Dig in Jordan led by UC Berkeley researcher unearths 20,000-year-old huts

Lisa A. Maher/Courtesy
A UC Berkeley led excavation in eastern Jordan uncovers 20,000-year-old huts and artifacts.

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An archaeological dig in eastern Jordan, led by a researcher from UC Berkeley, made new findings that help change previous assumptions about people living in the region at least 20,000 years ago.

The team’s findings — which were published Feb. 15 in the PLoS ONE journal — show that prehistoric people from around 20,000 years ago shaped the landscapes they lived in, had attachments to those places and were involved in far-reaching networks of interaction and exchange, according to Lisa Maher, UC Berkeley assistant professor of anthropology and specialist in prehistoric archaeology, who led the dig.

These behaviors have previously been attributed to settled farmers living around 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic period, not as far back as 20,000 years ago.

At the 21,000-square-meter open-air site, called Kharaneh IV, in Jordan’s Azraq Basin, the researchers’ main find was two hut structures, which add to a steadily growing body of evidence for Early and Middle Epipalaeolithic dwellings.

They also discovered “many exotic and potentially symbolic caches of objects including shell, red ochre, and burnt horn cores,” according to the report.

The multidisciplinary, international team funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK was comp0sed of specialists from UC Berkeley, the University of Cambridge, University of Copenhagen, University College London and University of Nottingham working with Jordan’s Department of Antiquities.

“Working with experts in different, but complimentary, fields … allows you to glean a great deal of information from a fragmentary archaeological record,” Maher said in an email.

Working with a diverse group made “excavation which can proceed at a snail’s pace in the hot sun … always a fun experience,” she added.

The team excavated for three seasons and documented that prehistoric hunter-gatherers visited the site many times over approximately 1,000 years. They found that the occupants stayed for long periods each time, as evidenced by human remains and the possibly intentional burning of one of the huts.

This is “something very different than our usual assumption that hunter-gatherers are highly mobile and moved from camp to camp often,” Maher said in the email.

Andrew Stewart, campus classics professor and director of a UC Berkeley excavation team in Tel Dor, Israel, said the research findings “sound very exciting, and are, to my knowledge, unique.”

Maher explained the relevance of the findings for the modern world.

“While the huts themselves are exciting, it is what it tells us about the people who made and lived in the huts that is most exciting,” she said in the email.