Encoding Information: Unique Natufian Objects from Hayonim Cave, Western Galilee, Israel

By Bar-Yosef, O.; Belfer-Cohen, A. | Antiquity, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Encoding Information: Unique Natufian Objects from Hayonim Cave, Western Galilee, Israel


Bar-Yosef, O., Belfer-Cohen, A., Antiquity


Since the original discoveries of Natufian cultural remains by D. Garrod in Shukbah and El-Wad caves in Mt Carmel and by R. Neuville in the Judean Desert (Garrod 1957; Neuville 1951), the 'art' objects recovered from those sites have become a focal point in attempts to reconstruct aspects of the Natufian spiritual domain. Some researchers have even considered them as manifestations of a prehistoric religion in the Near East (e.g. M.-C. Cauvin 1991; J. Cauvin 1997). In the 1950s and 1960s, further excavations of Natufian sites, defined on the basis of their content as base camps or sedentary hamlets, considerably augmented the number of known objects placed in this category of 'artistic' or 'symbolic' manifestations. These sites include Nahal Oren, Ain Mallaha (Eynan), Hayonim Cave and Terrace, Rosh Zin, Wadi Hammeh 27 and the renewed excavation at El-Wad (Bar-Yosef 1983; 1991; 1997; Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1989; 1992; Belfer-Cohen 1988; 1991a; 1991b; Edwards 1991; Noy 1991; Valla 1995; Weinstein-Evron & Belfer-Cohen 1993).

The Natufian, dated to c. 13,000/12,800 to 10,500/300 BP, is the first archaeological culture in the Levant regularly to have produced objects considered as manifestations of art. The most common elements are marine shell beads, known since the late Upper Palaeolithic, c. 20,000 BP, but the frequency of their occurrence rises sharply during the Natufian. In addition, Natufian contexts provide jewellery items made of other raw materials, for example stone and bone beads and pendants, as well as beads made of ostrich egg-shells. However, the most striking phenomenon related to the Natufian is the appearance, for the first time in the region's prehistory, of three-dimensional figurines or figurative engravings (Garrod & Bate 1937; Neuville 1951; Noy 1991; Weinstein-Evron & Belfer-Cohen 1993). Earlier occurrences are few and sporadic, for example the Lower Palaeolithic figurine from Berekhat Ram (Goren-Inbar 1986; Marshack 1997a), the engraved horse from the Aurignacian level of Hayonim Cave (Belfer-Cohen & Bar-Yosef 1981; Marshack 1997b) or the rarely found incised pebble and bone found in Kebaran contexts (Tixier 1974; Hovers 1990; Marshack 1997b).

Decorated bone and stone artefacts such as spatulas, bowls, slabs and shaft straighteners are more numerous in Natufian sites (Noy 1991; Bar-Yosef 1997). Most famous are the decorated sickle hafts with three-dimensional carved animals (Garrod 1957; Belfer-Cohen 1991b and references therein). The subjects of the decorations or incised patterns range from realistic depictions of ungulates (generally interpreted as gazelles) to abstract, repetitive patterns of cross-hatching, net designs and regular lines.

Recent research has suggested that the distribution of the decorative motives among the various Natufian sites is not random. The 'art' objects and/or 'ornamental' elements fall into a number of clusters confined to particular sites, and may therefore be considered the hallmarks of specific groups (Henry 1989; Noy 1991; Stordeur 1992). This contention is supported by the similar geographic distribution pattern of bead types among generally contemporary Natufian sites (Belfer-Cohen 1988; 1991a; 1991b). On the basis of these observations, it may be that the Natufian sites of Hayonim Cave and of the terrace in front of it belonged to a particular social group, whose territory comprised the Mount Carmel and Western Galilee area.

Hayonim Cave, which has been excavated since 1965, contains the remains of a series of Natufian occupations with several built-up rooms, graves [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], rich flint and bone industries, ground stone utensils, and various 'artistic' manifestations (Bar-Yosef 1991; Belfer-Cohen 1988; 1991a; Marshack 1997b). Together with the terrace (Valla et al. 1989), the Hayonim site is considered to be a Natufian base camp. This report will focus on some of the bone and limestone objects recently discovered at Hayonim Cave, as well as on a single item from the Kebara Cave, which relates directly to the specimens from Hayonim. …

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