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To Be or not to Be: An Introduction to the Origins, Nature and Chronology of the EPPNB in the Southern Levant

Michal Birkenfeld, Ferran Borrell, Christoph Purschwitz et Dörte Rokitta-Krumnow
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First and foremost, we would like to thank our colleagues who agreed to present their papers in this special issue. Thank you for your efforts, and most of all, for your patience during this lengthy endeavor. We also thank the reviewers who contributed their critical comments to the articles presented. Most importantly, we would like to thank the editorial board of Paléorient and both the former and current Editor-in-Chief, Victoria de Castéja and Johnny Samuele Baldi, respectively, for taking this project on and for accepting it for publication as well as Lucile Foucher for her wonderful assistance. Thank you for all your efforts and assistance throughout the different stages of this process and for helping us to bring it to life. The publication has received the support of the project PID2022-139529NB-I00, financed by MCIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033/FEDER, UE, and of the Generalitat de Catalunya (SGR-2021-00501).

Introduction

  • 1 Throughout this introduction, we have maintained the use of calibrated dates BC (cal. BC). Authors (...)

1The Early Neolithic period of the Levant, spanning from approximately 10,000 to 6,400 cal. BC (table 1), was a time of profound changes in Human History, traditionally marked by the transition from a hunter-gatherer to a sedentary farming economy. This process of domestication and sedentarisation, termed by Gordon V. Childe (1928) the “Neolithic Revolution”, also entailed substantial socio-cultural transformations, often mirrored in the archaeological record (e.g., Kuijt 1996; Verhoeven 2003, 2004; Kuijt et al. 2011; Ackerfeld and Gopher 2023) as well as a significant shift in the relationship of people with the natural world. Some authors see this as the starting point of an ever-increasing, environmentally transformative process that led to long-term alteration of global patterns of biodiversity, ecosystem function and climate change (e.g., Stephens et al. 2019). These complex processes, the roots of which could be tracked back to the final Epi-Paleolithic and Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), reach their zenith during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) by the end of the 10th and beginning of the 9th millennium cal. BC. Around this time, complex village societies emerged throughout the “optimal” (wet and more densely populated) regions of the Levant (e.g., Rollefson 2001; Goring-Morris et al. 2009), associated with farming and increased sedentism and reliance on livestock. Additionally, a certain cultural uniformity appeared throughout a broad cultural interaction zone (PPNB Interaction Sphere or Koine, sensu Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen 1989; Cauvin 1994) extending over most of the Levant and beyond, and expressed mainly by a range of shared material culture aspects such as bidirectional blade technology and projectile types, rectilinear architecture and the use of plaster, certain mortuary practices, etc. Still, significant regional and sub-regional variations did exist, not only in material culture but also in socio-economic practices: While some communities embraced the new farming way of life, others, mostly inhabiting arid and semi-arid regions, remained based on foraging, either partially or completely. In this sense, it is clear that the various processes and Neolithic innovations were not synchronous throughout the Levant and that not all processes took place in all regions in the same fashion, giving rise to intense debates about whether there were one or more centres of domestication/innovation within the initial focus of the Near East (e.g., Fuller et al. 2011; Gopher et al. 2013; Willcox 2013) and, accordingly, about the very nature and chronology of the PPNA to PPNB transition in the region.1

Fig. 1 – Approximate chronological framework of the Neolithic in the southern Levant.

Fig. 1 – Approximate chronological framework of the Neolithic in the southern Levant.

The PPNA to PPNB Transition in the Southern Levant Debate

2The chronological, cultural, and socio-economical variations observed between different regions of the Near East during the early stages of the Neolithic, and most specifically, between the northern and southern parts of the Levant (e.g., Belfer-Cohen and Goring-Morris 2014; Bocquentin et al. 2016; Borrell 2017), has highlighted the need for an accurate understanding/characterisation of the PPNA to PPNB transition in each region. Moreover, it highlighted the need for a more precise definition of those aspects of material culture that define and identify Early PPNB (EPPNB) entities. These two key aspects are needed for the development of different hypotheses about the formation and spread of different phenomena/innovations and of the Neolithisation process in general.

