Dredging at Israeli Site Prompts Mudslinging

11 January 2000 5:00 pm

A prehistoric site critical for understanding early human evolution appears to have suffered permanent damage after a local Israeli drainage authority allegedly bulldozed a big chunk of it last month. Prehistorians claim that the earthmoving, undertaken to prevent flooding of nearby farms during rainstorms, has destroyed their ability to make sense of the complex layers at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, on the banks of the river Jordan in northern Israel.

The site was first discovered in the 1930s and has been excavated several times since. Along with the nearby prehistoric site of Ubeidiya, also in the Jordan valley, Gesher is a key location for understanding how and when Homo erectus--an ancestor of modern humans--moved out of Africa, probably through the so-called Levantine corridor that includes Israel. During recent excavations at Gesher, stone tools such as hand axes and cleavers found in layers dated to 780,000 years ago were very similar to those at African sites of the same age. "A site like Gesher provides crucial information on the skills and capabilities of the earliest hominids as they came out of ... Africa," says Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

However, the Kinneret Drainage Authority had argued for years that it needed to dredge a stretch of the Jordan near the Gesher site to prevent regular flooding of the nearby Hula valley and its farmland. "Our main concern was to protect human life," says Aitan Sat, the drainage authority's managing director. While not disputing the dredging project's necessity in principle, officials at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) had insisted that any operation must leave Gesher unharmed. Thus they were shocked late last month to find that the drainage authority had proceeded, without their knowledge, with a week of dredging in mid-December. The IAA applied for a court injunction to stop any further work, which was granted and has now been made permanent.

But it may be too late to undo the damage. According to prehistorian Na'ama Goren-Inbar of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who has led recent excavations at Gesher, the bulldozers obliterated "several hundred meters" of the 2.5-kilometer-long site, including portions of the riverbank immediately north and south of her own 50-meter excavation. Goren-Inbar, who has visited Gesher on foot and flown over it by aircraft since the dredging took place, says that the workers left the dirt and sand in heaps by the river. "Strata which contain fossil remains, manmade stone artifacts, and a lot of organic material were all destroyed," she claims. "We will never be able to scientifically study this material because it is now out of context."

Sat disputes that characterization. "They are lying about the amount of damage," he says, insisting that his crew dredged only in the river and not on the banks. Sat says that despite attempts at negotiations between his authority and the IAA, the IAA would not compromise on dredging in the Gesher area. "They were preventing me from doing my job."