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“What we see now is that
in the Levant, human de-
velopment was not happen-
ing in just one place,” says
Mithen. “There were contem-
porary developments in many
he early Neo-
lithic site at Wadi
Faynan now carries
the prosaic name
distinguishes it by
number from other nearby sites that together, along
this mostly desiccated watercourse, comprise a million
years of human records. It starts with the discovery of
Lower Paleolithic (“early Old Stone Age”) hand axes,
and it shows a nearly continuous progression to the present.
Half a kilometer east (1/3 mi) of WF16, at the entrance to
Wadi Ghuwayr, is a site dating to 8500-6250
, a later Neolithic
period, before the development of pottery. Five kilometers (3 mi)
down Wadi Faynan, a large tell, or mounded former habitation site,
shows signs both of farming and of copper mining and smelting. It
dates to 5500 years ago—around the beginning of the Bronze Age.
And then there are Roman, Byzantine and Islamic sites: Faynan
was the greatest copper mine in the Roman Empire, and later,
during the Byzantine era, it was known as Phaenon, home to the
bishopric of Palaestina Tertia. Islamic ruins include a Mamluk-era
caravanserai. This immense timescale prompts archeologists work-
ing at Wadi Faynan to contend that few, if any, places in the world
can claim such a long record of continuous human activity.
But it is WF16, with its mysteriously ancient amphitheater
and the questions it raises about the story of mankind’s develop-
ment, that excites Neolithic experts like Mithen. “It may not look
as spectacular as Göbeklı Tepe,” he tells me, explaining that the
postholes at WF16 “may well have held [wooden] totem poles
which haven’t survived,” or maybe they held up a roof. “If there
was ever a roof over that structure, it would have been a very
spectacular one,” he says.
Whatever the purpose of the building, it was apparently a fo-
cal point for the community. Archeologists still don’t yet know
how sedentary the people who gathered here actually were: They
may have assembled only at certain times of the year, perhaps to
process or celebrate the harvest of wild plants. And because the
structure predates farming, which began around 8000
10,000 years ago, it raises a compelling question of human social
development: Did gathering for communal activity help people
launch agriculture? To date, archeology generally has assumed
that it worked the other way around: The rise of agriculture facili-
tated communal, sedentary living. But now, maybe not.
The hypothesis that WF16 was a seasonal rather than a perma-
nent meeting place has the support of Gary Rollefson, an archeolo-
gist fromWhitman College in Washington state who has worked
on Neolithic projects in Jordan’s Eastern Desert for many years.
WF16 appears to be a place “for temporary social activities cen-
tered around possible harvest and hunting,” he says. Marriages,
gift exchanges and communal work at those same times would
have fostered “social identity and solidarity,” he adds. This could
have been helpful in organizing early plantings and harvests.
Similar questions of purpose have arisen from Göbeklı Tepe,
although no apparent storage or workshop structures have been
located there. “Göbeklı Tepe is not as representative of the ‘nor-
mal’ Neolithic world as somewhere like Faynan,” Mithen says,
adding that, in addition, Faynan’s architectural remains are more
precisely dated and better preserved than those at Jericho.
WF16 is also currently among the region’s most accessible
A desert lark sits atop a stone at Wadi Faynan, where communal
life may have set in motion the first steps toward the domestication
of wild plants—and civilization as we know it.
Pink oleanders track the trickle
of water in Wadi Faynan,
which today runs much drier
than in Neolithic and earlier
times. Indeed, discoveries in
the vicinity trace human
history back a million years,
almost without a break.