3In the northern Levant, the transition from the PPNA to the PPNB appears to be continuous; particularly along the Upper and Middle Euphrates and the Upper Tigris Valley, where EPPNB (ca. 8,800–8,200 cal. BC) characteristics, such as the bidirectional blade technology and rectangular architecture, seem to appear gradually and apparently autochthonously with some sites having succeeding late PPNA and Early PPNB occupations (e.g., Çambel and Braidwood 1980; Özdoğan 1999; Abbès 2003, 2007; Akkermans, 2004; Ibáñez 2008; Schmidt 2012). In the southern Levant, on the other hand, defining the PPNA/PPNB transition has proven more challenging. Here, processes seem to have been lengthier, PPNA lithic traditions continued longer, the bidirectional blade technology appeared later in the sequence, and even settlement distribution changed significantly between the two phases, expressing limited continuation between PPNA and PPNB occupations (Bar-Yosef 2007; Goring-Morris et al. 2009; Barzilai 2010; Birkenfeld 2018). Most specifically, until not long ago, very few EPPNB sites were identified in the region, with very limited radiometric dating; these included Tell Aswad in the Damascus Basin, Mujahiya in the Golan Heights, Ḥorvat Galil in the Upper Galilee, Nahal Oren and Sefunim in the Coastal Plain and Abu Salem, Nahal Lavan 109 and Jilat 7 in the arid zones of the Negev and eastern Jordan (Noy et al. 1974; Ronen 1984; Gopher 1990, 1998; Garrard et al. 1994; Burian et al. 1999; Stordeur 2003; Stordeur et al. 2010). These inconsistencies and the supposedly sparse evidence of EPPNB material in the southern Levantine record led to a seminal discussion at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s regarding the very existence of the EPPNB in the southern Levant. Following his excavations in Mujahiya and Ḥorvat Galil, Gopher (1996) called for a new definition of a southern Levantine EPPNB, which, while expressing some sort of chronological retardation in comparison to that of the northern Levant, still expressed similar cultural and technological characteristics. Kuijt (1997, 2003) on the other hand, argued that the available evidence did not support the existence of the EPPNB in the south, opting for a prolonged PPNA instead, until the beginning of the Middle PPNB around 8,200 cal. BC. The excavations at Zahrat adh-Dhra’ 2, led Edwards (2004) to support Kuijt and advocate for the primacy of the northern Levantine EPPNB, which would only arrive at the south, en masse, significantly late in the sequence. Indeed, the seemingly uninterrupted transition from PPNA to PPNB in the north in comparison to the paucity of the southern Levantine record dating to the 8,600-8,200 cal. BC time span led to the creation of the “core-area one-event” model, advocating the primacy of the northern Levant (specifically southeastern Turkey and northern Syria), as the focal location for the rapid emergence of the PPNB “way of life”, including conscious/intentional crop and animal domestication as well as cultural “PPNB traits” such as lithic traditions, burial customs, architectural traditions, etc. (Cauvin 1989, 1994; Gopher 1994; Lev-Yadun et al. 2000; Kuijt 2003; Edwards and Sayej 2007; Barzilai 2010; Abbo et al. 2011; Gopher et al. 2013, 2023; Edwards 2016; Gopher and Abbo 2016).

4More recently, the excavations at the site of Motza in the Judean hills (Khalaily et al. 2007a, 2007b) brought new data to the table, challenging, in some respects, the “core-area” paradigm. The excavations exposed a well-dated EPPNB sequence, showing complex stratigraphy, rectilinear architecture accompanied by lime plaster floors, and a well-developed bidirectional blade technology with Helwan and Jericho points. At the same time, the lithic assemblage also displayed the continuation of local PPNA traditions, such as Khiam points and tranchet bifacials. The combination of PPNA and EPPNB characteristics, and the early dates obtained (8,500-8,200 cal. BC), led the excavators to declare that “the results from Motza appear to strongly support the evidence from several other sites in the southern Levant that the PPNB developed locally” and that in any case “questioning the very existence of the EPPNB in the southern Levant is no longer a relevant issue” (Khalaily et al. 2007a: 33). This new data was rapidly integrated into the alternative “Polycentric” or “Diffused protracted” model. This model proposes that animal and plant domestication (and other cultural innovations) were geographically diffused, long-term processes of an unintentional nature, with each local invention being roughly contemporaneous and culturally independent of activities taking place in other regions (sub-centers; e.g., Gebel 2002; Willcox 2005; Conolly et al. 2011; Zeder 2011; Asouti and Fuller 2012; Fuller et al. 2012).

