The “Levantine Aurignacian”; migration of a European population to the Near East during the Upper Palaeolithic

In this post we present information on the very interesting issue of the “Levantine Aurignacian”.

Carving of a horse with traces of ocher painting; 40,000-18,500 BP; from the Hayonim Cave, Aurignacian. Israel Museum (Jerusalem)

Carving of a horse with traces of ocher painting; 40,000-18,500 BP; from the Hayonim Cave, Aurignacian. Israel Museum (Jerusalem)

Abstract The Levantine Aurignacian is a unique phenomenon in the local Upper Paleolithic sequence, showing greater similarity to the West European classic Aurignacian than to the local Levantine archaeological entities preceding and following it. Herewith we highlight another unique characteristic of this entity, namely, the presence of symbolic objects in the form of notched bones (mostly gazelle scapulae) from the Aurignacian levels of Hayonim Cave, Lower Galilee, Israel. Through both macroscopic and microscopic analyses of the items, we suggest that they are not mere cut marks but rather are intentional (decorative?) human-made markings. The significance of this evidence for symbolic behavior is discussed in its chrono-cultural and geographical contexts. Notched bones are among the oldest symbolic expressions of anatomically modern humans. However, unlike other Paleolithic sites where such findings were reported in single numbers, the number of these items recovered at Hayonim Cave is sufficient to assume they possibly served as an emblem of the Levantine Aurignacian.


Geographical location of Hayonim Cave (Lower Galilee, Israel); EUP sites with Levantine Aurignacian layers mentioned in the text. (1) Yabroud II, (2) Ksar Akil, (3) Manot Cave, (4) Hayonim, (5) Sefunim, (6) Raqefet, (7) El Wad, (8) Kebara, (9) El Quseir.

The Aurignacian is one of the Upper Paleolithic (UP) traditions whose origins, definition, and diffusion are among the most debated topics related to modern human colonization of Eurasia. Far from being a homogenous entity, the Aurignacian grosso modo features a wide range of diversity, both diachronically (e.g., the Proto-Aurignacian, Early Aurignacian, and Evolved Aurignacian in Europe) and within each facies.

According to the latest radiocarbon dates, the Levantine variety, termed “Levantine Aurignacian,” seems, at least in part, contemporaneous with the European Evolved Aurignacian. Still, linking the Levantine Aurignacian with any particular phase of the European Aurignacian facies is rather problematic, as, in fact, it shares certain features with both the Early Aurignacian and the Evolved Aurignacian. Those relate to the lithic techno-typology and the bone and antler industry.

The West European Aurignacian complex is quite well known vis-à-vis its lithic and bone industries and personal ornaments. Its chronology, although frequently debated, is currently based on absolute dating and relative dating (i.e., stratigraphy) as well as on comparisons of the material remains, mostly lithic techno-typology. The Levantine Aurignacian has been defined mainly on the basis of the techno-typological characteristics of the lithics, e.g., nosed and frontal carinated items, retouched bladelets (Dufour), and el Wad points, among others, and on the basis of a rich bone and antler industry. Thus far it has been reported from cave and rock-shelter sites in the Mediterranean Zone (e.g., Hayonim, Kebara, Ksar Akil, Manot, Sefunim, el Wad, Yabrud) with only rare occurrences in bordering regions (e.g., el Quseir, in the Judean desert). Considered to be of a relatively short duration (between ca. 37/8–34/5 ka cal. BP), it interrupts a sequence of what is considered as locally evolved archaeological entities. We would like to suggest yet another characteristic feature, namely, a specific symbolic marker, pertaining to ritual dynamics which lie at the core of human self-definition as a group, society, or culture.

Evidence pertaining to human symbolic behavior in Europe dates from 40 ka onwards, with that from Aurignacian contexts being rather prominent. Conversely, evidence of a symbolic nature from the Levantine UP is rather scarce.

