(MENAFN - Jordan Times) Archaeologists in the eastern Jordanian desert have uncovered one of the earliest recorded human settlements to date, a sign, they say, that pre-historic communities began to settle down thousands of years earlier than previously believed.
A Danish-British-US team working in Azraq has uncovered 20,000-year-old straw huts, a series of temporary structures that housed the bands of hunter-gatherers who once roamed the eastern Mediterranean region.
The discovery, they say, has forced a rethink of the first agricultural revolution and the development of modern communities.
The huts place humans' transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to semi-settled communities to the Upper-Epipalaeolithic period: well before the advent of agriculture and some 10,000 years earlier than previously believed.
"We are seeing people staying in one location for several months or even a year at a time, and this is a behaviour we previously associated with agricultural communities," said Lisa Maher of the University of Berkley and one of the project's directors.
Experts say the settlement was established at a time when the arid eastern desert, which has previously yielded one of the few complete skeletons from the period, was a lush wetlands and home to gazelle, cattle and other wildlife that provided an abundant food supply for the semi-settled hunter-gatherers.
The discovery is the result of the Epipalaeolithic Foragers in Azraq Project, an initiative launched by researchers from the universities of Cambridge, California Berkley, Copenhagen College London and Nottingham of Nottingham, who spent 2006 and 2010 exploring the site several kilometres outside the Azraq wetlands known as Kharanneh IV.
In the results of research published earlier this year, experts say the three-metre-long earthen floor huts were likely one of a series of temporary villages that dotted the Eastern Mediterranean region.
A pattern of methodical blackening at the site is a sign that rather than permanent settlements, the collection of brushwood huts served as temporary structures that the early communities intentionally demolished before moving on to the next site, according to Tobias Richter of the University of Copenhagen and project co-director.
Although a 1989 discovery in the Sea of Galilee predates the Jordanian huts by some 5,000 years, experts say the recent find has shed "groundbreaking" new light on the little known communities challenging traditional scholarship on human development.
Experts point to the projected size of the temporary village, some dozen huts that may have housed up to 100 people at a time, as a sign that the early hunter-gatherers likely roamed the region with groups outside their extended family, a social behaviour previously believed to have emerged during the Natufian period some 14,000 years ago.
The team points to the presence of hundreds of red ochre beads and sea shells originating from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, some 250km away from the site, as a sign that the semi-settled communities were also avid traders.
"As it is unlikely that these groups carried shells that far, this is a sign that trading took place over a very large area," Maher said.
Large amounts of stone tools, stones carved with geometric patterns and animal bones, which "vastly exceed" those previously uncovered in southwest Asia, speak of the sophistication of the semi-nomadic communities, she explained.
"These were clearly skilled and developed communities," Maher said.
Despite years of surveys and analyses, experts say work to unlock the secrets of the little known community have only just begun.
The team is set to return in 2013 to further excavate a second hut and survey for any additional structures that may be hidden beneath the Azraq sands.
Experts say they will also try to explore the cultural significance behind the heaps of marine shell the hunter-gatherers deliberately placed on top of their collapsed homes before moving on to their next site.
No matter what future excavations may bring, experts say the ancient huts serve as proof of how with fistfuls of brush, bands of semi-nomads laid the foundation for the steel and cement metropolises we live in today.
"With each new discovery we are learning our ancestors were much more like us than previously believed," Maher said.