Twelve thousand years ago, long before the beginning of recorded history, a group of perhaps 200 people lived in a small village by a stream flowing into the Sea of Galilee, in what today is northern Israel. The villagers hunted gazelle and hares, fished for carp, built stone houses, and buried their dead in a cemetery next to their homes. When I hiked to the site early one morning, it was easy to imagine them: A few figures setting off with nets to the lakeshore, others walking toward the hills with bows and arrows to look for game, and more down by the riverbank, spinning thread or crushing barley, shooing children out of the way—a community waking up together and getting to work, unaware of their position at the dawn of a new age.

I came to the village with Leore Grosman, an archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We turned up a dirt track off the two-lane road that circles the Sea of Galilee. On the far shore, across five miles of placid water, lights in the city of Tiberias were blinking off. The sun wasn’t quite up, but the caffeine was kicking in. Grosman lit a cigarette and told me about herself in a gravelly voice. She started out studying math, then moved to Egyptology. She loved hieroglyphics. “But it’s a lot of sitting in libraries, and it’s a matter of personality,” she said. “I need to be outside.” She began digging here in 2010 with a feeling that the site, known as Nahal Ein Gev II, had something to say about a great change in the human story. She has returned each summer since.

Leore Grosman
Leore Grosman of Hebrew University directs excavations at Ein Gev. “What’s extraordinary is that we find things that later on would be ordinary.” Daniel Rolider
Research site at Nahal Ein Gev II
The research site at Nahal Ein Gev II. The ancient village, roughly a mile from the Sea of Galilee, stood for at least 200 years. It was abandoned about 12,000 years ago. Daniel Rolider

Her team of 30 arrived in work pants and sun hats from their quarters at a nearby kibbutz. At first light, they fanned out across the hill by the stream. Soon a few were squatting in the remains of a round house. Several diggers under the direction of Natalie Munro, an archaeologist from the University of Connecticut, were busy in the adjacent cemetery, brushing off an adult cranium and treading carefully around the skeleton of a 3-year-old. One team member set up a geolocation tripod that precisely locates every artifact on a grid. A PhD student looked for gazelle bones. The pace picked up as the sun rose, the same atmosphere of industry you might have sensed if you had come when the villagers were here 12 millennia ago.

Every summer this village yields a wealth of new artifacts that bring the place and its ancient residents more vividly to life. Grosman and her colleagues have found hundreds of flint sickle-blades bearing the telltale sheen of an implement used to cut stems, evidence that residents harvested plants. They found a stone-lined food-storage pit, about a yard across, suggesting the villagers were not only harvesting as needed but also managing surpluses. They’ve uncovered tools for spinning thread, little stone sculptures of people and animals, and lime plaster that required advanced technical knowledge to produce. While I was there, they found a flat granite stone that weighed 200 pounds and was used to grind grains, not the sort of thing that is easily moved—a sign of the permanence of this village. But the finds themselves are perhaps less striking than the fact that none of them is supposed to be here.

How did civilization come about? Why, after millions of years of hunting and gathering and wandering in small bands, did people settle down and begin to raise crops and animals, eventually creating governing hierarchies, organized religions, urban architecture and the other advances that led to the industrial and technological societies of today?

Scholars still debate how and why the shift occurred, but many point to a crucial change 10,000 or so years ago, when people living in the area of eastern Turkey or northern Syria identified useful mutations in grains and figured out how to raise the crops they wanted instead of just collecting whatever happened to grow. The domestication of plants meant higher yields, which meant more people could live together and plan their futures, leading to the first permanent villages and towns, then to administrations in charge of managing harvests, then to systems of writing, engineering, trade, kingdoms, empires, democracies, bureaucracies and the IRS. Because this transformational leap took place at least 5,000 years before the advent of recorded history, we can’t know with confidence exactly what happened.

The key moment of the “agricultural revolution” is sometimes described as a lightning bolt of human innovation akin to electricity or powered flight. It’s a good story. But at Nahal Ein Gev II, every dig season complicates it a little more. The village here flourished 2,000 years before the revolution got going, and the growing impression is of a place curiously ahead of its time—“a true turning point in human culture,” in the words of Steven Mithen, the eminent British prehistorian and author of After the Ice: A Global Human History.

We owe the discovery of the site to two friends wandering the area in the early 1960s. One was Dodi Ben Ami, who wasn’t a professional archaeologist but an autodidact working as a fisherman at nearby Kibbutz Ein Gev. When I met him, in the summer of 2022, he was 83, credited with discovering dozens of ancient settlements and recognized as an expert on prehistoric tools. He had a beard and craggy features that might not have looked out of place in a village of Paleolithic stonemasons. He died in November.