The Aurignacian symbolic manifestations, namely personal ornaments as well as graphic, mobile, and stationary art, of Eurasia seem to show a significant variability on a continental scale. Indeed, Aurignacian groups do exhibit a broad similarity of graphic expression; however, at the same time, regional-specific characteristics do occur. Characterizing these diverse entities is thus crucial to understand the dynamics of the interrelationships between them, whether reflecting kin-ties or diachronic trends.

It is interesting to compare the diversity observed in the notched bones of the European Early Aurignacian with the uniformity of the Levantine Aurignacian ones. The diversity of the European items is evident in the type of raw material used, the animal taxa selected, the anatomical elements employed, and the types of decorated objects. The notched pattern is documented on bone, antler, and ivory pieces deriving from reindeer, red deer, bovid, and mammoth. The anatomical elements include antler beam, mammoth tusk, teeth, a hyoid, a rib, a metapodial, and other unidentified limb bones. Notches occur on antler and bone splinters, on personal ornaments (e.g., elongated bone pendants), and on domestic tools such as polishers (lissoirs).

Contrary to the European evidence, the Levantine Aurignacian assemblage of notched bones displays evident homogeneity.

While teeth were exhaustively exploited by the European Early Aurignacians, the notched gazelle scapulae and hyoid clearly constitute a particularity of the Levantine Aurignacian. These items were modified by a specific technique which included preparatory scraping of the surface before the meticulous notching. Such bone modification is barely known from Europe, where it was applied only in the production of polishers, items which are rare in the Levantine Aurignacian.

The Levantine Aurignacians shared with their European counterparts some similarities regarding different spheres of existence involving bone and antler productions. Thus, they shared similar complex technical concepts of antler working as opposed to the simpler bone-working technological concepts and had in common a recurrent but limited variety of morpho-types (mainly awls and projectile points).

Despite certain correspondences between the Early European Aurignacian and the Levantine Aurignacian, these two entities display some idiosyncrasies. It seems that, in contrast to the European Aurignacian facies, which represent a longer temporal sequence and a wide geographic spread and thus exhibit greater variability in their techno-complex, the unique and unified phenomenon of the notched bones reflects on both the homogeneity of the Levantine Aurignacian and the possibility of strong ties between its various communities; perhaps reflecting its limited geographic spread and its relatively short-lived presence in the region.

[Source: “Symbolic emblems of the Levantine Aurignacians as a regional entity identifier (Hayonim Cave, Lower Galilee, Israel)”, by José-Miguel Tejeroa et al., 2018]

Aurignacian Culture incised animal bones, Hayonim Cave, 28,000 BP.

Aurignacian Culture incised animal bones, Hayonim Cave, 28,000 BP.

The Upper Palaeolithic in the Near East begins c. 48 k cal BP, with the shift to the Epi-Palaeolithic at c. 23 k cal BP, roughly coinciding with the onset of the LGM. The Levantine Epi-Palaeolithic is divided into Early, Middle and Late phases, the latter represented by the Natufian complex (c. 14.5–11.5 k cal BP).

While the fossil evidence is almost nonexistent, there is wide-spread consensus that the beginning of the Near Eastern Upper Palaeolithic corresponds with the advent of modern humans and thus represents the first undoubted link in the great chain of modern human presence in the region. The beginning of the Epi-Palaeolithic witnesses a marked increase in the tempo of cultural change, culminating in the transformation from mobile foragers to sedentary, incipient agriculturalists. It is, of course, not clear whether the archaeologically defined entities do indeed reflect discrete ethnic groups. However, cognitive and ethnographic studies provide support for this contention.

The term “Aurignacian” came to globally designate virtually all early Upper Palaeolithic industries. More recently, it transpired that liberties have been taken in order to accommodate within this taxon industries that included few, if any, of the original characteristics, justified by differences stemming from different environmental backgrounds, admixtures of local traditions and so on. This was compounded by diverse interpretations as to the meaning of what constitutes the “classic” definition of the Aurignacian.

