At the Natufian site of Tall as Sultan in Jericho, British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon conducted extensive excavations during the 1950s. (Tall is an Arabic word that refers to a mound built up by successive human settlements; such mounds are found throughout the Middle East.) At Jericho, where the Natufians may have been attracted by a copious freshwater spring, Kenyon peeled back the history of the Holy Land layer by layer. Just above the Natufian levels she found extensive evidence for one of the earliest known farming communities, founded nearly 11,000 years ago, including a spectacular 25-foot-high stone tower and caches of human skulls with faces modeled in plaster. This was the dawn of what archaeologists call the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period, the most pivotal step that humans took on the road to civilization.
Beyond Jericho, the agricultural way of life spread quickly across the region; archaeologists have found ancient settlements in the Jordan Valley, on Mount Carmel, and in the Sinai desert. As the first farmers domesticated plants and animals and learned to store food for future use, their populations grew, and their societies became more complex and innovative. They invented pottery, and art and culture began to flourish.
This creative explosion can be seen most dramatically in the art of the Yarmukians, a culture that sprang up just south of the Sea of Galilee about 8,000 years ago. During the 1930s the Jewish settlers who founded the kibbutz Shaar HaGolan, on the banks of the Yarmuk River, began plowing up dozens of spectacular clay figurines and sherds of pottery incised with zigzag lines and decorated with red paint. The figurines, some of which depict seated women with elongated heads, may represent fertility goddesses; since the original discovery, more than 300 of them have been found at this one site. Later discoveries of typical Yarmukian pottery at sites such as Megiddo in northern Israel, Byblos in Lebanon, and nearly 20 other locations in the Holy Land suggest that the Yarmukian culture spread far and wide in the region.
About 6,500 years ago Middle Eastern farmers, already expert at making stone tools, began using metal for the first time, ushering in the Chalcolithic era, or Copper Age. In the Holy Land the signature Copper Age site is a 50-acre settlement called Tulaylat al Ghassul, overlooking the northeast shore of the Dead Sea, and the dominant culture of this region is known as the Ghassulian. Agriculture was firmly established and bountiful. Along with their staple crops of wheat, barley, and legumes, farmers began to grow olive trees. Their potters produced large ceramic jars in which to store olive oil and other products of the land. And with their new metallurgical skills, the Ghassulians fashioned superb copper ritual objects depicting the heads of rams, birds, and humans.
The Ghassulian culture lasted about a thousand years and then, for reasons that are not clearly understood, disappeared. It would not be the last time that a civilization rose and fell in the Holy Land. The region’s many river valleys made it a natural crossroads between Africa and Asia, and its peoples rarely, if ever, had the luxury of living in glorious isolation. In the early Bronze Age (during which copper was still the dominant metal), the Holy Land probably had cultural links with the city-states then arising in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Indeed, there is some evidence of Egyptian colonization of southern Palestine around this time, and by about 5,500 years ago the first great Sumerian cities of Mesopotamia, most notably Uruk, were in flower along the Euphrates River.