Dodi Ben Ami
Dodi Ben Ami discovered Nahal Ein Gev II in 1963. The self-taught archaeologist, an expert on prehistoric tools, located dozens of settlements. Daniel Rolider

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This article is a selection from the July/August 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

The young Ben Ami was fascinated by the history visible in the landscape around his kibbutz, the arrowheads and obscure ruins amid the banana trees. One day in 1963, he walked out past the banana orchards. He was with Ofer Bar-Yosef, an Israeli scholar who would eventually become a professor of prehistoric archaeology at Harvard University. Their eyes were drawn to a foxhole dug by Israeli soldiers who’d been laying ambushes to intercept infiltrators crossing the hostile border with Syria, which lay half a mile away. The soldiers had inadvertently dug an archaeological cross section, and inside was a remarkable accumulation of flint tools, layer upon layer. The foxhole wasn’t deep—barely big enough to provide cover for a crouching soldier. But it turned out to lead back 12,000 years.

Researchers mapped and probed the site a few times after that, but there was no rush to excavate. For archaeologists in Israel, prehistory has always taken a back seat to biblical archaeology—that’s where you find fame and funding. Digging began in earnest only in 2010, when Grosman arrived with Bar-Yosef, one of her mentors. “What got me excited about the place was location, location, location,” she remembered. It wasn’t just the stunning view of the Sea of Galilee to the west and the savanna-like plateau of the Golan to the east. It was the way the village seemed to have been purposely placed on a terrace over the stream, with what looked to her like agricultural terraces on either side, even though “agriculture” was still thought to be two millennia in the future. “That connected to my desire to show that there’s a change afoot here,” she said. “That they’re not just choosing a lovely place, but choosing a place where they can grow crops.”

A face carved into a stone the size of an avocado, found at Ein Gev in 2016. The abstract T-shaped brow and nose is common in the art of the Paleolithic people known as Natufians. Gabi Laron

Grosman was convinced the site belonged to a Paleolithic people known as Natufians, whose camps, caves and early settlements she had spent years studying elsewhere in Israel. The Natufians were first identified in 1929 by a British archaeologist named Dorothy Garrod, famous as the first woman to hold an archaeology professorship at the University of Cambridge. The name comes from Wadi en-Natuf, the riverbed near the cave where she made the discovery, northwest of the present-day Palestinian city of Ramallah. Garrod noticed that though Natufians predated humanity’s move to agriculture and sedentary life, and thus should have been hunter-gatherers, they seemed determined to disrupt the conventional script. She and her team found not only mortars and pestles that might have been used to grind grains, but also flint sickle-blades for reaping plants, and evidence suggesting they lived at some of their sites for much of the year.

Archaeologists following in Garrod’s footsteps established that the Natufian culture appeared in the southern Levant—the area of modern-day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian territories—about 15,000 years ago. They were linked by characteristic tools, particularly a small, half-moon-shaped flint blade called a lunate, barely a centimeter or two in length and apparently designed to be used as an arrowhead or embedded in a handle made of wood or bone. They also showed signs of the “intentional cultivation” of plants, according to Bar-Yosef, using a phrase that seems carefully chosen to avoid the loaded term “agriculture.”

Crescent-shaped flint blades known as lunates were likely used as arrowheads or embedded in a wood or bone handle. Daniel Rolider
A 12,000-year-old necklace strung with animal bone pendants and mollusk shells collected from the Mediterranean Sea. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge

Other characteristic markers included jewelry made of dentalium shells, brought from the Mediterranean or the Red Sea; necklaces of beads made of exquisitely carved bone; and common genetic characteristics like a missing third molar. Anna Belfer-Cohen, an authority on the era from the Hebrew University, has argued that their jewelry says something important about social change: For the first time, people were living not in family groups but in much larger societies. That may have led to a desire to differentiate themselves from their neighbors and signal their status, which is most easily done with clothing and ornamentation—a necklace of gazelle-bone beads, for example, or a headdress of shells. Such jewelry appears in Natufian settlements with a frequency not known earlier. Taken together, Belfer-Cohen writes, these findings suggest that Natufian culture “constitutes the first deviation from the traditional way of prehistoric living.”

