8,000-year-old village reveals secrets of surviving climate disasters

SAN DIEGO — Climate change is a constant threat in today’s society, but it also caused its fair share of problems for civilizations thousands of years ago. However, underwater excavations of ancient remains are helping scientists better understand how these societies actually managed to survive these brutal environmental changes.

Around 6,200 BCE, the climate in what is now the Middle East changed drastically. Global temperatures plummeted, and sea levels rose. In what is now present-day Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories, southern Syria, and the Sinai desert, people endured a long period of drought. Archaeologists refer to this shift in global climate as the 8.2ka event, which may have triggered the mass abandonment of coastal settlements in southern Levant — except for one village. While people fled the area, residents of Habonim North stayed and flourished during this drought period.

“This [study] helped fill a gap in our understanding of the early settlement of the Eastern Mediterranean coastline,” says Thomas Levy, co-director of the Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute, in a university release. “It deals with human resilience.”

The now-submerged village of Habonim North was discovered in the mid-2010s off of Israel’s Carmel Cost. Before archaeologists began studying the scene, there was little evidence of people staying in coastal areas during the 8.2ka event. The dig took several weeks during the COVID lockdown, making it the first excavation of the area.

Among other architecture, researchers excavated two adjoining walls (W001 and W002) at the submerged village of Habonim North.
Among other architecture, researchers excavated two adjoining walls (W001 and W002) at the submerged village of Habonim North. (Credit: UC San Diego)

The team, publishing their findings in the journal Antiquity, studied the submerged landscape using a combination of sediment dredging and sampling, photogrammetry, and 3D modeling. They unearthed pottery shards, stone tools used for ceremonies, and fishing net weights. The architecture of the houses and the remains of ancient animals and plants were also uncovered.

Radiocarbon dating allowed researchers to analyze the contents of bones found in wild and domesticated animals, charred seeds of wheat and lentils, and weeds. Results from these organic materials trace back to the Early Pottery Neolithic — a time in between the invention of pottery and the 8.2ka event. The pottery fragments, architecture, and stone tools date back to this time, as well as the Late Pottery Neolithic, a time when the village was thought to have been abandoned due to drought and rising sea levels.

According to researchers, the village likely survived the worst of the climate conditions by modifying its economic practices. Their economy appeared to have shifted from farming to maritime culture and trade as seen with the fishing-net weights. Additionally, tools were made of basalt, a stone not naturally found along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

“[Our study] showed that the Early Pottery Neolithic society [at Habonim North] displayed multi-layered resilience that enabled it to withstand the 8.2ka crisis,” says Assaf Yasur-Landau, a senior author of the study. “I was happily surprised by the richness of the finds, from pottery to organic remains.”

Scientists are still trying to figure out what triggered the 8.2ka event in the first place. Some theorize it happened because of the final collapse of the Laurentide ice sheet, shaping much of modern-day Canada and the Northern United States. The melting ice sheet would have changed the flow of ocean currents. This would lead to a snowball effect with heat transport then being affected and then a drop in global temperatures.

For the researchers of the current study, their focus was more on what allowed civilizations to endure during critical times instead of collapsing. For example, discovering social activity at Habonim North shows how resilient in early Neolithic societies. Many of the activities shown in the village, such as culturally distinct pottery and trade, were the blueprint for the creation of future urban societies.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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