With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Aaron Stutz, Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz, and an interdisciplinary research team will conduct summer 2010 test excavations at the prehistoric cave site of Mughr el-Hamamah, Ajlun Governate, Jordan. Unknown to archaeologists until it was identified by a recent field survey in 2006, "The Caves of the Doves" was subsequently mapped - with any surface artifacts identified and collected - by Dr. Stutz and colleagues in 2008. A diverse assemblage of flint blades and points, along with tell-tale flint tool manufacturing waste, was found eroding out onto the main cave chamber and terrace surface. These artifacts provide the critical indication warranting intensive test excavations. The surface materials demonstrate the potential of buried, stratified archaeological layers dating from the Middle Paleolithic (250,000 - 50,000 BP [before present]), Upper Paleolithic (50,000-20,000 BP), and Epipaleolithic (20,000-12,000 BP) periods. In Southwest Asia this broad time range encompasses (in chronological order): the emergence of anatomically modern humans from Africa; the neandertals' southward expansion from Europe; the subsequent virtual disappearance of neandertal anatomy from the modern human pool of variation; the associated major expansion of anatomically modern humans - and the Upper Paleolithic societies they constituted - from the Southern Levant; and the long-term emergence of sedentary settlement, food storage, and horticulture. Excavations at Mughr el-Hamamah may help to explain how and why these major developments unfolded at the crossroads between Africa, Asia, and Europe. Located in only a preliminarily explored district of Jordan, Mughr el-Hamamah is well positioned geographically to yield a higher resolution understanding of the biocultural evolution of Homo sapiens.

Mughr el-Hamamah has only been subject to non-intrusive investigation. The 2010 test excavations, supported by the NSF program High Risk Research in Archaeology and Physical Anthropology, are designed to evaluate preservation and stratigraphy of prehistoric deposits at the site. If they prove substantial, the archaeological deposits from Mughr el-Hamamah have the potential to elucidate the biocultural evolutionary processes that shaped the emergence of modern human biological variation, while also structuring long-term trends in demography, social networks, and technology.

The broader impact of investigating Mughr el-Hamamah is twofold. First, the intellectual merit of investigating a new Paleolithic site in a geographically key region links to wider questions of contemporary concern: why has the genus Homo exhibited recurrent, long-term increasing impacts on our ecosystem, and how have demographic and cultural processes played a role in these impacts? Second, the proposed investigation of Mughr el-Hamamah is part of a long-term project to document and excavate cave and open-air sites in the Ajlun District, Jordan. The project will help to build local and regional support for cultural resource management and education in the Ajlun District and Jordan Valley areas of Jordan.

Project Report

Mughr el-Hamamah is a complex of caves in northern Jordan, overlooking the Jordan River Valley. The Emory University-based team of archaeologists and student volunteers received NSF funding to begin excavations at Mughr el-Hamamah in 2010. Initial survey and mapping had revealed later Paleolithic stone tools eroding onto the surface. There were certainly enough artifacts to indicate a site preserved below the surface. However, there were too few artifacts to indicate exactly which time periods might be represented. We could broadly suggest that, while the Upper Paleolithic period was definitely represented (ca. 50,000 - 25,000 Before Present), some of the material could date to the Middle Paleolithic (ca. 250,000-50,000 BP) or Epipaleolithic (25,000 - 12,000 BP). All of these periods are scientifically interesting because they encompass the period of evolution of anatomically modern humans and neandertals, the extinction of neandertals, the long-term growth of hunter-gatherer populations (including both anatomically modern humans and Neandertals), and -- with the Epipaleolithic -- the rise of sedentary hunter-gatherer settlement and the initial development of storage and, quite possibly, grain horticulture. Because erosion and modern disturbance by shepherds makes preserved cave sites very rare in northern Jordan, Mughr el-Hamamah represented an exciting opportunity to begin a new investigation into whatever aspects of these major prehistoric developments might be preserved at the site. The main findings from our initial test excavations are that, while much of the cave complex of Mughr el-Hamamah has been extensively affected by earthquakes, erosion and recent shepherd activity, there is an exceptionally rich pocket of Paleolithic deposits preserved inside of the main cave. The intact archaeological layer contains characteristic artifacts from the Early Upper Paleolithic period (broadly defined as ca. 50,000-35,000 BP). The recovered artifacts include flint endscrapers, burins, blades, and some rare retouched flint points. Also found were fragments of bone points or needles, some marine shells (one of which was possibly intentionally perforated to form a bead), and some isolated human teeth. The principal investigators emphasize that these are remarkable findings for two main reasons. First, the intact Early Upper Paleolithic layer exhibited excellent preservation of bone, fireplace features, and associated wood charcoal. It is unusual to find burial conditions for deposits 10's of thousands of years old that favor survival of so many key categories of archaeological evidence. The preservation of charred botanical remains may be especially important for reconstructing the ancient environment, while also providing insight into combustion, cooking, and plant food gathering technologies among Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Second, initial radiocarbon dates obtained on three chunks of wood charcoal associated with the well-preserved Early Upper Paleolithic deposits yield dates that fall into the calendar range of roughly 47,000-44,000 BP. If further analysis confirms these results, then the Early Upper Paleolithic of Mughr el-Hamamah is indeed the among the earliest Upper Paleolithic known in the region. Among sites dated with more recent accelerator mass spectrometry measurement of radiocarbon, only Kebara Cave in Israel has yielded such early dates for the earliest Upper Paleolithic. Our findings from the test excavations emphasize that there is much to be learned from the comprehensive analysis of the the animal bones, flint artifacts, hearth features, and other sources of information. Moreover, additional excavation promises to provide more complete, robust samples, of all of these key artifact categories. In terms of scientific knowledge, the initial findings from Mughr el-Hamamah are tantalizing. The early radiocarbon dates indicate the potential for learning about a key period in human prehistory. The transition from the Middle to the Upper Paleolithic is archaeologically defined mainly by a shift in technology for making stone tools. Quite rapidly (perhaps over a period of a few hundred or thousands of years, which is rapid on the scale of Paleolithic change), flint flake production shifts toward an emphasis on making long blades, hafted endscrapers and burins. While we may infer an increase in the amount of time and energy invested in using such tools to process hides, wood, and bone, it is not entirely clear why the change occurs. More dramatically, genetic and fossil evidence clearly indicates that the Upper Paleolithic, which begins in the Levantine region in which Mughr el-Hamamah is situated, is associated with a population spread of anatomically modern humans, along with an extinction of Neandertal anatomy. Mughr el-Hamamah is well situated to provide unique insight into how and why anatomically modern humans spread and replaced Neandertal anatomy in the Early Upper Paleolithic, a development that had biological and cultural effects across Eurasia after ca. 40,000 BP. In carrying out this work, the principal investigators were heartened to work enthusiastically with archaeologists and cultural resource management officers from the Department of Antiquities of Jordan in developing information and resources to identify and protect prehistoric cultural heritage.

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Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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Emory University
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