During the 1968 “Ksar Akil conference” it was decided (by broad consent) to incorporate all pre-LGM Upper Paleolithic variants in the Levant under the term “Levantine Aurignacian”, enumerating the specifics of the particular characteristics of each stage – that is, the division of the Lebanese sequence into “Levantine Aurignacian A”, “B” and “C”. Notwithstanding the subsequent definition of a quite separate and distinct Upper Palaeolithic strand (the Ahmarian), the problem of coupling the Early Upper Paleolithic with the “Aurignacian” still hovers over much of Europe and the Near East. While in the Levant the uncoupling of this automatic association has been underway for sometime, this is not the case elsewhere in the Near East and farther afield.

The geographic distribution of the Levantine Aurignacian is restricted to a few cave and rock shelter sites within the Mediterranean zone, for example, el-Wad, Kebara, Raqefet, Hayonim, Ksar Akil and Yabrud. While the available C14 dates are quite dispersed, it is more likely to reflect merely a brief incursion into the region, most probably from Europe via Anatolia. Indeed, the dates are later than those available in central/western Europe; it was thus briefly contemporaneous with the Early Ahmarian, which continued to develop in the steppic regions. Occupations are quite limited in scope, such as that in Hayonim Cave, where it was located in a depression, with a few hearths accompanied by a “kitchen midden”. The technological attributes of the Levantine Aurignacian chipped-stone industry are quite complex in that, while most tool blanks are made on blades and, to a lesser degree, (twisted) bladelets, the vast majority of the debitage items comprise flakes. The tool assemblages include classic Aurignacian features (in the sense of “Aurignacian I” of Western Europe), that is, nosed and shouldered carinated items on flake blanks, Dufour bladelets, scalar retouched items and a rich bone and antler industry including bi-points. Two split-base points, a hallmark of the Early Aurignacian in Western Europe, were reported from Kebara and Hayonim caves. The bone/antler points seem to have replaced the stone points of the Ahmarian. Other unique finds were two engraved limestone slabs at Hayonim, and numbers of pierced pendants on teeth of medium-sized mammals.

[Source: “The Upper Palaeolithic and Earlier Epi-Palaeolithic of Western Asia”, by Belfer-Cohen, A. and A. N. Goring-Morris, Cambridge World Prehistory, 2014]


Distribution map of Aurignacian sites in the Levant

The Levantine Aurignacian is known only from cave sites. Open-air sites are as yet not known in the Levant, which raises issues of territoriality, preservation, and visibility (e.g., sites buried under the alluvium), that are often ignored, but should serve as worthy topics for future research.

The Levantine Aurignacian was originally defined on the basis of the same typological criteria as in Europe, namely frequencies of nosed and carinated scrapers, which often outnumber burins, the presence of Dufour bladelets, and the el-Wad points.

The Levantine Aurignacian entity was relatively rich in bone and antler tools as compared with preceding or succeeding entities. Two split-base points, the hallmark of the Early Aurignacian in western Europe, were reported from Kebara and Hayonim caves.

Although the detailed sequence of the Levantine Aurignacian was not yet examined in depth, we note that in Kebara cave, an assemblage similar to the ‘Levantine Aurignacian A’ of Ksar ‘Akil was identifi ed in Units I–II, overlaying Early Ahmarian assemblages. These ‘Aurignacian’ assemblages are characterized by a mixed industry of flake and blades, with carinated and nosed endscrapers, retouched Dufour bladelets, and one split-base point, a European guide fossil of the Aurignacian I. A similar lithic assemblage was reported from Hayonim cave (layer D). There was also quite a rich worked bone and antler industry including yet another split-base point. A unique find were two engraved limestone slabs. One bears a series of fine incisions and the other depicts an incised horse.

The few dates of the Levantine Aurignacian range between c. 36/34–28/27 ka cal BP, but probably additional dates will shorten this timespan.