The village that Grosman and her colleagues uncovered was larger and more advanced than any Natufian site previously excavated. It was inhabited for at least 200 years and dated to the period just before the Natufians, and the village itself, disappeared for reasons that still aren’t clear. It seemed almost too advanced to be Natufian at all, and some scholars argued that it had to date from the later Neolithic period: It featured stone houses and an orderly cemetery, and it was located on open ground, without any connection to caves, as was often true of earlier settlements.

But Grosman and her colleagues kept finding the telltale flint lunates in abundance, and carbon-14 dating of charcoal confirmed the site was inhabited 12,000 years ago or more. The village was clearly Natufian.

Map Triptych
Nahal Ein Gev II was settled roughly 12 millennia ago by the Natufians of the Paleolithic era, who apparently lived at the site year-round. Researchers have uncovered evidence of habitation spanning 200 years or more. Right, skeletons were excavated in 2022 from an area next to the village that served as a burial ground. Map: Guilbert Gates; Daniel Rolider

The archaeologists observed that residents built some of their homes according to a uniform plan, a circle with a small alcove jutting out identically toward the nearby stream, perhaps serving as a kind of entranceway. The structures were not haphazard but made of layers of heavy stone, indicating permanence: You don’t go to that kind of trouble if you’re leaving in a few months. Other finds further support the idea of year-round settlement. The bones of slaughtered young gazelles, for example, indicate habitation in spring, while the bones of carp show habitation in winter, when that fish is abundant. The team also found artworks, such as a striking, schematic human face with deep eyebrows, carved into a piece of limestone about the size of an avocado. They unearthed a smooth human figurine small enough to be held in the palm, a bowl carved from black basalt and decorated with a geometric pattern, and lovely green oval beads with two tiny, precise holes, one at each end.

Human teeth from Ein Gev’s cemetery—one of the world’s oldest. Its unique organization points to “a cultural system that deals with death,” Grosman says. Daniel Rolider
Chandler Houghtalin
The village was built on a hill beside a creek. Pictured, Chandler Houghtalin of the University of Haifa measures the slope’s elevation. Daniel Rolider

For reasons no one understands, the villagers manufactured several tons of lime plaster and used it to encase two or three dozen bodies in the graveyard, which is adjacent to the village-—one of the first known cemeteries in the world. The plaster would have made the burial ground gleam white, a unique and permanent feature in the landscape. As the University of Haifa archaeologist David Friesem explained in a detailed analysis, creating that amount of high-quality plaster would have taken many days of collecting, crushing, burning and refining limestone for each burial. The villagers obviously had technical knowledge and the capacity for organization. Moreover, they were investing in one place, the place where they lived and where their dead were buried. We might take this for granted, but it was a dramatic psychological change after millions of years of nomadism.

“When we talk about people in the Natufian period becoming more sedentary and less mobile, it’s not just about economics and settlement patterns, but about culture,” says Tobias Richter, a professor of prehistory at the University of Copenhagen. “At what point does a place become home? At what point do we develop emotions and attachments that are tied to a specific location?”

Many of the most important pieces of the puzzle from Nahal Ein Gev II emerge not at the site itself but a few hours’ drive south, in Jerusalem, in two rooms at the Hebrew University known as the Computational Archaeology Laboratory. Here Grosman and her colleagues subject their findings to study in disciplines ranging from paleobotany to zoology and lithic analysis. In one room is a large worktable where I found a few doctoral students staring intently at laptops beneath walls of shelves holding boxes with labels like “Gadi’s Mandibles.” (The box was full of Neanderthal jaws.) The other room is equipped with computers running software of the lab’s own design, including a program called Artifact 3D, which renders a scanned object into a matrix of millions of points that can be analyzed for minute idiosyncrasies.

It was this program that helped solve a persistent mystery: the purpose of a type of sharpened stone, five centimeters in length, hundreds of which had turned up in the dig. The archaeologists called them “perforators,” guessing that they were used to make a hole in something. Artifact 3D showed that many of the perforators were cracked in precisely the same spot, suggesting that each had been used repeatedly for the same task until they broke in the same way. The researchers concluded that the stones were swiveled with a mechanism resembling a bow drill, with a string moving back and forth to rotate the tool—perhaps the earliest evidence for a mechanism of that kind. The drill could have been used to perforate beads or pieces of leather.