5More than twenty years have passed since the discussion regarding the Early PPNB of the southern Levant had begun, but till today it remains one of the most central and controversial topics in the study of the Levantine Neolithic. During this time, numerous new EPPNB occupations have been identified and excavated, including, for example, Kfar HaḤoresh, Aḥihud and ‘Amqa in the Galilee (Goring-Morris et al. 2008; Paz and Vardi 2014; Caracuta et al. 2015; Birkenfeld 2018; Shemer 2023), and Tell Qarassa in southern Syria (Ibáñez et al. 2010). These added important information to the emerging southern Levantine EPPNB record, allowing a wider discussion of settlement patterns, material culture and subsistence modes origins and/or diffusion in the region. The recent excavations of Nahal Zahal, in the northern Negev, shed new light on EPPNB adaptations to the arid and semi-arid landscapes (Abulafia and Birkenfeld 2023), and the site of ‘Ainab 1 in the Jordanian Badia pushed the geographic boundaries of the EPPNB even further to the east (Štefanisko and Purschwitz 2016).

6A significant turn was noted, however, with the discovery and excavations of several new key-sites east of the Rift valley: Mushash 163 and Harrat Juhayra 202 in the Jordanian Badia (Lelek Tvetmarken and Bartl 2015; Fujii 2016; Rokitta-Krumnow 2016; Fujii et al. 2019) and Kharaysin in the Zarqa Valley (northern Jordan; Ibáñez et al. 2015). These sites not only exhibited well-developed and rich EPPNB occupations but challenged the entire northern Levantine primacy paradigm; while exhibiting developed EPPNB traits they also provided exceptionally early 14C dates, placing the beginning of the Badia EPPNB ca. 8,900/8,800 cal. BC, i.e., coeval to and perhaps even earlier than those of the northern Levant (Ibáñez et al. 2015, 2018; Lelek Tvetmarken and Bartl 2015; Fujii et al. 2019). That and more, two of the sites (i.e., Kharaysin and Mushash 163) exhibit lengthy Early Neolithic sequences, from the end of the PPNA and up the LPPNB or PPNC (Kharaysin and Mushash 163, respectively), suggesting local development and continuation (ibid.). Undeniably, this new information reopens the question of the southern Levantine transition from PPNA to the PPNB and the origins of the Neolithisation process in the region.

The Special Issue: New Data New Interpretations

7In this special issue we try to update the current knowledge on the so-called “Southern Levantine EPPNB”. In two thematic issues, comprised of thirteen papers, we bring together field reports, material culture studies as well as new regional and sub-regional syntheses, in the hope of setting the stage for a renewed evaluation of this crucial leg of the “Neolithic Revolution”.

8The first papers present newly excavated sites, adding new data to our discussion. West of the Rift Valley, three excavations are presented, shedding light on the EPPNB entities in two very different settings—the Mediterranean Galilee and the arid Negev desert. In the Galilee, the site of Aḥihud provides a wonderful source of information as to EPPNB settlement and subsistence strategies in the region; no domestic animals were identified at the site, and it seems that hunting retained its primacy in the inhabitants’ diet. At the same time, the site yielded one of the earliest dated examples of intensive legume agriculture, demonstrating once again the intricate range of adaptations that developed during the period. In their paper, Vardi et al. present the results of the excavation, delving into these issues as well as other material culture aspects, illustrating local characteristics as well as significant long-distance connections with other regions, including the northern Levant.

9Shemer et al. present a very different situation, emphasizing the importance of every piece of information, partial as it may seem at first. Although massive construction and bedrock modification during the Byzantine Era have rendered any discussion of architecture or of spatial organization futile, the site of ‘Amqa presents an impressive lithic assemblage, unique in its isolation from earlier or later Neolithic strata. This allowed the authors an extensive discussion of “clean” EPPNB characteristics, which in turn exhibit significant local traditions and developments, together with extensive connections to the north—the Damascus Basin and beyond, to Anatolia. Their results raise the possibility of different though contemporary lithic traditions in the area west of the Rift Valley, each with its own geographic range.

