Qesem Cave, the 420,000-Year-Old ‘School of Rock’ from Prehistoric Times

An accidental discovery of an ancient limestone cave has recently provided researchers with interesting insights into the prehistoric life of human ancestors. What’s special about the Qesem Cave is that, unlike other sites where severe cementation hampered studies, the animal remains are well-preserved along with artifacts such as the stone tools used by our distant ancestors. Apart from the animal remains, a total of eight teeth containing some traits of Neanderthals and anatomically modern man were also found. Here is more about the Qesem Cave and the glimpse it gives us into our past.

The Qesem Cave is a limestone cave located in a western mountain ridge of Israel and was found in the year 2000 CE when its ceiling collapsed during road construction. The cave has been occupied for several millennia as long as 420,000 years ago.

Qesem Cave Location in Israel
Qesem Cave Location in Israel. Image Source: wikipedia

After the cave was found in October 2000, two rescue excavations were conducted in 2001. The Turonian limestone cave is located in between the Samaria Hills and the Israeli coastal plain 90 meters above sea level. The excavations revealed that the site is 7.5 meters deep, with the deposits such as stone tools and animal remains buried in two layers: the upper layer 4.5 meters deep, and the lower layer is 3 meters deep. Research in the past decade involving the dating of the burnt flints, speleothems (mineral deposits that form in limestone caves), and herbivorous teeth have established the beginning of the cave’s occupation to 420,000 years ago.

The cave is believed to have been used for butchering, as there are bones from 4,740 prey animals such as roe deer, wild pig, horse, aurochs, and even tortoise and rhinoceros. There is also evidence of the regular use of fire and a 300,000-year-old hearth where meat was cooked.

Qesem Cave
Qesem Cave. Image Source: wikipedia

The prey animals were mostly mammals with fallow deer bones accounting for 73 to 76 percent of the specimens found. Analysis of the bones showed signs of butchery, with meat and connective tissue cut off from the bone in a planned manner. Researchers believe that much of the hunting took place between late winter and early summer as there are no fetal bones or deer antlers. Among the bones found in the cave, between 10 to 36 percent of the identified ones show signs of burning, while unidentified ones show as much as 84 percent of fire damage. Such damage requires heat of at least 500° C. The hearth had layers of ash in it suggesting that several generations had used it. Burnt bones and flint tools used for carving meat were found nearby, which meant it had been used regularly.

The flint tools such as blades, end scrapers, burins, and backed knifes found at the site suggest sophisticated toolmaking skills. The flint is believed to have been collected from the surface or dug from shallow quarries.

Acheulean Handaxes
Acheulean Handaxes. Image Source: wikipedia

Researchers believe that the discovery of various types and shapes of flint tools in various parts of the cave meant that the space was organized into different rooms which were used for different functions. Among the tools that were found are blades, flakes, hammerstones, end scrapers, burins, naturally backed knives, Acheulian-type ax tools, and thick side-scrapers. There are also tools at various stages of manufacture. Some believe that the cave was also used as a school of sorts to pass on the skills from one generation to the other.

The fact that the bones of only specific parts of the animals are found suggest that the hunters ate the other parts while hunting and brought back the high-quality meat for butchering. It also meant that the meat was shared among the entire group.

A Painting of the Stone Age, by Viktor Vasnetsov
A Painting of the Stone Age, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Image Source: Viktor Vasnetsov

The hominins hunted cooperatively, and when they caught the animal they performed preliminary butchery before carrying the high-quality body parts back to the cave. The randomly oriented cut marks found on the bones at the cave suggest that both skilled and unskilled individuals were involved in the butchering process. Ungulate hunting or hunting of larger game was supplemented with tortoises. There is also evidence of fallow deer remains in the cave. Activities like this have persisted through millennia of human evolution and exist today in the form of butchering large animals for meat by modern humans.
[sources: Wikipedia, NationalGeographic]

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