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Innovations at the Margins: The Transmission of Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (EPPNB) Culture across the Levantine Interior

Phillip C. Edwards
p. 135-148


Résumé. L’avènement du Néolithique précéramique ancien B (EPPNB) dans le sud du Levant est examiné ici à la lumière des données issues de fouilles récentes. Les données provenant du flanc ouest du Levant méridional continuent d’indiquer que l’horizon culturel EPPNB est arrivé dans la région vers 9300 BP/8612-8491 cal. BCE. Cet ensemble de preuves comprend un bloc de sites du Néolithique précéramique A (PPNA) dans le centre-ouest de la Jordanie qui se termine à peu près à la même époque. Sur le flanc oriental du Levant méridional, de nouvelles fouilles donnent des dates de plus en plus anciennes pour l’introduction de l’EPPNB, Harrat Juhayra 202 dans le bassin de Jafr étant le plus ancien d’entre eux. La diffusion précoce de la culture EPPNB sur le flanc oriental du Levant est étudiée en fonction de la grande mobilité des communautés de chasseurs-cueilleurs vivant dans des zones marginales et des limites poreuses de leurs territoires. Des adaptations très différentes semblant relever de la culture PPNB (à la fois des villages agraires et des chasseurs-cueilleurs mobiles), ce chapitre réexamine certaines notions et hypothèses de base concernant la grande entité culturelle PPNB pan-levantine, réévalue les idées sur la construction des cultures archéologiques et examine comment les éléments culturels se dispersent et comment les contacts inter-sociétaux peuvent donner lieu à de nouvelles expressions culturelles dynamiques.

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I would like to thank Tobias Richter for interesting discussions and permissions to cite his notes on Shubaqya 6, and Sarah Gyngell for producing the map illustrated here as figure 1. This chapter is based on a seminar presentation I delivered jointly with Sumio Fujii in the Points of Contention in the Neolithic of Jordan online series in 2020. Appreciations are due to Bill Finlayson and Pascal Flohr for providing the opportunity to air these views. While new evidence and interpretations provided by these and other colleagues have significantly influenced the course of this paper, needless to say, the views presented here are my own.


1Having previously approached the topic of Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (EPPNB) chronology and dispersals by examining specific site data (Edwards et al. 2004; Edwards 2016), I offer in this contribution a broader reflection on the state of play on the subject, in the light of more recent PPNB evidence emerging from the Levant. Firstly, a summary of the history of this issue is given, in order to bring the conversation up to date. Then, recent data from new excavations are reviewed, with a focus on the situation in Jordan. Following that is a more discursive discussion on the basics: what do we really mean by the PPNB taxon and how do we deal with its variants systematically? To follow these ideas, this review revisits ideas underlying the construction of archaeological cultures. It examines how they spread, and travel, and the novel social forms that arise at their margins. The apparent early dissemination of PPNB culture across the eastern flank of the Levant is addressed in terms of the high mobility of hunter-gatherer communities living in marginal areas, and the significance of the often-porous boundaries of their home territories.

2Reacting against a widely held belief that the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) cultural entity commenced around 9500 BP/9040–8756 cal. BCE and emerged simultaneously in the northern and southern Levant, Kuijt (1997) argued that the appearance of the PPNB at Jericho (Tell es-Sultan) occurred later in the south (ca. 9300 BP/8612–8492 cal. BCE) than it did in the north, after examining the stratification and radiocarbon results obtained by Kenyon at Jericho (fig. 1). The interest of our La Trobe University team in this issue was aroused after our excavations of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) site of Zahrat adh-Dhra‘ 2 (ZAD 2) near the Dead Sea, in central-western Jordan (Sayej 2004; Edwards and House 2007). The site yielded a typical PPNA material culture set and architectural configuration, with consistent dates in three buildings that spanned the period 9600/9131–8851 to 9300 BP/8612–8492 cal. BC. Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon date clusters often tends to reduce likely occupation spans. This was undertaken for the ZAD 2 determinations, yielding a most likely occupation span of 8800–8450 cal. BCE (Edwards et al. 2004). Here, radiocarbon determinations have been calibrated according to the IntCal 20 calibration curve (Reimer et al. 2020) and raw dates converted using the OxCal 4.4 online calculator (​oxcal.html), with calibrated ranges expressed at 1σ. For certain references where raw determinations were not given, calibrated date ranges given by the authors are cited instead.

Fig. 1 – Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in the Levant.

Fig. 1 – Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in the Levant.

Sites mentioned in the text are represented by white circles.

Map S. Gyngell

3The ZAD 2 date sequence broke through the 9,500 BP/9,040–8,756 cal. BCE barrier and extended into the time period allotted to the PPNB. This prompted us to make an examination of the southern Levantine PPNB record (Edwards et al. 2004; Sayej 2004; Edwards and Sayej 2007), whereupon it emerged that there was no reliable evidence for the postulated southern EPPNB in the southern Levant before 9100 BP/8296–8266 cal. BCE. Furthermore, sites ascribed to the EPPNB sites were usually no earlier than major settlements such as Ain Ghazal, which were considered to be Middle PPNB (MPPNB) in affinity.