10An example of such a different tradition is presented by Birkenfeld and Abulafia in their discussion of the site of Nahal Zahal. Located in the arid Negev, the site of Nahal Zahal provides an important opportunity to investigate the EPPNB of the region. Although other sites were documented in the area in the past (i.e., Abu Salem, Nahal Lavan 109 and Nahal Boqer; Noy and Cohen 1974; Burian et al. 1976, 1999; Gopher and Goring-Morris 1998), this is the first site to yield both complex architecture, varied material culture as well as several 14C dates, enabling, for the first time, to place the EPPNB of the region within the wider, regional chronological scheme. Since this is a single period site, it also allows the isolation of identification of local EPPNB lithic traditions. These, in turn, show extensive continuation of PPNA and earlier, Harifian elements.

11East of the Rift Valley, the site of ‘Ainab 1, presented by Štefanisko et al., represents the easternmost point known to date to exhibit clear EPPNB characteristics. Regardless of its remoteness, the site boasts eleven structures, varied lithic assemblage and a groundstone tool assemblage, reflecting a complex occupation, and shows clear resemblance and connections to sites 300 km to the west. As such, it could be part of the larger Neolithic nexus, perhaps reflecting a route of Neolithic dispersal towards the Arabian Peninsula. The finding of such a site so far to the east also raises the issue of the under-exploration of remote and arid regions, specifically Eastern Jordan and Arabia, which may lead to biases in our understanding of EPPNB dynamics.

12Another site with the potential to alter our understanding of the EPPNB in the Jordanian Badia is the site of Harrat Juhayra 202, which arises the essential question of the “Jordanian Badia Early PPNB” and how it should be defined and interpreted. The term was first suggested by Fujii, following his excavations at Harrat Juhayra 202 (Fujii 2022), stressing not only the now unequivocal proof of the existence of this phase in the region, but also the possibility of a chronologically early, local development of the “typical” EPPNB characteristics. In his current paper, Fujii presents a comprehensive investigation, focusing on the “Jordanian Badia Early PPNB” as a heterogeneous, multi-phased cultural entity, incorporating the newly available evidence together with an appraisal of settlement patterns and periodization. The paper advocates a complex and dynamic cultural narrative of the Neolithisation processes in the region, incorporating local developments, diffusion, and retreat of cultural traits.

13Indisputably, it is now becoming clear that within this time frame of the “Early PPNB”, and more specifically, in the first half of the 9th millennium BC, we can identify different archaeological entities, i.e., different material cultural traits and characteristics in the different sub-regions of the southern Levant. The question arises whether these archaeological entities represent historical cultural entities or what we’d call identity groups. Furthermore, it raises questions as to the movement, spread and disappearance of cultural traits. Edwards, in his paper, revisits the notion of archaeological “cultures”. He argues that archaeological cultures are often more complex and equivocal, that social boundaries rarely correspond to cultural borders, and that material culture can be shared, reworked, or transformed in a variety of ways. Edwards sees the PPNB as a polythetic process, a complex of traits that appeared in a stepwise fashion, at different times and from various sources. He discusses the need to deal with PPNB variants systematically, and to examine how they spread and travel, and the novel social forms that arise at their margins, including the role of mobile hunter-gatherer groups in the dissemination of PPNB culture, particularly in marginal areas.

14Similar questions, regarding the very construct and definitions of our archaeological entities, underlie several papers in this thematic issue, from various perspectives. Finlayson et al. discuss whether chipped stone tools and tool assemblages can indeed be understood as representing ethnic groups. They describe the Late PPNA and Early PPNB of Jordan, discussing the main characteristics of lithic material culture, architecture, and subsistence, summarizing the evidence for local continuity, regional contact, interaction, and diversity between the two phases. They present the concept of cultural hybridity, arguing that the archaeological record in central and southern Jordan reveals a more complex picture, with features of the PPNA persisting into the PPNB period and against “stable, bounded, homogenous types of early Neolithic” (Finlayson et al. this volume).

