In 1984 marine archaeologist Dr. Ehud Galili explored the deep reaches of the Levantine Sea, off the coast of Israel. The water must have been murky, but somehow he managed to spot something unusual on the sea floor.
What Dr. Galili saw must have amazed him, to be sure – for he had discovered an underwater village complete with the foundations of stone buildings, wells and fireplaces. And all of it was encrusted with sea life; it was, in short, an archaeological bonanza.
Dr. Galili has returned every year to explore more of the village, though he only goes in winter when storms have dislodged off any silt. “We only excavate where there is imminent danger of destruction,” he told New Scientist in 2009.
The submerged town is Atlit Yam, and it’s believed to have been inhabited sometime during the 7th millennium B.C. – though it could be even older. At roughly 43,000 square feet, moreover, it’s the oldest and biggest underwater settlement ever discovered.
And while Atlit Yam has its own historic importance, it also holds answers to questions historians have about what life was like back then in the Levant. Indeed, Galili’s team made several discoveries of note within the ruins.
The stone houses that some of the town’s inhabitants lived in sound almost luxurious, what with their internal courtyards and neatly paved floors. With its numerous wells, meanwhile, Atlit Yam also had its own water supply and sewage system.
Human remains, namely 65 skeletons, were also found in the town’s ruins, and they were all lying seemingly untouched in their tombs. And because they are so well preserved, they can tell us a lot about how people lived back then.
In 2008, moreover, a pair of particularly important skeletons were discovered. They belonged to a mother and her child who, after a long-overdue autopsy, were found to have died of tuberculosis. Theirs is the first known case of the infection.
Another set of male skeletons revealed signs of ear infections, which, according to scientists, showed that the men regularly dived in cold water. They probably, it is thought, relied on the fruits of the sea for their food.
Furthermore, besides human bones were plenty of animal remains. Some likely belonged to wild beasts, but there were also bones from sheep, goats, pigs, cows and dogs – which shows that the people of Atlit Yam domesticated animals.
They also grew crops. Indeed, seeds for wheat, barley, lentil and flax were all found at the site, which tells us that the people who lived there developed a relatively advanced agrarian infrastructure.
This actually made Atlit Yam a pretty typical Neolithic town, with the period regarded as one of the most exciting in human history. It’s when, after all, people learned to farm and make tools, and when the shift from hunter-gatherers to builders of urban settlements began.
Another particularly interesting find in Atlit Yam was a series of seven stones, which resembled a stone circle of sorts. One had fallen, but the rest were still standing, as they presumably had done for many thousands of years.
The stones – or megaliths – are thought to be the site of ancient rituals. Furthermore, there are cup marks engraved in the stones and a freshwater spring at the center of the circle, so it may have been used for worshipping water or for honoring spring.
Questions remain, however, about how and why the settlement was abandoned or destroyed. The only real clue that scientists have found thus far is that thousands upon thousands of fish bones are at the site. But how did they get there?
Scientists know that, at some point while Atlit Yam was inhabited, the eastern side of Mount Etna in Sicily collapsed into the Mediterranean Sea. This, moreover, caused a 130-foot-high tsunami that engulfed a number of towns.
Could this have been what destroyed Atlit Yam? Well, some believe so, given the age of the fish remains. On the other hand, the fact that the stone statues are still more or less in place – and that the remains around them are generally well preserved – suggests that the town may not in fact have fallen victim to a natural disaster.
Another theory is that, around this time, sea levels were rising as the glaciers melted from the previous Ice Age. The rising seawater would have naturally forced people to move away, but it may also have spoiled their access to fresh water.
That such a town existed in the Levant is not too surprising. This is the Fertile Crescent, after all – the cradle of civilization. It was where farming was invented, as well as glass, the wheel and irrigation.
Indeed, Atlit Yam may yet have more secrets to yield. And as the years go on and archaeologists continue to explore it, they may, hopefully, find out what caused it to be abandoned.