4Subsequently, the discovery of the large village site of Motza, west of Jerusalem, yielded an EPPNB phase, including naviform blade-core technique, notched and tanged PPNB-style Helwan projectile points, large-scale imports of Anatolian obsidian imports, and apsidal houses. This phase is dated from 9300 BP/8612–8492 cal. BCE (although the majority of the dates fall later than this). Classified as EPPNB, the earliest layers of Motza provided a secure reference point for the introduction of the PPNB in the southern Levant. Although this paper is concerned mainly with the EPPNB in Jordan, it is noteworthy that new dates for the Nesher-Ramla Quarry in the Shephelah of 9150–9300 BP/8350–8600 cal. BCE (Ullman et al. 2022), continue to indicate that EPPNB sites in the southern Levant do not date before 9300 BP/8612–8492 cal. BCE, at least on its western flank. However, as we now see, the same cannot be said for the eastern flank of the southern Levant.

5Motza indicated a direct transition from the Late PPNA around 9,350 BP/8632–8563 cal. BCE, as attested at Jericho and ZAD 2. The excavators of Motza rejected at least the latest ZAD 2 dates (e.g., Khalaily et al. 2007) but without giving any particular reason for doing so. It seems, however, that the two entities dovetail neatly and provide evidence for a reasonably abrupt introduction of the PPNB facies in the south, at the point where the Late PPNA at ZAD 2 ceases. Other scholars subsequently acknowledged the uncertainly over the introduction of the EPPNB in the south (Simmons 2007: 123; Belfer-Cohen and Goring-Morris 2010: 157). Even if the absolute dating of the process has changed somewhat over the last several decades, Gopher (1994) had already tracked the dissemination of EPPNB lithic traditions from Syria into the southern Levant in the mid-1990s. Researchers working on Motza materials later cited the 9300 BP/8612–8492 cal. BCE benchmark for the introduction of the EPPNB in the south (Yerkes et al. 2012).

6A marked plateau on the radiocarbon calibration curve in the early Holocene obscures and disperses the clarity of these dates and their significance. However, it is critical now that the origin of the PPNB complex in the Euphrates valley of north Syria is discussed. That is, key features taken as classic PPNB traits, such as naviform blade core technology, Helwan points and rectilinear architecture, appear deep within the PPNA in the Euphrates Valley; for example, at Mureybet and Sheikh Hassan (Calley 1986; Abbès 1994; Stordeur and Abbès 2002). They appear as a gradual accretion of traits, in a typical manner for the formation of entities we retrospectively classify as archaeological cultures. Conversely, in the south these features appear in concert as a kind of mature fully formed expression, such as at Motza, indicating their derivation from the north.

7The later review (Edwards 2016) confirmed that the same pattern held in the western part of the southern Levant, with no new EPPNB sites evident before the 9300 BP/8612–8492 cal. BCE benchmark. Further dating of Syrian sites demonstrated that the earliest PPNB sites were limited to the Euphrates valley, with EPPNB sites in other areas of Syria established at 9300 BP/8612–8492 cal. BCE. This review was criticised by E. B. Banning (2017) for not undertaking a comprehensive Bayesian analysis of all Levantine PPN dates. Yet, this task is still problematic, given the lack of contextual moorings for radiocarbon dates at many key sites that might deliver robust chronological models (Jacobssen 2019). It is a job better suited to the excavators of the various sites, who have the details of sampling and context at hand.

A PPNA Province in Central-Western Jordan

8Fieldwork conducted from the mid-1990s until the present has revealed a new province of PPNA sites in the Dead Sea Basin, and bordering the Wadi Arabah, in central-western Jordan. The complex of sites comprises ZAD 2 and its near neighbour Dhra’, both on the Dhra’ Plain (Kuijt and Mahasneh 1998; Kuijt and Finlayson 2009); el-Hemmeh (Makarewicz et al. 2006) and Sharara (Sampson 2013; Makarewicz and Finlayson 2021) in the lower reaches of Wadi al-Hasa, near the southern end of the Dead Sea, and Wadi Faynan 16 (WF16) in the broad Faynan Valley, bordering Wadi al-Arabah (Finlayson and Mithen 2007; Mithen et al. 2018). The sites encompass a good deal of functional and stylistic variability, and several key results emerging from the excavations are germane to this discussion. El-Hammeh and Wadi Faynan 16 parallel ZAD 2 in corroborating the existence of a Late PPNA phase in the region, terminating around 9300/8612–8492 cal. BCE to 9400 BP/8708–8631 cal. BCE. El-Hemmeh dates to 9450 BP/8850 cal. BCE and the late phase at WF16 dates to ca. 9400 BP/8708–8631 cal. BCE.