The same drill may also have featured in another of the site’s mysteries—a hundred or so doughnut-like stones, each with a hole drilled in the middle. These were pebbles picked up on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a short walk from the village, but what they were for was anyone’s guess. By analyzing the hole in the center, the software was able to pinpoint their center of gravity. This, in turn, helped rule out early hypotheses, like the idea that they were weights used for fishing nets. Instead, Talia Yashuv, a master’s student at the lab, suggested that they were part of a spindle whorl, used to make string. She took a few of the stones to an expert on ancient crafts, who was able to use them to recreate the technique. If the hypothesis is correct, they would represent the earliest known examples of the spindle whorl.

Spindle Whorl
The Natufians were ingenious toolmakers. This drilled stone, seen against a 3D rendering of the object, is theorized to be part of a spindle whorl, used to make string. Daniel Rolider

Another insight came from a lab across the Atlantic, at the University of Connecticut, where Gideon Hartman, an anthropologist, conducted isotope analysis of gazelle teeth. He was hoping to discern where the animals came from based on the plants they ate, theorizing that the teeth of gazelles that grazed in the limestone hills near the village would have a molecular signature different from those that grazed above the village, on the Golan plateau, where the rocks are mostly basalt.

His study showed that the gazelles eaten at Nahal Ein Gev II came exclusively from the environs of the village and never from the plateau. The discovery, combined with the observation that the site’s tools and art were made with stone from the immediate vicinity, points to what anthropologists call “territorial consciousness.” The villagers seem to have felt that this area was theirs, and other areas were not. The walk up to the plateau, Grosman pointed out, was barely 600 yards, but the villagers stayed at the bottom of the slope.

The village yields new surprises each season. When I was there, a pair of doctoral students from Canada and Sweden were brushing earth from two reddish-brown objects inside one of the Natufian homes. It wasn’t clear what the objects were, but they were made of clay, which didn’t seem notable at first—anyone who has spent time at an archaeological dig has seen plenty of pottery. But then I remembered that pottery wasn’t supposed to have been invented in this part of the world for another 4,000 years.

“The finds at the site make clear that its people were innovators,” Mithen, the British prehistorian, told me. “Processes of change that we thought occurred during the later Neolithic were already underway at this settlement. Nahal Ein Gev illustrates how architecture, art and economy are interlinked in ways that we have yet to fully understand in the transition from hunting and gathering to farming lifestyles.”

The discoveries at Ein Gev challenge the conventional wisdom about the agricultural revolution—and raise the question of whether the term “revolution” is even the right one. The scholar who did the most to popularize the revolution idea was V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957), a renowned Australian archaeologist. Childe was deeply affected by the Industrial Revolution, which had altered the Western world by the time of his birth, and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which happened when he was 25. In the first half of the 20th century, which saw the breakup of old empires and ascendant movements for individual rights, belief in scientific progress and human agency was deeply felt. The promise of Childe’s “agricultural revolution” was a life freed from the unpredictable labor of hunting and gathering, and a step up the ladder toward an ordered way of life.

Today, many scholars still identify the move to agriculture as a singular moment of human invention that paved the way for modern life. This is supported by genetic studies and archaeological finds that trace the appearance of domesticated grains to modern-day Turkey and Syria approximately 10,000 years ago. Avi Gopher, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, for example, pinpoints the transformation to 10,500 years ago. He calls this a “big bang”—a leap in plant domestication in southeastern Turkey executed not gradually but rapidly and purposefully, based on what we would think of as scientific understanding. Smart people, in other words, figured out something novel and important, and human history was never the same after that. This breakthrough, he told me, can only be called a revolution. “The idea that you could take control of a species in nature and put it to work for you—this was a complete change of worldview, one that led, in many ways, to our own civilization. And the evidence is that it happened quickly.”

Another school, however, shies from the idea of dramatic leaps and looks instead to longer processes of evolution. The finds at Nahal Ein Gev II testify to humans settling down and practicing some form of cultivation millennia before that “big bang.” “You’ll never hear me say the word ‘revolution,’” Grosman told me. “I hate the word. If we look at Ein Gev, we’ll see that exciting things are happening there, but it’s not a ‘revolution.’ They’ve got one foot in one era and the other foot in another, and that’s why they’re so interesting.”

It’s not that Grosman disagrees that people figured out how to harness grain mutations in southeastern Turkey 2,000 years later. But she sees that as a late stage of the process, not the beginning, and as more of an elaboration than the breakthrough itself. The leap, in her eyes, was from nomadism to living in one place, harvesting plants and building a society bigger than an extended family. This shift is visible at Nahal Ein Gev II, she believes, and this change made possible the invention of agriculture—not the other way around.

