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Stone balls, aka petrospheres were found at Qesem cave, Israel.        Source: Assaf et al 2020

Mystery of Stone Balls at ‘Magic’ Qesem Cave Finally Solved

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Petrospheres, or spheroids, are two archaeological names for any man-made spherical object made from stone. These mostly prehistoric artifacts have been found intricately carved and painted, indicating they were deemed important to ancient people as far back as two million years ago. The stone balls have been found in East Africa and across Eurasia, from the Middle East to China and India, but their purpose had baffled specialists, until now, that is.

Qesem cave ( magic” cave in Hebrew) is a Lower Paleolithic archaeological site located 12 km (7.46 miles) east of Tel Aviv in Israel that was occupied by early humans between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found evidence of selective large-game hunting, butchery, and the transportation of animals parts back to the cave where meats were cooked and shared among the community. But they have also unearthed a curious collection of petrospheres, which perplexed archaeologists, until now.

Burned animal bones from Qesem Cave, Israel. (Ruth Blasco/CC BY 4.0)

Burned animal bones from Qesem Cave, Israel. (Ruth Blasco/ CC BY 4.0 )

Stone Balls - An Elegant Technological Solution for Cracking Bones

Last week, an international team of archaeologists led by Tel Aviv University archaeologist, Ella Assaf, published a new study in the journal  PLOS ONE , suggesting these enigmatic artifacts were used to break the bones of large animals so that the nutritious marrow could be harvested from within. This early butchering technology highlights how an “elegant technological solution” enabled hominins to increase their calorific intake over hundreds of thousands of years. In turn, this helped in the development of complex societies.

According to a report in Haaretz, it wasn’t just the spheres’ “purpose” that remained obscure, but their presence in the cave was considered “anachronistic” (from an alternative time period) because similar spherical artifacts are normally found at much older sites. The team of researchers analyzed 30 spherical stone artifacts recovered from Qesem Cave in the year 2000. Since then Tel Aviv University archaeologists Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai have uncovered what the new paper describes as “a treasure trove,” including hundreds of thousands of flint tools and animal bones, as well as 13 hominin teeth .

Example of ancient hominin teeth from the Qesem Cave, Israel. (Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, Tel Aviv University/ CC BY 4.0 )

Example of ancient hominin teeth from the Qesem Cave, Israel. (Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, Tel Aviv University/ CC BY 4.0 )

A Magical Cave of Archaeological Mysteries

It is currently unknown who the cave dwellers were, or where they had come from, but these particular distant ancestors of ours were “relatively ahead of their time” going by these stone bone smashing tools.

An archaeologist uses a reproduction of a shaped ball to crack open an animal bone. (Assaf et al 2020)

An archaeologist uses a reproduction of a shaped ball to crack open an animal bone. ( Assaf et al 2020 )

However, a faction of the world’s archaeologists will be reading this article with more than a modicum of skepticism, for it was this very cave and one of the archaeologists that attracted a lot of negative media attention in December 2010 when reports suggested Israeli and Spanish archaeologists had found “the earliest evidence yet of modern humans.” However, according to Nature, the whole story received a backlash from the blogosphere that quickly pointed out how the media coverage had inaccurately reflected the details of the scientific report.

Where this “rewriting of the history of human evolution” went wrong was that most of the initial reports were based on a Tel Aviv University  press release  about a  paper published in  The American Journal of Physical Anthropology . It was written by Israeli and Spanish scientists and detailed the discovery in Qesem Cave, of eight teeth dating to between 200,000 and 400,000 years ago. Were these teeth among the oldest “significant early human remains” found anywhere in southwest Asia, the scientists asked. And if they were indeed  Homo sapiens  teeth, then modern humans were living in the Levant as early as 400,000 years ago, when most archaeologists maintain we were still hunting in Africa.

Archaeological Controversy at the Magic Cave

The specific wording of the original paper was scientifically safe and the scientists admitted that the teeth “cannot be conclusively identified as belonging to a particular species of human, whether  Homo sapiens -  the first modern humans - Neanderthals, or other humans.” But the wording of the paper's press release, and many of the subsequent articles, leaned on the eye grabbing headline idea that  Homo sapiens might have lived in the Levant almost half a million years ago, challenging mainstream archaeology and anthropology.

Science bloggers  Carl Zimmer  and Brian Switek , instantly responded to the articles promoting this revolutionary history, which they described as “hype”, and they pointed out to the public all the discrepancies between the original paper and the media coverage, which was a downright horrific show of Fake News .

However, when Nature spoke to archaeologist Avi Gopher from Tel Aviv University, who co-authored the paper, and asked him if the teeth he found in Qesem Cave “really provide evidence that  Homo sapiens  did not evolve in Africa;” instead of rejecting the idea he said “We don't know. What I can say is that they definitely leave all options open.”

Top Image: Stone balls, aka petrospheres were found at Qesem cave, Israel.        Source: Assaf et al 2020

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

  Nature spoke to archaeologist Avi Gopher ,You just have to have some humor with a archeologist named Avi Gopher.. Just can’t make that stuff up.. I dont know about stone balls the Middle East, but in the American southwest there are areas on the Colorado Plateau where thousands of stone balls from 2”-4” diameter can be seen both eroding from the sandstone formation matrix as well as large groups laying in situ,laying loose & in profusion as groups in natural drainages & scattered on top of relatively flat sandstone mesas, These spheres are now protected from collectors as they were fast depleting this natural phenomena ,As well simular sized stone spheres are found in Caverns in Mexico and Central America as well, Some of the spheres in both these  surface & sub surface locations are fused together in groups of 2 or more & these spheres have been found ocassionally in archeological contest . whether they were used used as tools, charms or gaming pieces, they are a fascinating sight to see in their natural context. 

WestWard ho

Rana Pratap's picture

I am not very convinced that the stone balls were made by ancient man to crush bones and harvest marrow. A long piece of stone with smoothened handle would be more handy. The smoothening process would also be easier than trying to shape a stone to a sphere and then smoothen it. I also noticed that the stone balls are referred to by some archeologists as anachronistic. So, probably the stone balls were not made to crush bones but for some reason still not known. If there is evidence of the stone balls being used for crushing bones then may be it is because later on some guys found the stone balls and found them handy!

Ranapratap

Pete Wagner's picture

No, they would only do the work to round the stones when roundness was critical to the purpose. My guess is that they were massage balls.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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