Archaeologists Find Surprising ‘Moment in the Life’ of Prehistoric Hunters in Israel

How did people hunt giant cows on the banks of the Jordan River around 60,000 years ago? Not the way you might think

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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A “perfect” flint point found during excavation at Naham MahanayimCredit: Gonen Sharon
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Around 60,000 years ago, human creatures were hunting large animals on what are today the banks of the Jordan River. An extinct cattle species called aurochs was a favorite, according to the bone remains archaeologists have found in excavation of a site at the outlet of the Nahal Mahanayim stream, discovered in the course of drainage operations.

According to a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports on insights into the behavior and technology of the human creatures there, this was not a site of early human occupation. This was a place on the shore of a paleolake where the human creatures ambushed, killed and butchered animals, mainly said aurochs, say the authors, Alla Yaroshevich and Maya Oron of the Israel Antiquity Authority, under the direction of Prof. Gonen Sharon from Tel-Hai College.

In a separate article in Nature Scientific Reports, Juan Ignacio Martin-Viveros of the of the Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution in Spain, along with Maya Oron, Andreu Ollé, Gema Chacón and Prof. Sharon delve into the points themselves, and in what ways the assemblage at Nahal Mahanayim belies some beliefs we hold dear.

Site of Nahal Mahanayim Outlet on the east bank of the Jordan RiverCredit: Gonen Sharon

Let us start with the human creatures a-hunting by the lake 60,000 years ago – wasn't that an age of Neanderthals in Israel? Could it have been them, or sapiens, hybrids, someone else? They prefer to eschew that circular debate, Sharon says.

Whoever they were, the preponderance of aurochs bones (bos primagenius) suggests that was a favorite on their menu. We know this 60,000 years after the event, because the animal remains were apparently covered up very quickly by lake sediments, thus preserving them in exceptional condition, the team says.

A startling lithic assemblage

Doting on paleosteak is no surprise, but how they seem to have hunted them is. “The site has a highly unique lithic assemblage,” Sharon says – in that there are relatively few tools, and of only two types.

“In seven seasons of excavation, we found perhaps 1,500 artifacts. That is typical of a single square meter in a big [hominin] cave site,” Sharon says. “It’s a very small assemblage. But a large amount of the tools are really beautiful and cool – and functional. The other difference is what it doesn’t have.”

Flint tools from Nahal Mahanayim: a. cutting tools (knives); b. pointsCredit: Gonen Sharon

By 60,000 years ago, in general, Neanderthals and modern humans were both highly advanced when it came to tools. Lithic assemblages from that late Mousterian period would be expected to have a range of tools, including scrapers, which were barely found at Nahal Mahanayim. What did they find? Mainly pointed elements that we associate with spear tips, for example; and cutting elements, known in layman’s argot as knives.

Taken together, the evidence indicates that the site was used for short durations (perhaps on the order of a week here and there), and it was task-specific. “They came for a short time to do a specific task. What was it? Butchering and processing the carcasses of the animals they hunted," Sharon concludes.

Now, if one is to hunt a one-ton aurochs, how does one do it? Both Neanderthals and sapiens were sophisticated by then and our imagination involves spears thrown from a safe distance, followed by crowing human creatures dismembering the animal using stone knives. We can also imagine they had complex tools by then, including spear-throwing technology, Sharon points out.

How flint tools were used in prehistory can be deduced based on impact fractures and use-wear analysis, on which an enormous amount of experimental work has been done – think fashioning spear points from flints and throwing them as hard as possible at a deceased deer to see what happens to the stone when it hits bone or muscle.

Giant cow bones – next to modern cow skull (in white). Note the size of the hornCredit: Prof. Gonen Sharon

But to the astonishment of the archaeologists, the lithic assemblage unearthed at Naham Mahanayim did not indicate complex tool use, and only a small number of the tips had diagnostic impact fractures. The ones that did were not indicative of being thrown at a dangerous animal from a safe distance.

Do’s and don’ts of hunting giant cows

“The Nahal Mahanayim Outlet knappers invested a great deal of time and expertise in producing usable and uniform points. However, most of the points show no evidence of use as spearheads. Of the few points with diagnostic impact fractures, the fractures indicate use of low velocity weapons, for either thrusting or throwing a short distance,” the team explains.

So, it seems the human creatures on the banks of paleolake Hula would lurk in ambush and shove their flint point into the hapless aurochs from up close and personal. Hence the assumption of ambush – if you’re about to stick a spear into a healthy bull, you don’t run up to it screaming.

Isn’t sticking a spear into a huge animal from close range surprisingly unsophisticated for this late time in human/Neanderthal/whatever evolution? Just for comparison of complexity, humans in South Africa had bows and arrows as much as 70,000 years ago.

Sharon points out that that assessment is controversial, and anyway, say you do have a bow and arrow. Is that what you would use to take down a one-ton cow? It is not. "All you’d get is a very angry cow,” he points out. “Maybe they had complex artifacts somewhere else – in any case, they surely knew what they were doing. When you come to hurt an aurochs, you don’t use sophisticated, delicate, gentle methods” – a new take on bows and arrows, to be sure – “you use efficient brute force. We should appreciate their courage in charging a one-ton bull from a short distance,” he adds.

Duly appreciated; though of course they may have pounced as a pack. Anyway, we can be confident that, by that point in human/Neanderthal development, they knew how to hunt an aurochs and that’s how they evidently chose to do it.

Moreover, the ambush technique suggests they also knew about patience and camouflage, and were knowledgeable about the behavior of the animals, the professor adds.


In a separate work, the tools were examined for use-wear: cutting bone or meat or veggies leaves different marks over time, even on tough flint stone. They were also reconstructed, revealing secrets of their hafting with wood. Which brings us to another oddity.

You’d think the human creatures would spear the aurochs – in fact, we wrote that above, but it’s less literal and more of a synonym here for “do the animal to death with something sharp.” In fact, the research indicates that the points were probably not used as spearheads, but as knives.

Different patterns of use-wear, high magnitude, on cutting tools found at Nahal MahanayimCredit: Gonen Sharon

“When we see a point, we think 'this is a spearhead,' but they may have been used as knives. Similar tools were found in Australia that were used as knives, not points,” Sharon says.

So the points found at this site seem to have been used primarily for butchering, not the kill, and some were also clearly used to work on plants, hides, bone and/or antlers. Since dry hide processing tools were found there, it seems the bovine victims underwent “initial processing” at the site. Plants may have been processed there to make handles and wrappers and containers to transport the meat, the team speculates. (It seems Neanderthals could make rope, so maybe that isn’t much of a stretch.)

Naturally the human creatures at Nahal Mahanayim ate more than aurochs. They liked boar (who doesn’t) and deer, which was another perennial favorite among Paleolithic peoples; they ate turtles and tortoises, ditto (they’re very easy to hunt – bend over, pick up); and birds, fish and crabs.

“Perfect” flint point during excavationCredit: Gonen Sharon

Hafting has also been around for yonks – it seems Neanderthals were experimenting with glue to haft their flint tips as much as 200,000 years ago. At Nahal Mahanayim, the archaeologists detected evidence that the tips were given wooden handles. And some of these tips remain, 60,000 years after the event, in magnificent condition — perfectly usable to kill and dismember an aurochs if only there were any, but they are extinct.

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