9The sequence at El-Hemmeh has an MPPNB phase overlying the PPNA that seemed to confirm the prolongation of the PPNA in this part of Jordan. The Late PPNA phases at WF16 and el-Hemmeh display curvilinear stone architecture similar to ZAD 2, a parallel phasing out of the typical PPNA projectiles (such as El Khiam, Salibiya and Jericho points), and the advent of tranchet-sharpened axe/adzes (Smith et al. 2016).

Kharaysin and Mushash 163: Key PPN Lynchpins

10The more recently excavated sites of Kharaysin and Mushash 163 provide important new information about the introduction of the PPNB in the south. The two open-air settlements are the first PPN sites excavated in Jordan to contain the successive phases of interest for this issue, namely PPNA followed by EPPNB (and then MPPNB for Kharaysin). Both sites have been rigorously excavated and are already well reported on a phase-by-phase basis, with the promise of more critical detail to come.

  • 1 Ibáñez J. J and Muñiz J. 2021 – The Early Neolithic of Kharaysin (Zarqa, Jordan). Novelties from th (...)

11Kharaysin is a large settlement overlooking Wadi Zarqa near Jerash (Hanbury-Tenison 1987), zone A has yielded an oval Late PPNA phase, including an oval structure dated 9636 ± 48 BP/9222–8266 cal. BCE, provided with a mud plaster floor (Ibáñez et al. 2015).1 Another curvilinear building includes rectilinear wall sections, reprising the similarly dated architectural style of Jerf al-Ahmar in the north (e.g., Stordeur 2015: 58, fig. 21.1) and at WF16, Dhra’ and ZAD 2 in the south. This building has yielded dates of 9523 ± 36 BP/9117–8760 cal. BCE and 9464 ± 36 BP/8803–8648 cal. BCE. Zone B has also yielded a Late PPNA building, dating 9539 ± 73 BP/9123–8761 cal. BCE.

12As at el-Hemmeh, MPPNB buildings overlie the Late PPNA phase in zone B. But there also exists an EPPNB phase at Kharaysin, with a suite of four dates occurring between 9000 ± 47 BP/8287–8022 cal. BCE and 9212 ± 49 BP/8537–8336 cal. BCE. The EPPNB layers yielded three human skulls deposited in a wall, covered by plaster. The presence of bipolar core technology and elaborate tanged and notched Helwan points were notable in the lithic assemblage. Kharaysin demonstrates a Late PPNA phase existing until ca. 9400 BP/8708–8631 cal. BCE and the introduction of the EPPNB not much before 9200 BP/8455–8333 cal. BCE. Its sequence supports the chronology derived from the central-western Jordan province of PPNA sites.

13Mushash 163 is located some 40 km southeast of Amman, in the western Badia (Bartl 2018). The relatively short-lived sequence at Mushash 163 appears to capture the very change from PPNA to EPPNB, constrained between radiocarbon dates of 9450 ± 50 BP/8799–8635 cal. BCE and 9320 ± 50 BP/8696–8480 cal. BCE. These deposits are contained within sunken pit houses, edged with stone (Rokitta-Krumnow 2019). Structures 1–2 are typical representatives of curvilinear PPNA construction, although it has to be said that curvilinear architecture does persist in the more arid Levant into the later PPNB, the Pottery Neolithic and even as late as the Early Bronze IV period. In other words, architecture may give a different impression than the portable finds. The radiocarbon dates were recovered from the lowermost 5 cm of fill over the floors in the case of structures 1 and 2. Bidirectional naviform blade cores are present in these lowermost layers, although they are outnumbered by amorphous single-platform types. El Khiam points are prominent among the earliest projectiles. They include the double-notched examples, which bear resemblance to the Helwan point type. Interestingly, the El Khiam specimens are accompanied by Helwan, Byblos and Jericho points. It will be interesting to see the final publication of this sequence, since it appears to show that the arrival of EPPNB cultural elements in this more easterly part of the southern Levant happened earlier than in the west. These regional differences hint at episodic, complex processes for EPPNB dispersals—arriving at slightly different times and possibly assimilated through a variety of contacts and transfers.

Further East again: Shubayqa 6 and Harrat Juhayra 202

14Travelling further into the Badia of east Jordan, the site of Shubayqa 6 (in the north-east of the country) and the site of Harrat Juhayra 202 (in its south-east) emerge as important landmarks in this discussion. The sequence at Shubayqa 6 extends from the Late Natufian period to the Late PPNA. Of particular interest is the Late PPNA phase dating between 11000 and 10590 cal. BP (Richter et al. 2016a, 2016b).3 The PPNA phases feature an agglomeration of smaller and larger oval structures (somewhat reminiscent of the crowded complex at WF16), with querns incorporated into floors. The rich Late PPNA assemblage features an abundance of ostrich shell and greenstone beads, as well as workstations for bone tools, with shafts abraders provided (Yeomans et al. 2021). Like ZAD 2 and the Late PPNA phases of el-Hemmeh and WF16, there is a dearth of points, with just a few Jordan Valley and Salibiya types, but also some elaborate Hagdud truncations and El Khiam points. Some of the latter examples boast up to with three sets of paired notches.3 There are also a few Helwan points, and naviform blades, but no naviform cores catalogued as yet. This situation might signify that the EPPNB had arrived at Qa‘ Shubayqa by 9400 BP/8708–8631 cal. BCE. As yet the excavator holds this conclusion in reserve, not having ruled out that the EPPNB elements are intrusive from later deposits (T. Richter, pers. comm. 2022).