When compared to the long persistence of the laminar Ahmarian industries in the region (42/38–18 ka cal BP), the Levantine Aurignacian sensu stricto is a short-lived archaeological phenomenon. It justifies earlier proposals to interpret the presence of the Aurignacian in the Levant as evidence for a small population migrating from south-eastern Europe (and possibly Anatolia) into the Levant. The bearers of this industry survived only in the Mediterranean vegetational belt and did not dare to penetrate into the steppic lands where the makers of other industries were present, as for example Late Ahmarian ones. This observation lends further support to the proposal to see the classical Aurignacian as a culture that developed in western Europe and not in the eastern Mediterranean, the Zagros, the Caucasus, or Central Asia.

Aurignacian assemblages, similar to those known from western Europe, were recovered from cave and rockshelter contexts, such as Ksar ‘Akil, Hayonim, el-Wad, Kebara, Sefunim, Yabrud II, and Rakefet. We should stress that these assemblages include bone and antler tools with at least two split-base points, and pendants made of deer teeth. The two incised slabs from Hayonim cave should be added to the list of cultural traits that make the correlation between the Levantine Aurignacian and its European ‘mother’ culture a sound one.

[Source: “The Levantine Upper Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic”, by Ofer Bar-Yosef, Anna Belfer-Cohen, 2010]


Manot Cave and other Upper Paleolithic sites in North Israel

The Upper Palaeolithic period in the Levant is divided into three chronological stages: Initial (IUP), Early (EUP) and Late (LUP). While the Initial stage is the interphase between the Middle and the Upper Paleolithic periods, it was during the EUP that modern human populations fully established themselves in the region. The EUP consists of two techno-complexes, the local Ahmarian tradition, and the Levantine Aurignacian, conceived as an intrusive culture from Europe.

Recent excavations at Manot Cave in western Galilee, Israel, have exposed rich Ahmarian and Aurignacian remains. The Ahmarian remains were found at the center of the cave superimposed by Aurignacian layers. They are characterized by long and narrow uni-and-bidirectional blades produced by soft hammer percussion. The tools consist of retouched blades, end scrapers and burins on blades and el-Wad points. These have been radiocarbon dated to 46-42 ka cal BP (68%). The Levantine Aurignacian remains, currently the dominant techno-complex at Manot, were recorded at the entrance and center of the cave. Distinctive finds include carinated and nosed end scrapers, Aurignacian blades, curved-twisted bladelets and antler spear points. The radiocarbon ages of the Aurignacian layers at the entrance and center of the cave range from between 39-33 ka cal BP (68%). The EUP at Manot is represented by faunal, botanical and shell remains. The faunal assemblages consist of large-medium (ungulates) and small (birds and reptiles) game. The charred/wood remains comprise species indicating a Mediterranean forest environment. Notably, a relatively fair amount of sea shells were recovered from the EUP contexts, some were used as personal ornaments and others consumed as food. The EUP sequence at Manot starts with the Ahmarian, followed by a repetitive Aurignacian exploitation of the cave until ca. 30 ka, which is the estimated time of the collapse of the cave entrance.

The EUP at Manot Cave represents a time span of ca. 15 thousand years (46-33 ka Cal BP) in which the cave was inhabited by humans. The earliest EUP entity at Manot is Ahmarian. Although this has not yet been exposed at the entrance, it is well represented in the inner parts of the cave (Areas A, C, & D). Ahmarian lithic assemblages are plentiful, as are the faunal and shell assemblages. Thus it is reasonable to assume that the Ahmarian occupation of the cave was quite intense.

During Aurignacian times, occupation of the cave was probably even more intense than in the Ahmarian, as attested by the overall thickness of the archaeological accumulations (>2 m) at the cave entrance and in the inner parts.

The intense nature of the settlement at Manot, in contrast to the less dense occupations of Kebara, Hayonim and Raqefet, suggests that Manot was a major Aurignacian site (possibly a base camp) in the region.

The more recent occupations of Manot correspond with Post-Aurignacian in respect of lithic industries with a low Aurignacian index and a higher bladelet component. The Post-Aurignacian layers are sparse and are separated from one another by sterile sediments. Thus, it would seem that during the Post-Aurignacian period the cave was occupied for shorter intervals, and possibly only at the cave entrance.

