Natufians: From Hunter Gatherers to First Farmers


The Natufians were a prehistoric culture that lived in the Levant region (modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) during the Late Epipaleolithic period, approximately 12,500 to 9,500 years ago. They were hunter-gatherers and could be the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements in the Levant.

During the Pleistocene period, humankind roamed the earth in small hunter-gatherer groups until a turning point arrived at the end of the Pleistocene period. A combination of climate changes and evolving vegetation allowed for a transition to a settled lifestyle, which was made possible by a milder climate and wild grain yields that flourished in certain regions, such as Anatolia, the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

This marked the beginning of the early Holocene period, the current interglacial period that began over 11,700 years ago. In the Upper Mesopotamia region, hunter-gatherer groups left behind complex structures, monumental stone pillars, various sculptures, and a Neolithic cultural zone with rich symbolism, all accompanying unprecedented permanent settlements.

Excavations at the Neolithic sites of the Gobekli Tepe cultural zone are providing us with comprehensive data on the social and economic foundations that allowed this civilization to thrive. Most strikingly, the enormous hunting grounds and entrapment areas discovered in this region reveal the economic grounds that allowed this civilization to flourish.

The Natufian culture, which emerged in the eastern Mediterranean during the Early Holocene, marked a significant milestone in human civilization as it was the first to purposefully plan for the production of food.

The Gobekli Tepe culture that followed the Natufian culture is linked to its predecessors through architectural traditions discovered in the oldest layers of sites in the region. And the entrapment areas constructed in the Urfa region suggest that the gazelle hunting tradition (which appeared in the Levant) was maintained intensely in the region.

Related: The Alans Tribe: A Dominant Force Among the Sarmatians

What Race Were the Natufians?

Natufians, its discovery by Dorothy Garrod, Natufian culture
Dorothy Garrod and two colleagues in 1928 by Awathazar via Wikimedia Commons

The Natufians, touted as the “first farmers” of the Neolithic Near East, have been the subject of much study and debate since their discovery in the late 1920s. Originally viewed as primitive “cannibals,” subsequent research has revealed them to be pioneering farmers who played a key role in the development of agriculture in the region. Recent genetic analysis has shed new light on the origins of the Natufians and their relationship to other populations.

According to British anatomist and anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith, the Natufians were a Negroid people who were short in stature and had strong thighs and legs but weak arms and shoulders. Sir Arthur further explained that they possessed  ‘Negro-like characteristics such as those found throughout Europe and even in Scandinavia.’ The anatomist drew the inference that the Natufians had carried Aurignacian culture into Palestine after the last glacier age, which was approximately 35000 years ago.

Natufians; Reconstructed Neolithic house. Beidha, Jordan
Reconstructed Neolithic house. Beidha, Jordan. By Michael Gunther via Wikimedia Commons

Independent researcher Howard Barry Schatz adds that there are many indications that Ethiopia was the Natufian homeland. DNA analysis, along with the presence of distinctive dolichocephalic skulls and expertise in farming that had developed in Ethiopia long before the Natufians started farming in the Levant, all point towards Ethiopia as their place of origin. The researcher pointed out that the Natufians and their Levantine Neolithic successors carried haplogroup E, which is likely of ultimately African origin. Another French paleontologist, Raymond Furon, stated that Dorothy Garrod’s discovery in the caves of Erq-el-Ahmar (1928) revealed that all 132 Natufian individuals shared a physical type that was completely different from the earlier Palestinian Kebarans.

According to Howard Barry Schatz, the first settlers in Canaan were a group of early humans known as the Levantine Kerbarans. These early humans arrived in Canaan from the Mediterranean, possibly Crete or Greece, around 18,000 BCE. Approximately 5,000 years later, the Ethiopians settled in Canaan around 13,000 BCE. These two groups were geographically and chronologically adjacent to each other.

Dorothy Garrod’s discovery of the 132 Natufian skeletons revealed a genetic admixture of European Caucasians and dolichocephalic Ethiopian Negros. Garrod believed that the Kerbarans and Ethiopians had merged into a single Natufian culture. However, it is likely that many inhabitants remained purely Ethiopian, while others remained purely Kerbaran.

Related: Gobekli Tepe: The Oldest Temple in the World

NATUFIANS: Canaanite sarcophagi

Canaanite sarcophagi (Israel Museum) by Davidbena via Wikimedia Commons

While scientific discoveries and archeological findings provide significant insight into our past, many ancient scriptures also contain references to early humans. These references, while not always verifiable, can provide additional information and context for our understanding of early human history. And one such reference is found in the Bible, specifically in the accounts of Enoch and Noah, the earliest biblical patriarchs. Schatz explained that Enoch, known as the “Great Scribe” and “son of God,” is believed to have been born around 9600 BCE and would have most likely been a pure-bred Ethiopian. His great-grandson, Noah, and his three sons would have been born into the same patriarchal genetic lineage. After the flood, humanity had to start over with a clean slate.

The Bible categorizes Noah’s son Japheth as the father of European Caucasians, Ham as the father of African Negroes, and Shem as the father of the Semitic race. However, history suggests that Shem was most likely of Ethiopian ancestry and born around 9100 BCE; thus, he could not have been the first “Shemite” because the Semitic tribes remained in Africa until the Uruk period around 4100 BCE.

To account for this 5000-year time difference, rabbinical explanations suggest that Shem reincarnated as Melchizedek, the High Priest of Salem. It was Melchizedek who initiated Abraham as a “Priest Most High,” making Abraham the patriarchal ancestor of all Semites.