15Results from Harrat Juhayra 202 in the Jafr Basin provide the most significant evidence yet for an earlier presence of the PPNB in the east than in the west (Fujii et al. 2019). Harrat Juhayra 2 is a small site about 0.10 ha in area. The excavations focused on an oval structure with a broad stone perimeter wall accompanied by a rock-cut water system. A series of four concordant radiocarbon dating between 9400/8708–8631 cal. BCE and 9500 BP/9040–8756 cal. BCE was obtained from deposits stratified near the floor. These layers yielded a rich combination of PPNA alongside EPPNB elements, with amorphous and unipolar cores and El Khiam points, on the one hand, but Helwan points on the other. The combination of Late PPNA and PPNB elements indicates that the site marks the transition between the two periods in this part of the world.

16It is something of a surprise that this small desertic site on the south-eastern fringes of the PPNB world should yield the earliest PPNB assemblage in the southern Levant. But it seems that there is no substantive reason why we should question the results from Harrat Juhayra 202. The excavation was careful, the concordant dates derive from well-interred sediments, and the excavation results already published in detailed fashion. Based on the new situation, Fujii and colleagues present the argument that PPNB elements must have travelled more quickly along the eastern flank of the Levant than they did through the Mediterranean heartland. This possibility is explored further in the next section.

The Desert Highway and the Levantine Corridor

  • 2 Fujii S. and Edwards P. C. 2020 – PPNA to MPPNB transitions. Paper presented to the Points of Conte (...)

17In a recent online seminar2, Sumio Fujii captured the essence of the arid margin of the Levant in terms of its potential for human dispersals by designating it as the ‘desert highway’, in contrast to the established western path through the Levantine Corridor (Bar-Yosef and Meadows 1995). There is considerable experience to show that mobile hunter-­gatherers range over larger areas and engage in more frequent long-range trips than do settled farming village peoples. In the case of the PPNB dispersal, it is not, of course, a simple matter of hunter-gatherers walking more quickly per se than agrarian villagers, given that the PPNB dispersals along both the western and eastern flanks of the Levant can only be measured in hundreds of years. Yet, mobile hunter-gatherer groups often penetrate external territories to access resources or consolidate long-range social contacts, by negotiating with, and acceptance of the custodians of the lands. Sampson (1988: 13–28) has developed one of the most considered treatments about such territories and borders, noting that “In the long run, territories shrink, become more closely packed, and firm up their boundaries as population density increases… Logically, the reverse must also hold—territories swell and boundaries become diffuse and overlap when population density decreases, or when resources dwindle, or when herders revert to hunter-foragers again” (Sampson 1988: 25).

18Samson observed these conditions among hunter-gatherers of southern Africa. The porous nature of mobile people’s boundaries appears to be widespread. For example, a neutral zone of some 80 km width was maintained between the territories of the Larakia people in the north and the Awarai to the south, in the Northern Territory of Australia (Tindale 1974: 77).

19Based on the scarce presence of PPNB habitations in the interior Levant, we might be tempted to envision the region as a vast tract of mainly uninhabited land, stretching so far between settlements as to prohibit extensive knowledge of one to the other. But this is likely to be an inaccurate picture for several reasons. Large numbers of ‘kites’, or basalt devices for the mass trapping of gazelles and other herd animals, are distributed widely across the eastern flank of the Levant (Morandi Bonacossi and Iamoni 2012; Abu-Azizeh et al. 2021; Betts and Burke 2021; Chambrade and Betts 2021) and into the Arabian peninsula (Kennedy 2021), and at least some of them date to the PPNB phase (Khasawneh et al. 2019). The lines of kites must have involved large numbers of people travelling considerable distances to build them, operate them, and process and retrieve the carcasses obtained from their utilisation. The pan-Levantine obsidian exchange network which already operated at low levels during the PPNA (Cauvin and Chataigner 1998) indicates that knowledge of one region by the occupants of another was continuous and probably extensive.

20The Levant is not so a big place as to have inhibited regular contact between the north and the south. The distance from Mureybet to the Jafr Basin in southern Jordan is 640 km, well within the attested annual ranging limits of many mobile peoples. Indigenous Australian hunter-gatherers of the nineteenth century regularly journeyed up to 960 km each year from southwest Queensland to South Australia to trade pituri (a native tobacco) with a prized red ochre sourced from the Flinders Ranges. The expeditions were also associated with the exchange of marriage partners and involved considerable forward planning and commitment. Dieri men from South Australia involved in the ochre transport would walk continuously for periods of up to two months while carrying loads of ochre exceeding 30 kg in weight (Mulvaney 1976). Moreover, pearl shell (Pinctada sp.) and Baler shell (Melo diadema) were exchanged through hands over a distance of 2,200 km. They were transported from the Gulf of Carpentaria at the northern margin of Australia, to the shores of South Australia at the other end of the continent, over a period of some 20 years.

