Skeletons buried in Israel's Upper Galilee reveal migration from ancient Turkey and Iran

August 20, 2018, Tel Aviv University
Ossuaries from the Chalcolithic Period, excavated at Peqi'in Cave. Credit: Mariana Salzberger, the Israel Antiquities Authority.

An international team of researchers from Tel Aviv University, the Israel Antiquities Authority and Harvard University has discovered that waves of migration from Anatolia and the Zagros mountains (today's Turkey and Iran) to the Levant helped develop the Chalcolithic culture that existed in Israel's Upper Galilee region some 6,500 years ago.

The study is one of the largest ancient DNA studies ever conducted in Israel and for the first time sheds light on the origins of the Chalcolithic culture in the Levant, approximately 6,000-7,000 years ago.

Research for the study was led by Dr. Hila May and Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology, Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research, at TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine; Dr. Dina Shalem of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College and the Israel Antiquities Authority; and Éadaoin Harney and Prof. David Reich of Harvard University. It was published today in Nature Communications.

In 1995, Zvi Gal, Dina Shalem and Howard Smithline of the Israel Antiquities Authority began excavating the Peqi'in Cave in northern Israel, which dates to the Chalcolithic Period in the Levant. The team unearthed dozens of burials in the natural stalactite cave that is 17 meters long and 5-8 meters wide.

The large number of unique ceramic ossuaries and the variety of burial offerings discovered in the cave suggest that it was once used as a mortuary center by the local Chalcolithic people.

"The uniqueness of the cave is evident in the number of people buried in it—more than 600—and the variety of ossuaries and jars and the outstanding motifs on them, including geometric and anthropomorphic designs," Dr. Shalem says. "Some of the findings in the cave are typical to the region, but others suggest cultural exchange with remote regions.

"The study resolves a long debate about the origin of the unique culture of the Chalcolithic people. Did the cultural change in the region follow waves of migration, the infiltration of ideas due to trade relations and/or cultural exchange, or local invention? We now know that the answer is migration."

The researchers subjected 22 of the skeletons excavated at Peqi'in, dating to the Chalcolithic Period, to a whole genome analysis.

"This study of 22 individuals is one of the largest ancient DNA studies carried out from a single archaeological site, and by far the largest ever reported in the Near East," Dr. May says.

"The genetic analysis provided an answer to the central question we set out to address," says Prof. Reich. "It showed that the Peqi'in people had substantial ancestry from northerners—similar to those living in Iran and Turkey—that was not present in earlier Levantine farmers."

"Certain characteristics, such as genetic mutations contributing to blue eye color, were not seen in the DNA test results of earlier Levantine human remains," adds Dr. May. "The chances for the success of such a study seemed slim, since most of the ancient DNA studies carried out in Israel have failed due to difficult climatic conditions in the region that destroy DNA."

"Fortunately, however, human DNA was preserved in the bones of the buried people in Peqi'in cave, likely due to the cool conditions within the and the limestone crust that covered the bones and preserved the DNA," says Prof. Hershkovitz.

"We also find that the Peqi'in population experienced abrupt demographic change 6,000 years ago," concludes Harney, who led the statistical analysis for the study.

"Indeed, these findings suggest that the rise and falls of the Chalcolithic culture are probably due to demographic changes in the region," says Dr. May.

Explore further: Israeli archaeologists discover 7,000-year-old settlement

More information: Éadaoin Harney et al, Ancient DNA from Chalcolithic Israel reveals the role of population mixture in cultural transformation, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-05649-9

Related Stories

Archaeologists find 12th Dead Sea Scrolls cave

February 8, 2017

Excavations in a cave on the cliffs west of Qumran, near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, prove that Dead Sea scrolls from the Second Temple period were hidden in the cave, and were looted by Bedouins in the middle ...

Recommended for you

Study reveals patterns in STEM grades of girls versus boys

September 25, 2018

A new study, led by UNSW Sydney Ph.D. student Rose O'Dea, has explored patterns in academic grades of 1.6 million students, showing that girls and boys perform very similarly in STEM—including at the top of the class.

Chinese Cretaceous fossil highlights avian evolution

September 24, 2018

A newly identified extinct bird species from a 127 million-year-old fossil deposit in northeastern China provides new information about avian development during the early evolution of flight.

Ancient mice discovered by climate cavers

September 24, 2018

The fossils of two extinct mice species have been discovered in caves in tropical Queensland by University of Queensland scientists tracking environment changes.

The first predators and their self-repairing teeth

September 24, 2018

The earliest predators appeared on Earth 480 million years ago—and they even had teeth capable of repairing themselves. A team of palaeontologists led by Bryan Shirley and Madleen Grohganz from the Chair for Palaeoenviromental ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.