As for today, Manot is one of the very few UP sites in the Levant with a sequence that includes both the Ahmarian and Aurignacian. The only other two known sites are Kebara Cave and Ksar Akil with its long UP sequence.

Even though the archaeological findings at the base of the talus are complex and difficult to interpret, at this point, their stratigraphic sequence is in distinct chronological order (confirmed by 14C and U-Th results).

The absolute dates clearly show that this mass, which has gradually accumulated over time, is still in the order in which it occurred. The lower Ahmarian accumulations date to 46-42 ka, and the upper Aurignacian ones to 39-33 ka.

Aurignacian artifacts at Manot seem to correspond with those at Ksar Akil VIII-VII Phase 5, Hayonim D, and possibly Raqefet III. The presence of antler points, bone and shell ornaments, with lithic assemblages yielding a relatively high Aurignacian index, indicate strong contact between these sites and distinguishes them from the Ahmarian ones. Such recognition has led to the proposition that the Levantine Aurignacian did not evolve from local Ahmarian traditions, but instead originated somewhere else in Europe.

[Source: “The Early Upper Paleolithic Period at Manot Cave, Western Galilee, Israel”, by Omry Barzilai, Marder Ofer, Israel Hershkovitz, 2016]


Characteristic tools of the Levantine Aurignacian, Atlitian, and Arqov/Divshon entities in the southern Levant

The technological attributes of the Levantine Aurignacian lithic industry are rather complex; while most tool blanks are blades and, to a lesser degree, (twisted) bladelets, the vast majority of the debitage items consists of flakes. The tool assemblages include classic Aurignacian features (in the manner of the Western European ‘Aurignacian I’): frontally nosed and shouldered carinated items on flake blanks, Dufour bladelets, scalar retouched items, and a rich bone and antler industry including bi-points at Hayonim, Kebara, and Manot caves. Two split-base points, a hallmark of the Early Aurignacian in western Europe, were reported from Kebara and Hayonim caves. The bone/antler points may correspond to the flint points of the Ahmarian.

Other unique finds were two engraved limestone slabs at Hayonim, and numbers of pierced pendants on teeth of medium-sized mammals. There are indications at Hayonim D that raptor remains may have been utilized, perhaps in symbolic contexts.

[Source: “The Upper Palaeolithic in Cisjordan”, by Adrian Nigel Goring-Morris & Anna Belfer-Cohen, 2017]

Aurignacian Culture bone tools (needdle, points and tools for punching holes), Hayonim Cave, 30,000 BP.

Aurignacian Culture bone tools (needdle, points and tools for punching holes), Hayonim Cave, 30,000 BP.

To date, no IUP has been reported from the Zagros-Taurus arc, in contrast to the Levant, where numbers of sites have been described, e.g. Boqer Tachtit, Ksar ’Akil, Uçagizli, Emireh, Tor Sadaf, amongst others. The IUP in the Levant demonstrates clear techno-typological affinities with the Middle Palaeolithic. By contrast, in the Zagros region there appears to be a significant hiatus throughout the region that extends northwards to the Caucasus.

It can be stated that the initial development of the Early Upper Palaeolithic in the Near East, and especially in the Levant, is geared towards blade/let based industries with affinities to the Ahmarian.

The Levantine ‘Aurignacian’ appears later in the Near East than in Europe and it differs significantly in terms of technology and typology (as well as in other realms of material culture) from both the Ahmarian phases that precede and postdate it.

It seems that the Upper Palaeolithic in the Levant was much more dynamic than assumed previously. Studying it from a local perspective, traditions spread through and out of the Levant beginning very early in the UP sequence, e.g. the ‘Ahmarian’, while other traditions intruded upon the Levant, e.g., the Levantine Aurignacian phenomenon.

The dynamics of earlier Upper Palaeolithic developments involved not just dispersions from points of origin, but also multi-dimensional interactions, influxes and movements back and forth.

