Humans Took Pleasant Detours on the Prehistoric Route to Europe
New research shows that the environment is a key factor in mapping the prehistoric routes that humans took when they headed out of Africa towards Europe. More favorable climates enticed Homo sapiens into creating detours along that long journey to new lands.
About 100,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans were in the Levant at sites such as Qafzeh and Skhul in Israel. But it seems that they were only temporary settlements, and scientists believe that more permanent settlements only date back around 43,000 years ago in the region, according to a press release by the University of Cologne. The ‘Early Ahmarian’ period, as it is called, marked the time when humans were spreading across the Levant on their way towards Europe and Asia.
Along with the Aurignacian culture, the Ahmarian culture was one of the first modern human stone tool technologies. These two lithic technologies coexisted for thousands of years; however researchers are still uncertain if the Aurignacian culture of Europe stemmed from the more primitive Ahmarian Paleolithic industry, or if they developed separately.
Artifacts from Al-Ansab 1: (1) Refitted blade core, (2) El-Wad points (3) blade cores, (4) end-scraper, (5) marine shell fragment with ochre staining, (6) marine shell fragment, (7) blade core (8) dihedral burin, (9, 10) end-scrapers, (11) burin and (12, 13) El-Wad points. (Richter et al, 2020/PLOS ONE)
The Environment was Key in Creating Prehistoric Routes
The goal of the new study was to explore what environmental conditions prevailed when humans first began moving around the Levant on their way between Africa and other regions. Professor Dr. Jürgen Richter, lead author of the study, sums up what influenced the prehistoric route and settlement choices, stating that “Human presence consolidated in the region under favourable climate conditions.”
The University of Cologne press release explains that the settlements and movements of early modern humans were largely based around stopping at favorable climatic locations, even if it took people off the most direct route. After settling along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the Homo sapiens spread into the Sinai desert and the eastern Jordanian Rift Valley.
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Archaeological sites attributed to the Early Ahmarian techno-cultural unit composed of the Northern Early Ahmarian (NEA) and Southern Early Ahmarian (SEA) groups. SEA sites include the Lagaman regional variant known in the Negev Desert and on the Sinai Peninsula. (Richter et al, 2020/PLOS ONE)
The prehistoric humans were interested in settling around favorable locations such as Lake Lisan – a freshwater lake that existed where the Dead Sea is today. Lake Lisan was originally bigger than the Dead Sea, but most of the water evaporated by the end of the last ice age.
10 Years of Dedicated Research
The archaeological team came to their conclusions about the prehistoric routes out of Africa and settlement spots in the Levant following 10 years of studies. They focused on analyzing artifacts, sediment, and pollen samples collected around the site of Al-Ansab 1, located near the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.
The press release from the University of Cologne reports that ‘Even on a small scale, the scientists were able to recognise the favourable environmental conditions.’ The researchers accomplished this by using geomorphological and archaeological investigations of locations such as the Wadi Sabra, where Al-Ansab 1 is located.
Topographic context of the Al-Ansab archaeological sites. (A) View of the Wadi Sabra from the South. Note the Al-Ansab 1 excavation site in the center of the photograph–(B) DTM elevation image of the Al-Ansab locality (South-to-North aspect)—(C) DTM elevation model of the topographic situation around 38,000 years ago, at the time of the Al-Ansab 1 settlement site located at the fringe of a wide river floodplain. (Richter et al, 2020/PLOS ONE)
Even though Wadi Sabra is subject to seasonal flash floods today, their research shows that when humans first settled in the area it was generally a wetter and more stable environment. Richter explained the significance of this discovery:
“This enabled the spread of humans from the coastal Mediterranean area to the formerly drier regions of the Negev desert and the eastern slopes of the Jordan Rift Valley. They hunted gazelles in the open landscape – a prey we found in many sites in the region from this period. Humans did not come by steady expansion out of Africa through the Levant and further to Europe and Asia. Rather, they first settled in a coastal strip along the Mediterranean Sea.”
This means that sites like Al-Ansab 1 were essentially stepping stones and detours into pleasant environments on the long journey humans took from Africa to Europe.
The new study is the result of research by the Collaborative Research Centre ‘Our Way to Europe’ (CRC 806) at the universities of Cologne, Bonn, and Aachen and is published in PLOS ONE.
Top Image: Early humans took detours to pleasant environments on their prehistoric route to Europe. Source: Kovalenko I / Adobe Stock