Published: November 2009
The Holy Land's Prehistory
In the Beginning
By Michael Balter

The Holy Land. For the world’s more than 3.5 billion Christians, Jews, and Muslims, these three words evoke a magical place, a wellspring of miracles from which the monotheistic principles of their great religions first flowed. Believers cherish this small parcel of earth—known in ancient times as the land of Canaan and today loosely defined as the region encompassing Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and parts of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt—as the stage upon which God revealed his word and where dramatic events of the Old and New Testaments were played out. Indeed, all three religions trace their heritage to the Patriarch Abraham, whom God commanded to go to Canaan with his wife, Sarah, promising him a "great nation."

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.

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.

Although full-blown urban civilization, which was fueled by agricultural surpluses, did not begin in the Holy Land, it soon took root here as well. Several hundred years after collapse of the Ghassulian culture, early Bronze Age urban centers sprang up at Megiddo, Jericho, Arad, Dan, Hazor, and dozens of other sites from north of the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea in the south and from the Mediterranean coastal plain to well east of the Jordan River. Over the next 800 years, these towns grew into full-fledged cities, with fortified walls, temples, palaces, granaries, and sophisticated waterworks. The cities engaged in vibrant trade with neighboring regions, as evidenced by numerous examples of pottery typical of Holy Land sites showing up in the tombs of Egyptian kings. And they were important centers of the new religions that were sweeping across the Holy Land. At Megiddo, for example, archaeologists have excavated three massive temples from this period, possibly devoted to three different gods. The temple walls, six feet thick, sheltered long, broad halls, and statues of the deities may have stood on pedestals found just outside the entrances.

Then about 4,300 years ago civilization in the Holy Land collapsed again. The great cities were abandoned or destroyed. Some scholars blame the Egyptians, others have pointed the finger at nomadic tribes from Syria, and still others cite environmental factors or perhaps a combination of all these causes. Whatever the case, this dark interlude did not last long. Three hundred years later powerful new Bronze Age urban centers began to sprout again; some were located on the very ruins of the ancient settlements.

This was the age of the mighty Canaanite city-states, many of which are mentioned in the Bible and which some archaeologists argue were peopled by immigrants arriving from what is now Syria and Lebanon. The impressive fortifications and earthen ramparts excavated at Acre, Aphek, Megiddo, Hazor, and other sites testify to the wealth and power of these new cultures; so too do their elegantly designed pottery and their elaborate bronze tools and weapons.

Archaeologists have debated whether Abraham, patriarch of the three great religions, was a flesh-and-blood historical figure or a mythical character invented later by biblical writers. If he did exist, the best estimates would put him in Canaan right around this heady time, roughly 4,000 years ago, when the Holy Land was undergoing yet another resurgence as a major crossroads in the human journey. Thus it has been since the dawn of humanity, thus it remains today.