[Source: “On the Rebound – a Levantine view of Upper Palaeolithic dynamics”, by Anna Belfer-Cohen & A. N. Goring-Morris, 2012]


(A) View of the cave showing Area C. (B) Archaeological layers attributed to the EUP cultures in the cave. (C) Map of northern Israel showing the location of Manot Cave

Abstract This study presents the dental remains discovered at Manot Cave (MC), Western Galilee, Israel. The cave contains evidence for human occupation during the Early Upper Paleolithic period (46-33 ka) mainly of Early Ahmarian (~46-42 ka) and Levantine Aurignacian (~38-34 ka) cultural levels. Six teeth (three deciduous and three permanent) were found at the site, of which four could be thoroughly analyzed. The morphology of the teeth was qualitatively described and analyzed using traditional and geometric morphometric methods. A large comparative sample was used in order to assess the morphological affiliation of the Manot specimens with other Homo groups. The results provided equivocal signals: the upper first premolar (MC-9 P³) is probably modern human; the upper deciduous second molar (MC-10 dm²) and the upper second permanent molar (MC-8 M²) might be modern humans; the lower second deciduous molar (MC-7 dm2) might be Neanderthal. Owing to the small sample size and the almost total lack of distinctive characteristics, our outcome could not supply conclusive evidence to address the question of whether Manot Aurignacian population came from Europe or descended from the local Ahmarian population.

The earliest material culture in the Levant directly associated with modern human fossils is the Early Ahmarian, which commenced at ca. 46 ka. The Early Ahmarian is distributed throughout the Levant, both in the Mediterranean woodland as well as in arid regions.

The Levantine Aurignacian is restricted to the Mediterranean coastal region and found mostly in rock shelters and cave sites. Notable are simple and massive base projectile points made of antlers, along with tooth pendants and incised scapulae. The Levantine Aurignacian lithic industry is characterized by the presence of various tool types including flakes, massive blades and bladelets. The diagnostic flint tools include endscrapers (e.g., carinated, nosed, and flat), carinated burins, retouched bladelets as well as blades with Aurignacian retouch. The chronology of the Levantine Aurignacian was recently established on the basis of a series radiocarbon dates from Manot Cave as ranging from 38 to 34 ka.

As opposed to the abundant material culture remains, there are very few human fossils from the EUP period in the Levant, a fact that greatly limits our knowledge of the local population(s) and their association with other groups, including both Neanderthals and modern humans.

Complex mixture of modern H. sapiens and Neanderthal dental (and skeletal) traits is not unique to the Manot Cave EUP populations. This condition has been reported for several other EUP populations, both in the Levant and in Europe.

Since the Aurignacian culture in Europe predates its Levantine counterpart, it was long suspected that the Levantine Aurignacian culture is of European origin, brought by people migrating from Europe to the Near East ca. 38 ka.

Although the evidence for possible mixture of modern humans and Neanderthals at Manot Cave – a scenario reported for some EUP sites in Europe – may serve to support the above hypothesis, caution is required. First, the size of the dental sample is very small; second, other skeletal parts are needed to make such assertions, and third, alternative explanations are equally plausible.

We should also bear in mind that modern humans and hybrids between modern humans and Neanderthals could have also stayed side-by-side in the same area at the same time. An alternative explanation fitting the dental morphologies observed at Manot Cave is that some of these teeth represent hybrid individuals, probably with variable genetic modern human and Neanderthal contributions. Yet, due to the small number of teeth and the lack of distinctive characteristics, our data neither support nor reject the above claims and do not allow discerning between the possible scenarios.

[Source: “The dental remains from the Early Upper Paleolithic of Manot Cave, Israel”, by Rachel Sarig et al., 2019]

Mousterian & Aurignacian Cultures, stone burins used for incising stone and wood, Qafzeh, Hayonim, el-Wad Cave, 250,000-22,000 BP Israel

Mousterian & Aurignacian Cultures, stone burins used for incising stone and wood, Qafzeh, Hayonim, el-Wad Cave, 250,000-22,000 BP Israel

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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