Related: 7 Famous Historical Phoenicians of All Time

Natufian Spiritual Belief: Burial Ritual

Natufians: Natufian Burial
Natufian burial – Homo 25 from el-Wad Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel. By Yeshurun via Wikimedia Commons

Another fascinating aspect of the Natufian culture is their spiritual beliefs. The way ancient people are buried can reveal important information about their personal and social identity, particularly when they are buried with personal decorations and grave goods.

In the western Galilee in northern Israel at Hilazon Tachtit, lies the grave of a Natufian woman that has baffled researchers with its extraordinary contents. The burial pit was layered with seashells, red ochre, chalk, whole tortoise shells, ash, flint, and animal bones, creating a mysterious tapestry of materials that were carefully arranged. But what makes the burial site more intriguing is the position of the woman’s body, which was laid in a child-bearing pose. All of these elements convinced researchers that she might have been a shaman. 

Researchers Leore Grosman of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut believe that this extraordinary burial is a testament to the social changes that took place during the Natufian period. It was a time when the people of the southern Levant were moving from a foraging lifestyle to a sedentary one based on agriculture. The Natufian-period ritual conducted for this shaman likely occurred in six stages and concluded with a large stone placed over the 2.3 by 3.3 by 1.5-foot grave. This shows that this was no ordinary burial and that a tremendous amount of effort and energy went into preparing for this special event.

Schatz further added that the grave contained select body parts of an eagle, a cow, a leopard, and the foot of a man. Joseph Campbell, an expert on ancient mythology, argued that these grave goods are the primary components of a sphinx, a winged lion-bull with a human head that combines the four signs of the zodiac that marked the solstices and equinoxes in the earliest period of Mesopotamian astronomy. By far, it is clear that the Natufian people had a rich spiritual life, and this burial is a testament to their beliefs.

Another example of a Natufian burial site is the Hayonim Cave, which served as a special location for a particular group to bury their dead over a period of more than 3000 years. Members of this group returned to the cave repeatedly to bury their dead and had a long-term memory of their burial practices. Some burials also provide evidence of ties between different groups, as seen in the similarities between certain burials in different Natufian sites. The retention of mortuary practices played a significant role in consolidating and preserving social cohesion in Natufian society.

Studies have found that generally, Natufian mortuary practices share broad similarities in the treatment of the dead but also show specific, local sets of traditions in the types and quantities of jewelry and decorative items interred with the dead. The burial decorations include beads made of gazelle metatarsal bones; pendants carved from segments of gazelle ulna bones; perforated teeth (mostly foxes and one hyena); and partridge tibio-tarsus pendants (mostly found in living areas). Rare items include beads made of gazelle ‘phalanges’, bone items with net patterns or cross-hatched patterns, a boar tusk, and a large spatula made of a bovine rib.

Related: Who Were the Phoenician People in the Bible?

How Have Natufians Transformed Their Diets and Hunting Practices?

Natufians and their walls
Remains of a wall of a Natufian house. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Animal domestication in the Near East has been the focus of much research, and Natalie Munro took a unique approach by examining the exploitation patterns of animals during the Natufian era. Munro’s findings suggested that hunting activities intensified due to a surge in population, leading to a shift in focus toward gazelles and changes in hunting techniques.

Interestingly, as the Natufian period progressed, the proportion of gazelles hunted increased significantly, becoming the primary ungulate species targeted. Additionally, the largest faunal middens at Natufian sites contained small game, indicating consumer pressure on local resources.

It was observed that the exploitation of young gazelles increased considerably during the Natufian period, indicating resource depression caused by human activities. This, in turn, led to a decline in the population of certain species, such as deer, and an increase in larger-bodied ungulates like goats, cattle, and pigs.

As foraging efficiency decreased, resources with higher handling costs, such as small game, became a significant part of the meat diet. This shift in diet helped increase the potential yield per unit of land area and local carrying capacity, making it easier to sustain human populations.

Despite the advent of plant cultivation during the PPNA (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A) era, hunting practices continued and often squeezed wild prey populations. Resource depression was caused by the Natufians, particularly as they became more sedentary, leading to a threshold where it became more cost-effective to manipulate certain animal populations than to depend exclusively on wild resources.

Natufians and their tools
Mortars from Natufian Culture, grinding stones from the Neolithic pre-pottery phase (Dagon Museum). By Hanay via Wikimedia Commons

List of Some of the Natufians Sites Excavated:

  • Golan Heights (Israel)
  • Sha’ar Ephraim South (Coastal Plain, Israel)
  • Khirbet el-Mite (South-East Mount Carmel, Israel)
  • Iraq el-Hamra A (South-East Mount Carmel, Israel)
  • Wadi Abu el-Loz (South-East Mount Carmel, Israel)
  • Ha’ela Cave (Western Galilee, Israel)
  • Dederiyeh Cave (Syria)
  • Khirbat al-Khan (Jordan)
  • Rujm as-Suwwan (Jordan)
  • Wadi al-Ajib Site 18 (Jordan)
  • Wadi al-Ajib Site 24 (Jordan)
  • Site 70 (Wadi az-Zarqa, Jordan)
  • Wadi Hisban 6 (Wadi Hisban, North-East of the Dead Sea, Jordan)
  • Bawwab al-Ghazal (Azraq basin, Jordan)
  • Wadi Mataha 2 (Petra area, Jordan)
  • J614 (Wadi Arava, Jordan)
  • ‘Eynan (Israel)
  • Upper Besor 6 (Israel)
  • Hilazon Tachtit Cave (Israel)
  • el-Wad (Israel)
  • Tabaqa (Syria)
  • Öküzini (Turkey)
  • Karaïn (Turkey)
  • Hayonim Cave (Israel)
  • Tor at-Tariq/WHS 1065 (Jordan)
  • Yutil al-Hasa/WHS 784 (Jordan)

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