Gesher Bnot Yaakov (Israel): archaeologists reveal prehistoric man's plant-based diet

Study reveals ancient humans' diet in Paleolithic era was mostly plant-based, countering common claim that ancient humans' diet was protein-heavy • Scientific journal dubs Israeli study as "earliest known archive of food plants."

Yori Yalon

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148101796128259277a bPrehistoric seed and fruit collectibles  - Photo credit: Yaakov Langzam

Remains of plants believed to be 780,000 years old were unearthed during excavations at Gesher Bnot Yaakov, a Stone Age archaeological site in the Hula Valley in northern Israel. The discovery provides a testimony of our prehistoric ancestors' plant-based diet in the Paleolithic era, countering the common claim that ancient humans' diet was based heavily on animal products.

Professor Naama Goren-Inbar of the Institute of Archeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has long studied findings of hominid crafts in the Levantine corridor, through which hominins migrated from Africa to Europe and Asia. In her study, titled "The plant component of an Acheulian diet: A case study from Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel," which was published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the extensive research revealed that the more than 20,000 remains of edible plants that were discovered provided evidence of the variety of plants and vegetables available to the prehistoric human.

According to the article, the important discovery is the "earliest known archive of food plants," and the results shed light on prehistoric humans' ability to adapt to new environments as well as colonization beyond Africa.

Goren-Inbar and Dr. Yoel Melamed of the Life Sciences Faculty at Bar-Ilan University have identified 55 species of edible plants. "In recent years, we were met with a golden opportunity to reveal numerous remains of fruits, nuts and seeds from trees, shrubs and the lake, alongside the remains of animals and man-made stone tools in one locality," Goren-Inbar said.

"Our region is known for its ‬abundance of plants, but the real surprise was a discovery of plant-based sources in the lake [Hula Lake] itself. We found more than 10 species that grew here in prehistoric times but don't exist today," Melamed said.

The excavation team also found stone tools and animal fossils on site, which, Melamed explains, were preserved due to unique natural conditions. 

"The site was submerged underground [in the waterlogged soil of the lake] in humid conditions and lack of oxygen, aided by the fast covering of layers of sediments," Melamed said.