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Saudi Aramco World

“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

different areas.”


he early Neo-

lithic site at Wadi

Faynan now carries

the prosaic name

WF16, which

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


, some

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.