Opener - Michal Kapuller and modern gazelle bone
Michal Kapuller of Hebrew University collects soil samples from a 12,000-year-old cemetery. Right, a modern gazelle bone is scanned at the university’s Computational Archaeology Laboratory. Daniel Rolider (2)

The truth is that revolutions have always been more complicated than we tend to think. Was the French Revolution caused by the oppression of common people by royal autocrats, by the spread of liberal ideals or by expanding literacy? Or was it due to the actions of specific people like Louis XVI or Robespierre? The answer is some combination that is impossible to predict at the time and hard to grasp afterward.

Richter, the University of Copenhagen prehistorian, views the move to agriculture in the same way. “I think we have to see history and historic process as an almost chaotic overlapping of circumstances that co-occur at the same time,” he said.

From the ruins of Nahal Ein Gev II, that seems close to the truth.

Another academic question about our ancient ancestors has received a surprising amount of popular attention: Was the great prehistoric shift toward settled life actually a wrong turn—a kind of fall from grace? Did we mistakenly trade egalitarianism for inequality, and Eden for electronic surveillance and The vehemence with which the question is posed these days seems linked to a turn to pessimism across the West. There is a sense that we have wrought unacceptable ecological damage and social inequality, that “civilization” may not be such a great accomplishment after all. The view that we’re in control of events that are progressing in the right direction—the “revolution” narrative—has been replaced by a fear that we’re at the mercy of natural forces, including those we’re exacerbating, like the warming climate. In this story, humans are less the masters of the natural order than a malfunctioning part of it.

One of the best-known members of the pessimistic school today is Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian whose Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was published in English in 2014. Harari has a dark vision of human helplessness in the face of increasingly powerful technologies. The leap to agriculture led not to freedom from labor or hunger, in his view, but to a new kind of slavery, as humans abandoned the egalitarian world of wandering family bands. Instead they were caught in a trap that forced them to work harder for more and more meager returns. “The agricultural revolution,” he concludes, “was history’s biggest fraud.”

In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, from 2021, the British archaeologist David Wengrow and the American anthropologist David Graeber offer a rejoinder, arguing against the idea of a linear and inevitable progression from a nomadic paradise to coercive modern states. The societies we’ve created are far from ideal, the authors agree, but we might have created other, better societies—and still can. The distant past, they warn, “can become a vast canvas for the working out of our collective fantasies.” In their version, humans moved back and forth between nomadic and sedentary lifestyles for thousands of years and tried many variations of “civilization.” Thus we, too, they argue, should imagine freer societies than the ones we’ve inherited. The book has the heat of a political pamphlet, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising: Graeber, who died in 2020, was a prominent anarchist activist and an architect of the Occupy Wall Street movement, one of those credited with coining the slogan “We are the 99 percent.”

Both books are at least as much about the present as the ancient past. The debate about our origins, in other words, tends to be a debate about now.

From Ein Gev, we can see that prehistoric people like our Natufians had to get up every morning to hunt gazelle, haul water, spin thread and grind grains, all while fending off wild animals and burying their 3-year-olds. They had more than enough to do without being forced to perform the ideological labor of their 21st-century descendants. Telling a story about origins and endings is what humans do, but our innate fondness for narrative can get in the way of understanding. We might be better advised to do as Grosman does and simply consider the little we can know of these people from what they left behind. The ancients of Ein Gev hint at a complicated movement toward farming and settlement, one suggesting a relationship between cause and effect that is messier than storytellers tend to want.

Of the finds I saw at Ein Gev, the most striking was one that would never become the subject of an academic paper or have any bearing on the weighty questions at play. It was an ordinary flint stone the size of a key. Hundreds like it turn up every season, and this one, too, would find its way into the permanent obscurity of a little cardboard box. To Grosman, however, the stone was significant, the kind of human fingerprint in which archaeology becomes poetry—a window into the life of another person in another time.

It seemed to her that someone from the village tried to fashion this rock into a tool, chipping off one side to form a blade, but then threw it away mid-task. It lay unfinished for 12,000 years and was now in my palm, relating an unmistakably human moment in an ordinary life. You could imagine this man or woman standing by the round stone houses and the strange white cemetery, framed by the oval expanse of the Sea of Galilee, which had some other name in some unknown tongue, holding the botched tool in one hand, turning it over, then dropping it, picking up another rock and never thinking about it again.

Twelve millennia of history divide me from that person, and countless evolutions and innovations. These villagers had no idea what changes they were bringing into the world, and neither do we. Much about them will remain beyond our knowledge, but we can recognize them. They were us.

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