15In the closing paper of the first thematic issue, Gopher challenges some of these views and argues for the importance of culture history in understanding past societies. He makes the distinction between the EPPNB as a chrono-stratigraphic unit and the socio-cultural entities which prevailed during this period, and calls for the definition of the “Aswadian” culture as a distinct cultural entity. This, due to its unique spatial and temporal framework, settlement patterns, material culture, economy, burial customs, and symbolism. Gopher highlights the importance of considering localized cultural entities and the need for high-resolution cultural and subcultural differentiations in the study of human socio-cultural and economic history, i.e., a detailed regional mosaic approach that allows for nuanced and refined accounts of cultural change.

16Five papers will comprise the second thematic issue, to be published in the 2024 volume, in an attempt to enhance and supplement this new dataset with a discussion of several topics, without which no discussion of the EPPNB in the region could be complete: First, Bartl will present the lengthy Neolithic sequence of Mushash 163, ranging from the Late PPNA/Early PPNB (phase 1; ca. 9,000/8,900–8,500 cal. BC) to the PPNC (phase 4; 7,500–6,400 cal. BC). In her paper, Bartl describes the LPPNA/EPPNB phase at the site, which represents, at that stage, a small, probably seasonal settlement, with a subsistence based on wild flora and fauna. The paper will present evidence for cultural developments during the transition from the PPNA to the EPPNB, raising questions about the origin or transfer of these developments. Set in a regional perspective, the data from Mushash 163 will bring the term “Badia Early PPNB” back into discussion. Second, Rokitta-Krumnow will focus on the projectile assemblage from Mushash 163. She will examine the development of projectile points and their functional and formal attributes, as well as their use in establishing chronological markers and cultural units. She will also discuss the limitations of projectile typologies and the need to question preconceptions about past culture. Her findings have implications for understanding the development of projectile technology and its role in shaping human societies, as well as for the study of cultural evolution and the need to challenge established typologies. Third, Horwitz will delve into the zooarchaeological evidence, exploring geographic variation in EPPNB animal subsistence. She will discuss local environments, paleoclimate, and the socio-economies of the different communities. Fourth, Khalaily et al. will discuss the Early PPNB phase at Motza. They will analyse projectile points and their distribution to attempt a wider discussion of EPPNB traits and trajectories. In the final paper, Ibáñez et al. will present the EPPNB occupations at Kharaysin and Qarassa, discussing the main characteristics, including architecture, environmental reconstruction, plant and animal exploitation, lithic industry and funerary customs.

Conclusions

17We hope that this collection of papers, bringing together current data on settlement and subsistence patterns, lithic industries and material culture of the period, will allow for a new, contemporary, more informed discussion of the Neolithisation processes in the southern Levant. It is time for new, more nuanced paradigms and more detailed discussions. However, we cannot ignore another issue, arising from this collective work, and that is the need for a discussion of our theoretical framework. What does the EPPNB really stand for? Is it a chrono-stratigraphic entity, defining a certain timeframe? Is it a cultural entity, defined by certain characteristics such as rectangular architecture and bidirectional blade technology? We will try and deal with these issues in our final remarks, which will appear in the second thematic issue, next year.

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Notes

1 Throughout this introduction, we have maintained the use of calibrated dates BC (cal. BC). Authors of the different papers in these special issues were given the choice of using either cal. BC or cal. BP in their papers.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Approximate chronological framework of the Neolithic in the southern Levant.
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Michal Birkenfeld, Ferran Borrell, Christoph Purschwitz et Dörte Rokitta-Krumnow, « To Be or not to Be: An Introduction to the Origins, Nature and Chronology of the EPPNB in the Southern Levant »Paléorient, 49-2 | -1, 1-4.

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Michal Birkenfeld, Ferran Borrell, Christoph Purschwitz et Dörte Rokitta-Krumnow, « To Be or not to Be: An Introduction to the Origins, Nature and Chronology of the EPPNB in the Southern Levant »Paléorient [En ligne], 49-2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 09 avril 2024, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/paleorient/3307 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/paleorient.3307

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Michal Birkenfeld

Department of Archaeology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva – Israel

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Ferran Borrell

Institución Milá y Fontanals de Investigación en Humanidades, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Barcelona – Spain

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Christoph Purschwitz

Independent scholar

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Dörte Rokitta-Krumnow

Independent scholar

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