21These examples highlight the long-distance journeying habitually practised by some mobile groups in order to engage in social interactions. They also underline that the distances separating north and south of the Levant are not so great as to prohibit regular contact across its interior regions. In order to go further in understanding how PPNB transmissions might have occurred, it is important to pause again to reflect on what we mean by an archaeological culture such as the ‘PPNB’.

The Configuration of Archaeological Cultures

22‘PPNB’, the familiarity of the name itself, in a sense, is a problem when it comes to understanding the transmission of the PPNB cultural entity. The term rolls off the tongue easily, but it embodies a complex set of attributes and propositions. Researchers may use the label as a shorthand in discussion (for example, in discussions on online seminars that became popular during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020–2021), in order to convey ideas succinctly in discussion. Some wordings may carry the unspoken implication that a unified people or polity stands behind the term, when researchers well understand that the PPNB represents an equivocal archaeological category. Thereby, we often lapse into speaking or writing about ‘PPNB people’, and how they might have moved south, for example. When we do so, we are reverting to the archaeological culture concept invented by Kossinna (Kossinna 1896; Veit 1989) and developed by Childe (1929). This conception saw archaeological cultures as a set of coherent material traits discretely bounded in space and time, representing a single identity group. The Kossinna/Childe culture concept also had a clear shape. It assumed a sharp replacement of one culture by another, with the consequence that cultures were visualised in diagrams as monothetic, quadrangular blocks in space and time. Cultural rectangles jostle in space with one or more rectangular neighbours, giving way to a subsequent culture at a later time, represented by a (usually) horizontal line. This is the way that Childe (1929) envisioned the initial spread of farming cultures across Europe.

23Subsequently, decades of archaeological and ethnographic experience have shown the lack of straightforward correspondence between archaeological cultures and human societies. It is unlikely that the PPNB complex ever involved a unitary identity group. Even during early periods when the idea that material culture equalled society was in the ascendant, some scholars had already expressed skepticism about it. Müller, who had traced in the nineteenth century the ancestral Indo-European language from words distributed across its daughter languages, expressed warnings about conceiving of ‘Indo-European’ as a people, a nation, or a cultural region (Voigt 1967). By the 1950s, anthropologists such as Francis (1947) and Leach (1954) had shown that social boundaries rarely correspond to cultural borders. Francis described the inherent dynamics of social change which leads to the continual mismatch of social groups and material culture. Beside the novelties brought by trade and exchange, men and women may move as marriage partners to other groups, and thus introduce technological and material innovations to them. Conversely, invasion or accession of territories by dominant polities may be accomplished without a parallel transformation of local material cultures. Even if societies produce consistent material culture products, they continually spill over social borders, to be taken up and shared or reworked by other societies. Communities also receive and incorporate patchworks of cultural traits from neighbouring groups. Hodder (1978) summarized the situation with concrete examples and concluded that human societies do not correspond to unitary material-culture entities. He explained the illusion of a coherent material-culture horizon as an effect of the observer’s viewpoint, surveying an archaeological horizon within a limited geographical region; always discovering a mosaic of cultural traits which may appear, at first glance, to represent a coherent unit, but which necessarily fade from view at the spatial and temporal margins.

24Looking more closely at the disparities that occur between society and material culture among hunter-gatherers, it is common to find that coherent lithic traditions are widespread, while other material manifestations are nested within their overall extent as clusters of smaller, neighbouring culture zones. This happens, for example, in the Natufian culture, where we find several discernible art traditions located within a fairly homogeneous lithic tradition (Major 2018), and the same may be said for bone artefacts (Stordeur 1988). This multilayered pattern is also seen in recent social systems. Some scholars challenge the effectiveness of the PPNB term (Watkins 2008) or see such significant variability between sites that a unitary cultural label is rendered suspect (Finlayson and Makarewicz 2013).

25Parallel commentary to this discussion has been explored to probe the relations of material culture to society in the dispersal of another great Neolithic cultural entity—the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture. The LBK was the first farming culture to spread across central and Western Europe (Vander Linden 2011). Its material constituents are more standardised than those of the PPNB, and although the LBK existed in a relatively short time frame, it exhibits a clear chronological dispersal from east to west.

26Whittle neatly sums up the many agents that might have led to the LBK spread (which are all relevant to the case of the PPNB). He conjectures that they might have involved a “mosaic of kinds of transition: a major demographic incursion here, something more filtered and piecemeal there, and a case or two perhaps of leapfrogging, to be set alongside and integrated with transfers and adoption of practice through existing networks and among existing populations, rapid changes as the outcome of welcomed change in one area, and slow alterations as the result of prolonged resistance or indifference in another” (Whittle 2007: 622).

