Researchers from Tel Aviv University have solved a longstanding mystery about the extensive prehistoric stone quarrying and tool-making sites found in the region. For hundreds of thousands of years, why did Homo erectus repeatedly visit the same locations to extract flint and craft stone tools? The answer lies in the migration patterns of elephants – the primary prey that these early humans hunted and butchered using the tools produced at these special sites.

The study, led by Dr. Meir Finkel and Professor Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, was published in the journal Archaeologies.

Ancient humans needed three key things – water, food, and stone, explains Professor Barkai. While water and food were necessities for all creatures, humans relied on stone tools to hunt and butcher animals, lacking the sharp claws and fangs of other predators.

The researchers wondered why certain stone outcrops were intensively utilized for tool production, while adjacent outcrops with equally suitable flint were left untouched. Studying modern hunter-gatherer societies, the team found that these groups often imbue stone quarry sites with spiritual significance, making pilgrimages to specific outcrops and leaving offerings, while ignoring other equally suitable sources.

Applying this insight, the researchers sought to understand what made the well-used Paleolithic quarry sites so special. Over nearly 20 years, Barkai and his colleagues have investigated flint quarrying and tool production sites in the Upper Galilee region of Israel. These sites, located near major Paleolithic settlements like Gesher Benot Ya’akov and Ma’ayan Baruch, contain thousands of individual quarries and extraction locations where prehistoric humans manufactured tools and left offerings, even when other flint-bearing geological formations were available nearby.

Examining the distribution of these quarry sites, the researchers found that they were situated along the migration routes of elephants – the dominant prey of these early humans. Elephants need about 400 liters of water per day, so they follow fixed migration routes to reliable water sources like lake and river edges, says Dr. Finkel.

The researchers discovered that many of the butchering sites were located at “necessary crossings” where elephant trails intersected with mountain passes or narrow stretches of lakeshores. Given the limited window of opportunity to process a downed elephant before scavengers arrived, it was critical for these hunter-gatherers to have an ample supply of ready-made stone tools on hand.

This explains why the quarry sites are located in close proximity to the elephant butchering locations along the migration routes. The researchers found that this “Paleolithic trinity” of water sources, elephant migration routes, and dedicated stone tool production sites was a widespread phenomenon, appearing in Paleolithic sites across Asia, Europe, and Africa – even where the prey animals were mammoths, hippopotamuses, camels, or horses rather than elephants. It seems the Paleolithic holy trinity is universal, concludes Professor Barkai.

Where there was water, there were elephants, and where there were elephants, humans had to find suitable stone outcrops to craft the tools needed to hunt and butcher their megaherbivore prey. This was a tradition that endured for hundreds of thousands of years, until the elephants ultimately went extinct and the world was forever changed.


Sources

Tel-Aviv University | Finkel, M., Barkai, R. Quarries as Places of Significance in the Lower Paleolithic Holy Triad of Elephants, Water, and Stone. Arch (2024). doi.org/10.1007/s11759-024-09491-y


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