in ecclesiastical jeopardy. The prevailing atmosphere of fear tends to squelch attempts to deal with these issues. The issue of the origin of humankind is especially sensitive. It seems that the church is afraid to look into paleoanthropology. Where is the curiosity about the physical history of human beings? Among the multitude of evangelical commentaries on Genesis, hardly any of them addresses the problems of anthropology. Geology is often discussed. Some of the commentators have admitted the possibility of a local flood; others are not yet sure of the legitimacy of geological findings. But virtually all of the commentators assume the anthropological universality of the flood without any engagement whatsoever with the archeological and anthropological data relevant to the question of the flood’s impact on the human race. It’s as if the hundreds, perhaps thousands of ancient human sites around the world didn’t exist. [16] (Emphasis mine)
Young's comments about how fear of excommunication suppresses honest discussion of palaeoanthropology to such a degree that it is as if the overwhelming evidence for human antiquity simply did not exist unfortunately is directly applicable to our community. When fundamentalist extremists demand that accepting the evidence I've outlined here should be declared a 'doctrine to be rejected', it is impossible not to see in this a direct parallel with the disastrous mistake made by the Catholic church in siding against Galileo. One trusts that enough people in our community have the wisdom, maturity, and common sense to reject dogmatic extremism and accept what the fossils tell us of our rich and ancient ancestry.


9. It is worth noting that as Cain and Abel are depicted as being a farmer and a herdsman respectively, the earliest possible date for them is when animals and plants were domesticated in the ancient Near East. That Mazar notes in passing human existence before animal and plant domestication alone points out that it is impossible to harmonise a literal reading of Genesis 4 with the evidence for animal and plant domestication in the ANE while asserting that Adam was the very first human being to live.
10. Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New Haven;  London: Yale University Press, 1990), 36.
11. ibid, p 38
12. ibid, p 59-69
15. Cartmill, Matt; Smith, Fred H. (2009) The Human Lineage New Jersey, Wiley Publishing p xi
16. Davis A. Young, “Theology and Natural Science,” Reformed Journal, May 1988, 13