27I have been interpreted as saying that the EPPNB expansion was a simple matter of a ‘PPNB people’ who came south (e.g., Belfer-Cohen and Goring-Morris and 2010; Rokitta-Krumnow 2019). I have indeed discussed group movements in relation to ‘culturogenesis’, triggered by the arrival of émigré groups within a dominant society (Edwards 2004). And I do think it is likely that in part, the PPNB dispersal involved movements of various indeterminate communities. Ortega and colleagues’ (Ortega et al. 2014) analysis has shown through the analysis of obsidian exchange networks that EPPNB obsidian exchange in the southern Levant was more complex than in the PPNA, probably involving distribution from a series of hubs, which may have involved reconfigured or new populations. Even so, I view the dispersal of the PPNB just as Whittle does the spread of the LBK, in terms of the actor behind the artefact; that is, as a complex and as yet indeterminate bundle of contingencies and agencies.

Polythetic Cultural Change through Time and its Implications for the Dispersal of PPNB Culture

28Turning to the temporal dimension of culture change, Clarke (1978) showed that material culture characteristically emerges and recedes in polythetic fashion, with various elements of a culture appearing piecemeal and disappearing at different times. This is how we should view the PPNB: as a complex of traits which appeared in a stepwise fashion, at different times and from various sources. Firstly, naviform core and blade technology appeared, deep within the northern PPNA. In the Late PPNA, it became located within the context of rectilinear architectural forms. Tanged projectile points were also added to the mix. The process of trait innovation and decline is a continuous one. The PPNB, like all archaeological cultures, is always ‘coming into being’. But from our vantage point of elapsed time, there is a horizon on which it appears to have stabilized as a stable entity.

29Discussions about the introduction of the EPPNB in the south have tended to revolve around the introduction of specific items, such as Helwan points. The actual situation is that there are usually suites of different points accompanying the Helwan types. After Clarke’s explication of the importance of lenticular time trends, this kind of analysis was introduced into archaeological reportage in the early 1970s, notably by MacNeish in his construction of successive phases of the Tehuacán Valley sequence in Mexico (MacNeish et al. 1972). Oddly enough, and especially given all of the careful retrieval and quantitative enumeration of lithics that have become staple approaches among excavators of the Neolithic in the Near East, such an approach has never really taken off in the region. Gopher (1994) remains the key scholar to attempt a quantitative estimate of EPPNB culture element changes on a pan-Levantine basis, and his results have been telling. This fact, and the degree of temporal change through time, became evident through Gopher’s (1994) comprehensive analysis of PPN projectiles. From the more recently excavated sites, it is critical for our investigation that we demonstrate proportional change in types through successive layers and sites.

30Updated, further such analyses would give us a pattern of relative change by which we might get ‘inside’ the broad time ranges imposed by the radiocarbon calibration curve. The embrace of this task would constitute an important doctoral thesis (perhaps at this stage beyond the reach of a single individual). And in terms of portable material culture, its accomplishment would more or less solve the debate about the introduction of the PPNB into the South. The piecemeal introduction and rise of cultural traits are a consistent tendency in the archaeological record. One suspects that is more than just a matter of the mixing of archaeological horizons. A potential behavioural basis for the process is investigated in the following section.

The ‘Bow-Wave’ Effect in Cultural Dispersals

31Perhaps the most pertinent example of the polythetic introduction of PPNB traits is the iconic Helwan point. Its time-transgressive nature underscores the difficulty of using this material item as a temporal benchmark. In other words, it was adopted successively later while moving further away from its origin point. It appears progressively later in a southerly direction (as does naviform core technology and rectilinear architecture). The southern dispersal of this type reached Jabal Qattar 101 in the Arabian Peninsula, where it appears ca. 7500 BP/6418–6380 cal. BCE, millennia after its disappearance in the Euphrates Valley (Crassard et al. 2013; Petraglia et al. 2020). It apparently did not penetrate much further south in Arabia, since the more or less contemporaneous site of Wadi Sharma 1 in the Hijaz has purely Middle and Late PPNB types, such as Byblos points (Fujii et al. 2021). The Helwan point is instructive for understanding cultural processes. However, as a guide to understanding the advent of the PPNB farming village, the Helwan point becomes increasingly irrelevant as it travels further east and south.

32The oblique time boundary between the northern and southern Levantine PPNB facies gives rise to the possibility of isolated northern EPPNB elements being introduced to southern peoples still producing PPNA cultural forms. Northern transfers might have arrived by intermittent cultural transfers, or by direct exchange. We know that contacts were maintained between the north and the south during the Late PPNA, as attested by low-level obsidian exchange. Perhaps then, interesting novelties such as Helwan points arrived with visitors, or passed through hands to get there.

