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Kebara Cave Mt Carmel, Israel: The Middle And Upper Palaeolithic Archaeology. Part I, eds Ofer Bar-Yosef And Liliane Meignen
American School of Prehistoric Research Bulletin 49, 2007. Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University. 288pp, 213 figs, pb ISBN 978-0-87365-55-8 (28.95/€34)

It is often said that Israel stands at a crossroads for the study of human evolution. Its geographical position between Europe, Asia and Africa, combined with a remarkable compression of ecological zones into a compact territory, has made it a prime area to investigate hominin dispersals and transitions. Central to these investigations have been the many excavations in the Mt. Carmel Caves, made famous by Dorothy Garrod seventy years ago. This present volume, the first in a series, reports on Mt Carmel’s southernmost cave at Kebara. Excavations began in the 1950s but were never reported in detail due to the untimely death of the excavator, M. Stekelis in 1968. The potential of the cave had however been demonstrated and fresh excavations, led by Ofer Bar-Yosef and Eitan Tchernov, were undertaken between 1982 and 1990. Their aims (page 33) were to shed light on the stratigraphy, dating, faunal and lithic collections as well as the spatial analysis of hearths and ash deposits. They were rewarded in 1983 with the bonus of the famous headless, but hyoid-happy, Neanderthal burial (not reported here by see Bar-Yosef et al. 1992).

This present volume sets out in commendable detail, through a number of interdisciplinary studies, the stratigraphy and geoarchaeological history of the site (led by Paul Goldberg and the late Henri Laville). Particular attention is paid to the analysis of the ash and hearth deposits (discussed by Liliane Meignen, Paul Goldberg and Ofer Bar-Yosef) combined with a salutary chapter on the impact of diagenesis on the archaeology in the cave (led by Steve Weiner). Plant (Rosa Maria Albert) and animal remains (John Speth and the late Eitan Tchernov) are reported in detail.

The result is a triumph of interdisciplinary, long-term research. Marrying up Stekelis’ extensive excavations with the campaigns of the 1980s has been achieved, although it was not easy since he had excavated the prime locations in the centre of the site. Goldberg’s work shows how the deposits within the cave are derived from both anthropogenic and geogenic processes and that their relative contribution has changed during the history of occupation. The cave presented a different preservation environment at various times; periods which could now be dated by TL to provide the first, tentative, absolute chronology for the region. The bulk of the report here is on the Late Mousterian with ensemble 2 forming a focus and spanning the period from 60,000 to 48,000 years ago.

The importance of understanding the geoarchaeological envelope is brought out in the study of diagenetic processes on hearths and bones. All too often it has been assumed that a cave environment is stable and that the anthropogenic contents of layers can be compared without correcting for their preservational history. Through the use of soil chemistry Weiner and his colleagues were able to show conclusively that areas without bones were as likely the result of dissolution in the soil as a shift in behaviour. Their conclusions (page 142) are important; that many short period of non-occupation occurred and that these resulted in very little sediment accumulation. The overwhelming view of continuous occupation at sites such as Kebara, based on the observation that artefacts are found in all layers, is therefore inaccurate. Moreover, the post-depositional alteration of hearths made it extremely difficult to separate out individual occupations. The Middle Palaeolithic occupations are therefore smeared contributing to the view that Neanderthals had no formal hearth arrangements with neatly zoned materials. But this was not the reality. The effects of diagenesis at Kebara have implications for the following (page 282) ‘sediment compaction, mineral transformation and dissolution of ashes, destruction and modification of bones, and alteration of radioactivity and dosimetry of the deposits’. The implications for all other cave excavations which have not considered such issues with the care they deserve are considerable.

But what do we learn of Neanderthals in this volume? They were efficient hunters (Speth and Tchernov) and they made and re-used hearths many times. If they were not presumed to be Neanderthals, which is always the problem when investigating a cross-road, then they could be accepted as Modern humans in many of their key spatial, seasonal and subsistence behaviours. While the detailed discussion will come in the next volume we have already been presented here with the data that tears up the roadmap to modern humans. Instead of poring over proxies for symbolic behaviour or arguing over the status of hunter vs. scavenger we need to turn instead to the thin sections of the soil micromorphologist and the analysis of minerals to discover how the attrition of time has been unkind in disproportionate ways to older hominins. Unwary archaeologists must read this report and change their ways. My only worry is that we will have to wait at least another generation for sufficient comparative data to emerge to be able to move the subject forward with any degree of certainty. So will Kebara in fact mark the end rather than the beginning of cave archaeology? Like the building of Gothic Cathedrals these caves projects now last longer than the lifespan of most individuals. That does not mean they should not be undertaken but their legacy needs to be understood.

Clive Gamble
Royal Holloway


Bar-Yosef, O., Vandermeersch, B., Arensburg, B., Belfer-Cohen, A., Goldberg, P., Laville, H., Meignen, L., Rak, Y., Speth, J.D., Tchernov, E., Tillier, A-M. & Weiner, S. 1992. The excavations in Kebara Cave, Mt Carmel. Current Anthropology, 33, 497–550

Review submitted: December 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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