Even those who do not take the scriptures literally recognize the Holy Land as a cauldron of ancient myths and real historical events that have indelibly marked the fate of humankind. Most of the cities named in the early passages of the Bible, such as Hebron, Beersheba, Gaza, and Jericho, were real places that still thrive today, and archaeologists have identified and excavated the ruins of dozens of other biblical sites. Today Christians, Jews, and Muslims struggle for their rightful place in this varied landscape of deserts and seas, rugged mountains and river valleys.
What made the Holy Land so pivotal in human history? The answer lies deep in humanity’s evolutionary roots, as early hominins left their homeland in East Africa and began colonizing the globe nearly two million years ago. Many anthropologists think they journeyed via the Great Rift Valley, a 4,000-mile-long gash in the earth that extends all the way to northern Syria and includes such geologic features as the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley, and the Sea of Galilee.
At the Jordan Valley site of Ubeidiya, for example, Israeli archaeologists have found stone tools about 1.4 million years old, and it is likely that the hominins who lived at Dmanisi in Georgia 1.8 million years ago—the oldest definite ancestral humans out of Africa—traveled this same route. At another Rift Valley site, 780,000-year-old Gesher Benot Yaaqov, in the Hula Valley, archaeologists found the earliest widely accepted evidence for human mastery of fire. And when members of our species, Homo sapiens, first ventured out of Africa roughly 100,000 years ago, they took shelter in the caves that honeycomb Israel’s highlands.
These early humans were hunter-gatherer nomads, for whom the Holy Land was a bountiful way station in their perambulations across the world. But when modern humans began putting down roots, it was here that they chose to make some of their first homes—attracted no doubt by the region’s mild Mediterranean climate, fertile soils, and numerous river valleys. Signs of this desire to settle down were found at the 23,000-year-old site of Ohalo II, on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, where humans built brush huts and gathered flowers and plants, including wild barley. About 8,500 years later, a mysterious, semi-sedentary people called the Natufians began to spread throughout modern-day Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, and Jordan, where they also lived in brush-hut villages, hunted gazelles, cultivated wild grains, and buried their dead in nearby cemeteries.