33This scenario resembles the so-called ‘bow-wave’ effect in cultural dispersal, where minor exports from a culture area are distributed outside it before major cultural exports of that entity move (Mellars 2005). It is also a mechanism argued for the earliest colonisation of islands in southeast Asia and Australia, leading to deliberate ocean voyaging in the Pleistocene (Allen and O’Connell 2020). These authors argue that forays into the margins around a home range are far from being a matter of accident, personal whim, or the meanderings of disoriented individuals. They see them instead as purposeful, exploratory radiations. Many hunter-gatherer groups actively and continually probe the perimeters of their regular territories in order to gauge their utility and available resources. In this way, features or cultural elements may be introduced to neighbours in ‘forward’ areas, ahead of the main movement of a society.

  • 3 Richter T. 2020 – Natufian to PPNA–what’s the difference? Paper presented to the Points of Contenti (...)

34Richter3 has raised the possibility that isolated PPNB lithics such as Helwan points found in the Late PPNA phases of Shubayqa 6 might have resulted from contacts with contemporaneous EPPNB cultural groups to the north. In other words, Shubayqa 6 existed in a PPNA cultural milieu at the same time as the EPPNB had commenced in northern Syria, and Shubayqa 6 is notably distinguished by its long-range contacts. It gained access to many materials from distant regions to the south, west and north, such as copper ore, marine molluscs and obsidian (Yeomans et al. 2021). There is also a single, tanged and pointed Helwan point in the sealed Late PPNA deposits at ZAD 2, without any other hint of naviform blade core debris. Perhaps it arrived by the same means as the six small fragments of Anatolian obsidian present at the site.

Cultural Entanglement

35Traditional anthropological theory held that societies in contact underwent a kind of straightforward mixing or ‘acculturation’ of cultural elements. Or a dominant society might expunge traits of a submissive one and supplant them with its own cultural repertoire (Redfield et al. 1936). Or else, a society subject to external cultural influence might repudiate it completely. Thomas’ (1991) investigation of material exchanges between European explorers and Pacific Islanders in the nineteenth century upended this orthodoxy. In his book, Entangled Objects, Thomas explained how indigenous Pacific Island societies exercised creative agency in deciding which of the offerings from the technologically advanced West they might integrate into their own cultures (note that Thomas’ use of the term ‘entanglement’ differs from its subsequent utilisation by Hodder [2012], who was more concerned with the mutual interdependence of tools and devices in technological systems). Used in the way that Thomas does, the phenomenon of entanglement has been variously described as ‘transculturation’, ‘ethnogenesis’, ‘creative transformation’, ‘creolization’ and ‘pidgin culture’, and as ‘culturogenesis’.

36Material culture systems are prone to bifurcate continually as a result of intersocietal contact. The process is evident in the modern world, which has witnessed an unprecedented number of ethnic and social transfers to new regions. New creative cultural forms are seen in the appearance of novel musical forms, new linguistic argots and in the productions of novel cuisines. In particular, these novelties arise when émigré communities are embedded in dominant host societies. Archaeologically, the process has been demonstrated for various times and regions, for example for Archaic Greeks in South Italy (Papadopoulos 2002), and the new cultural products which resulted from the encounters of Romans with European tribes (Dietler 1998; Hedeager 2000).

37A striking example is the reconfiguration of European muskets by Solomon and Marquesan Islanders (Thomas 1991: 104–106). Traded guns were modified by engraving and inlaying their stocks with nacreous shells, thereby converting them into high-status clubs with an entirely different function. Received objects can also be reconceived without physical alteration. Pressure-flaked Kimberley points, used generally as utilitarian hunting armatures by Indigenous hunter-­gatherers in north-western Australia, increased in value as they were traded progressively to the south. Having reached Mount Davies in South Australia over 3,000 km away through down-the-line exchange, they were then conceptually revalued by the Nakako people local to that area. The Nakako considered them as secret treasures critical for use in circumcision ceremonies. Ironically, these items had originated as the productions of distant strangers, but the Nakako took care to conceal them from outsiders (Akerman et al. 2002).

38Culturogenesis provides a context in which to consider the emergence of the earliest PPNB sites in the southern Levant. Belfer-Cohen and Goring-Morris (2010) have emphasised that PPNA societies in the southern Levant did not respond to a passive or neutral level with respect to incoming PPNB cultural practices. They had developed distinctive cultural and ritual forms of their own, which were then developed during the PPNB. The southern tradition of plastered and decorated skulls is a case in point. We might also be witnessing the phenomenon at Kharaysin, in the form of its elaborately notched Helwan points. Incoming projectiles of novel type may have been as intriguing to the peoples of the southern Levant as the fragments of bright green stone and shiny black obsidian that they took pains to collect.

