It may not be the actual mythical city of Atlantis, but it’s still pretty astonishing. Archaeologists recently explored the remains of a 7,700-year-old sunken village off the coast of Haifa and found what may be the world’s oldest known wooden structure. The site might also help shed light on the nature of global warming and climate change.
A team headed by University of Haifa archaeologists Dr. Ehud Galili and Dr. Deborah Cvikel, and Dr. Jonathan Benjamin of Flinders University of Adelaide, in October found a well belonging to a Neolithic village at a site known as Kfar Samir. What’s exceptional about it is that unlike most archaeological sites in Israel, the village is about 200 meters (218 yards) offshore and located about 16 feet underwater.
Kfar Samir was first surveyed in 1991 and yielded the oldest evidence of olive oil production, and some of the oldest wooden artifacts in the world. The water well was built of wooden branches and stones and may be one of the oldest known wooden structures. Kfar Samir is one of six “marvelously preserved” prehistoric settlements running along the Israeli coastline from Haifa to Atlit that were submerged roughly 7,000 years ago, Galili told The Times of Israel.
During the last ice age, which ended 20,000 years ago, global sea levels were 100 meters lower than they are today, Galili explained. The eastern Mediterranean coastline was about 10 kilometers (six miles) to the west, and prehistoric peoples populated that shore. Around the time Kfar Samir was inhabited, the sea level was eight meters (26 feet) lower and the seashore was 700 meters (0.4 miles) farther west than it is today.
As sea levels rose with the melting of ice caps and glaciers, the shoreline rose to its present level and submerged the villages. It was at sites like these, during the dawn of the agricultural revolution, that Mediterranean subsistence, a diet combining seafood and cultivated crops, began to merge. Galili said he hopes the ongoing excavations at Kfar Samir will shed light on the people who first started producing olive oil, and the methods by which they did it.
The team took sediment and core samples from the well to study the climate and vegetation along the ancient Levantine coastline, and employed a new method of 3D photography to map the site. After removing roughly 100 cubic meters of sand from the seabed, the team exposed one of the ancient wells that provided freshwater for the inhabitants of the coastal village.
“Water wells are valuable to Neolithic archaeology because once they stopped serving their intended purpose, people used them as big rubbish bins,” Dr. Jonathan Benjamin, a marine archaeologist with Flinders University, said in a statement. “This is superb for archaeologists because it means we can look through the refuse of prehistoric societies – including animal bones, plant fibers and tools – to see how these ancient civilizations lived, how they hunted and what they ate,” he said.
Galili said that excavation of these sites not only enhances our understanding of early human settlements, but also sheds light on our adaptation to rising sea levels and global warming — problems we face in the 21st century. “You have here a live example of how populations had to leave their houses and their villages because of global warming and sea level rise,” he said. “This is what we’re actually facing today.” Inhabitants of Atlit Yam, just a few kilometers down the coast from Kfar Samir, tried to fend off the rising sea levels, which had polluted their wells with sea water, by raising the water with stones, Galili said. When that failed, they began using the well as a garbage pit. “We found evidence that the Neolithic populations tried to cope with the salination of the wells, but at some point there was no use anymore and they abandoned the well,” he said.
“It’s not just the excavation of one well and discovering some olives and some trees and some flint artifacts,” he said, “but you have to look at it on the wider aspect, about what’s happening in the world, and especially in our place in Israel.”