Qesem cave is a karst cave located on the lower, western slopes of the Judean Hills in Israel, 90 meters above the sea level and about 12 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea. The cave's known limits are approximately 200 square meters (~20x15 meters and ~10 meters high), although there are several partly visible passages which have yet to be excavated.
Hominid occupation of the cave has been documented in a 7.5-8 meter-thick layer of sediment, divided into an Upper Sequence (~4 meters thick) and a Lower Sequence (~3.5 meters thick). Both sequences are believed to be associated with the Acheulo-Yabrudian Cultural Complex (AYCC), which in the Levant is transitional between the Acheulean period of the late Lower Paleolithic and the Mousterian of the early Middle Paleolithic.
The stone tool assemblage at Qesem Cave is dominated by blades and shaped blades, called the "Amudian industry", with a small percentage of Quina scraper-dominated "Yabrudian industry". A few Acheulean hand axes were found sporadically throughout the sequence. Faunal material discovered in the cave exhibited a good state of preservation, and included fallow deer, auroch, horse, wild pig, tortoise, and red deer.
Cutmarks on the bones suggest butchery and marrow extraction; the selection of bones within the cave suggest that the animals were field-butchered, with only specific parts returned to the cave where they were consumed. These, and the presence of blade technology, are early examples of modern human behaviors.
Qesem Cave Chronology
Qesem Cave's stratigraphy has been dated by Uranium-Thorium (U-Th) series on speleotherms--natural cave deposits such as stalagmites and stalactites, and, at Qesem Cave, calcite flowstone and pool deposits. Dates from the speleotherms are from in situ samples, although not all of them are clearly associated with the human occupations.
Speleotherm U/Th dates recorded within the top 4 meters of the cave deposits range between 320,000 and 245,000 years ago. A speleotherm crust at 470-480 cm below the surface returned a date of 300,000 years ago. Based on similar sites in the region, and these suite of dates, the excavators believe that occupation of the cave began as long ago as 420,000 years ago. Acheulo-Yabrudian Cultural Complex (AYCC) sites such as Tabun Cave, Jamal Cave and Zuttiyeh in Israel and Yabrud I and Hummal Cave in Syria also contain date ranges between 420,000-225,000 years ago, fitting with the data from Qesem.
Sometime between 220,000 and 194,000 years ago, Qesem cave was abandoned.
Note (Jan 2011): Ran Barkai, director of the Qesem Cave Project at Tel Aviv University, reports that a paper to be submitted for publication soon provides dates on burnt flints and animal teeth within the archaeological sediments.
Animals represented at Qesem cave include approximately 10,000 microvertebrate remains, including reptiles (there are an abundance of chameleons), birds, and micromammals such as shrews.
Human Remains at Qesem Cave
Human remains found within the cave are restricted to teeth, found in three different contexts, but all within the AYCC of the late Lower Paleolithic period. A total of eight teeth were found, six permanent teeth and two deciduous teeth, probably representing at least six different individuals. All of the permanent teeth are mandibular teeth, containing some traits of Neanderthal affinities and some suggesting a similarity to hominids from Skhul/Qafzeh caves. Qesem's excavators are convinced that the teeth are Anatomically Modern Human.
Archaeological Excavations at Qesem Cave
Qesem Cave was discovered in 2000, during road construction, when the cave's ceiling was almost entirely removed. Two brief salvage excavations were conducted by the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority; those studies identified the 7.5 meter sequence, and the presence of AYCC. Planned field seasons were conducted between 2004 and 2009, led by Tel Aviv University.