Breaking Up the EPPNB into Sub-Regions

39There are two reasons why the ‘EPPNB’ taxon should no longer be usefully employed as a unitary term on a pan-­Levantine scale. The first is the marked disparity between its manifestations in various regions. It does not seem helpful to consider a small hunter-gatherer station in the arid reaches of South Jordan such as Harrat Juhayra 202 under the same kind of cultural label as the large substantial agrarian village of Motza in the Mediterranean west. This gives us the incentive to apply geographical determinatives to the names; for example, EPPNB—Jordan Valley, EPPNB—Jafr Basin, and so on. As a starting point, Gopher (1994) has already mapped out sub-regions for each period of the Levantine Neolithic.

40All the same, a valid objection to pulling apart the venerable PPNB taxon might run as follows: there is always the possibility that the people who settled in Motza dispersed into the arid Levant on hunting expeditions, and that they might be the same people who established stations such as Harrat Juhayra 202. Ethnographical examples show that this process of adaptation does occur. In the Deccan, agrarian villagers living in rectangular houses would disperse during dry periods to practise pastoralism and live in less substantial hamlets of round huts (Dhavalikar 1989). Archaeologists of Southwest Asian prehistory will be well-versed in these possibilities. The same situation led Bar-Yosef (1970) to propose recasting the smaller peripheral stations of the Natufian period as ‘Geometric Kebaran B’. It is interesting to note that this terminology did not catch on. Perhaps, again, this was because of the suspicion that, given the widespread lithic traditions that bind the proposed Natufian and Geometric Kebaran B cultures, different site types scattered across the Epipalaeolithic Levant might sometimes represent the same people.

41A second objection to continuing a single PPNB taxon is the concept of priority. It is mandatory in biological taxonomy to accord precedence to a type specimen from a locality, and once a term is conferred, derived organisms should always accord reference to the holotype (Brower and Schuh 2021). Thus, the EPPNB of the Euphrates Valley should ideally be distinguished due to its temporal priority—but then, we lack rigorous conventions of nomenclatural procedure in archaeology.


42Apart from Harrat Juhayra 202, and possibly Mushash 163, all of the EPPNB candidates excavated in the southern Levant appear around 9300 BP/8612–8491 cal. BCE, later than the genesis of the EPPNB in the Euphrates Valley. That is not to say that the Harrat Juhayra 202 results are unreliable. The more evidence we gain, the closer we get to the complexity of real-world situations. Together, Mushash 163 and Shubayqa 6 suggest initial penetration of EPPNB cultural traits carried or exchanged by hunter-gatherers through the eastern flank of the southern Levant. Overall, the southward thrust of the EPPNB begins to appear like a patchwork of advances. Excavation results indicate that the EPPNB was transmitted by both settled agrarian farming villagers and mobile hunter-­gatherers. It is evident then that groups with quite different subsistence and residential strategies adopted PPNB culture and transmitted it to the south.

43Most of the key archaeological sites relating to the debate about the arrival of the EPPNB in the southern Levant have only been excavated recently. And, for the most part, the details needed to decisively clarify the subject of introductions have not yet emerged from them. In the main, we do not yet have clear stratigraphic presentations with respect to context, and many key artefact types remain unattributed to specific stratigraphic layers. This is the kind of archaeological description that should be the norm, and when this level of recording and reportage is achieved, the EPPNB debate will be resolved. Then again, with the torrent of new research and the time demands upon excavators and researchers, it might take some time. An effective solution will also require the careful quantification of material culture elements, especially lithic types. While the focus on portable culture has so far been restricted to the presence or absence of new features and the date of their introduction, it is more likely that there was a gradual introduction of new features, in polythetic fashion. New projectile point types might be introduced and co-exist with older ones so that quantifying lithic categories according to fine stratification is essential. It will be useful for this kind of chronostratigraphic work to be done on a site-by-site basis, perhaps as a doctoral thesis (or several of them), and as a re-run of Gopher’s 1994 detailed study.

44Perhaps interest in EPPNB chronostratigraphy will wane in the future. The employment of isotopic fractionation techniques, proteomics and palaeogenetics increasingly tells us more about who inhabited the sites, where they came from, what they ate, and where their raw materials were sourced. In the wake of these new research trends, academic consideration of cultural labels like the PPN which are difficult to attribute to societal level may be sidelined. Such indifference would be a pity. It is important that each generation of archaeologists keeps a core interest in how cultural productions are generated and how cultural connections are formed. Archaeologists continue to use the PPNB taxon because they recognise its distinctive features and connections as real. They are not just imaginary or random. They have a deeper underlying meaning that is worth pursuing in ongoing enquiry.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in the Levant.
Légende Sites mentioned in the text are represented by white circles.
Crédits Map S. Gyngell
Fichier image/jpeg, 113k
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Phillip C. Edwards, « Innovations at the Margins: The Transmission of Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (EPPNB) Culture across the Levantine Interior »Paléorient, 49-2 | -1, 135-148.

Référence électronique

Phillip C. Edwards, « Innovations at the Margins: The Transmission of Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (EPPNB) Culture across the Levantine Interior »Paléorient [En ligne], 49-2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 25 mars 2024, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Phillip C. Edwards

Department of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University, Melbourne – Australia

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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