Prehistoric Garden of Eden in the Jordan Valley Opens to the Public

Prehistoric Garden of Eden in the Jordan Valley Opens to the Public

Giraffes and mammoths walked here. ‘Ubeidiya Park in the Jordan Valley—an archaeological site of world-class importance for researching human history—the earliest in the country and one of the earliest in the world outside of Africa—was dedicated today, Thursday, April 4, in a celebratory ceremony.

 ‘Ubeidiya site dedication this morning. Photography: Shai Isaacs, Israel Nature and Parks Authority

The ceremony took place in the presence of the Jordan Valley Regional Council Head, Idan Greenbaum; Israel Antiquities Authority director, Eli Escusido; Israel Nature and Parks Authority General Manager Raya Shurky; Lake Kinneret Authority Chairman Moti Dotan, and the representative excavator of the  ‘Ubeidiya renewed archaeological mission, Prof. Omry Barzilai.

‘Ubeidiya site – aerial view. Photography: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The site is located next to Kibbutz Bet Zera, and was first identified in 1959 by Izzy Merimsky, a nature instructor and area resident. A series of excavation expeditions were led  by Prof. Moshe Stekelis, Prof. Ofer Bar-Yosef and Prof. Eitan Tchernov. These missions revealed early hominin remains; flint, limestone, and basalt tools; evidence of many kinds of wildlife, including giraffes,  jaguars, and hippopotami; and extinct species such as mammoths and saber-tooth tigers.

Archaeological excavation at ‘Ubeidiya. Photography: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The hominin who lived in ‘Ubeidiya belonged to the species known as homo erectus. A recently published study regarding a youth’s skeleton found in the Stekelis excavation provides a new understanding – the human migration out of Africa was not a one-time event but rather occurred in waves.

After the last excavation season in 1999, the site stood abandoned and exposed to the ravages of nature. Then, in 2021, site excavations were renewed in the context of a focused study by Prof Omry Barzilai on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the University of Haifa, together with Prof. Miriam Belmaker from the University of Tulsa in the USA. In its wake, the site underwent conservation and development and is now accessible to the  public.

Archaeological excavation at ‘Ubeidiya. Photography: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

In 2022 the Israel Nature and Parks Authority declared ‘Ubeidiya to be a national park. Simultaneously, the site was associated with the national project to rehabilitate and revive the Southern Jordan River Reserve in the Lower Jordan River’s northern segment, led by the Lake Kinneret Authority and the Jordan Valley Regional Council.

Coordinated efforts by the relevant bodies combined forces to implement the project of opening to the general public. Access roads were paved , as well as a circular pedestrian route with explanatory signage.

This is the first of three site development stages. In the next stage, the original excavation field laboratory will be opened as a visitor center.

Jordan Valley Regional Council Head and United Kinneret Towns Chairman Idan Grinbaum said at the ceremony: “We are proud to be partners in the important project of opening ‘Ubeidiya National Park to the public. This is one of the large-scale projects we are implementing to develop the Southern Jordan River Reserve area. I invite everyone to come here and see close-up one of the world’s most important heritage sites and its prehistoric finds.”

Israel Antiquities Authority Director Eli Escusido said: “This is a red-letter day for prehistory. Every year, the Israel Antiquities Authority develops tens of archaeological sites, making them accessible to the public. But ‘Ubeidiya is unique: This is a prehistoric site of inestimable scientific importance for researching the beginnings of the human race. Previous efforts to develop the site were unsuccessful due to the lack of appropriate partners to manage and maintain it. Today, turning ‘Ubeidiya into a national park as part of the greater Southern Jordan River Reserve promises a bright future. This site will undoubtedly draw visitors from all over the country and from the world-over.”

In the words of Israel Nature and Parks Authority General director Raya Shurky: “We are happy to present to the public a historical site of such importance that links a beautiful landscape to history. The ‘Ubeidiya region is an exciting journey backwards in time. The site contains three important areas which connect to one heritage story in the history of our land. First, ‘Ubeidiya’s prehistoric site represent man’s entry into the Middle East 1.5 million years ago. Secondly, adjacent Tell ‘Ubeidiya represents early Israel, based on the inscription of the Egyptian Pharoah Merneptah. And finally, Moshav Menahemia represents the beginning of the Zionist movement; established here in 1901 right in this very district, and heralding Zionism flourishing throughout this region. These three sites tell the story and provide the complete picture of life in this region throughout the course of history until our own times. I thank our partners, the Open Space Foundation, the Jordan Valley Regional Council, the Lake Kinneret Authority, and the Israel Antiquities Authority.”

Prof. Omry Barzilai, Prof. Miriam Belmaker. Site excavators. Photography: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Zvika Sloutzky, Lake Kinneret Authority CEO: “Developing the northern part of the Lower Jordan River was declared to be a national project. This comes after it suffered many years of pollution and neglect, since sewage was streamed here and it was also used as an outlet for saltwater springs diverted from Lake Kinneret’s north. The project’s purpose is to make this section of the river accessible to hundreds of thousands of visitors who visit this area, while at the same time retaining its nature and character, and transforming it into a swimming and recreational area. Many of the components are now completed. The ‘Ubeidiya site lies on the western side of the Lower Jordan River’s northern segment, while the river’s entire route has benefited from accelerated rehabilitation thanks to the Lake Kinneret Authority’s efforts here since 2012. Within this framework, restoration works were carried out on the prehistoric ‘Ubeidiya site, which has successfully turned it into an attractive and experiential visitor site for the general public.”

The Cradle of Humanity: Additional Background on the ‘Ubeidiya Site

The unique ‘Ubeidiya site parallels the East African Olduvai Gorge sites, known as the “Cradle of Humanity ”, explain Prof. Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the University of Haifa, and Prof. Miriam Belmaker from the University of Tulsa. 

Hippopotamus ivory tusk from ‘Ubeidiya. Photography: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority.

“Ubeidiya has thirty geologic layers containing evidence of human activity, the earliest of which dates back to 1.6 million years ago. The site’s geology is most important for telling us about conditions on Earth between 2-1 million years ago. During this period, in our region,, there was a lot of volcanic activities, while at the very same time, the Syro-African Rift was widening and deepening.”

Zebra teeth from ‘Ubeidiya site excavations. Photography: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Since the area uplifted and became inclined due to later tectonic movements, most of the layers are tilted. This facilitates a journey through time going back over one million years. “Excellent preservation of the site’s material finds enables recreating the Jordan Valley’s early ecological conditions,” say the scholars. “There is a unique broad selection of species to be found here, of which most are extinct, and which includes African fauna side-by-side with European species. The flint and stone tools at ‘Ubeidiya served its inhabitants to execute daily activities – butchering and cutting animal carcasses, processing vegetal foods and more. These represent the Acheulian culture, including hand axes, scrapers, chopping tools, and spheroids and polyhedrons.”

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