cave formed in the limestone of the western face of the Mt. Carmel promontory, approximately 18 km (11 mi.) south of Haifa, Israel, about 53 m above modern sea level (32°40′ N, 34°59′ E). The cave overlooks a narrow coastal plain and the mouth of Wadi el-Mughara (Naḥal Me῾arot). The Mediterranean shore lies some 4 km (2.5 mi.) to the west. Mediterranean woodlands, largely composed of pine and scrub oaks, dominate the surrounding uplands; grasses and marsh plants formed the pristine vegetation of the coastal plain prior to modern agricultural activities. Excavations at Mugharat et-Tabun (Ar., “cave of the oven”) have revealed one of the most extensive Lower and Middle Paleolithic industrial successions in the Near East. Because of its scope and detail, the Tabun stratigraphic column has come to serve as the principal reference for comparing early Upper Pleistocene artifactual, paleoclimatic, and chronometric sequences in the region. The recovery of Neanderthal remains from the cave's Mousterian horizon, coupled with the presence of anatomically modern human remains in Mousterian layers at nearby sites, further contributes to Tabun's importance as a key to understanding human biocultural evolution during the Upper Pleistocene.
The initial excavations were carried out between 1929 and 1934 by a joint expedition of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and the American School of Prehistoric Research under the direction of Dorothy A. E. Garrod. Excavations were resumed at the cave in 1967 and continued through 1973 by the University of Arizona under the direction of Arthur J. Jelinek. Since 1973, work at Tabun has continued through the University of Haifa under the supervision of Avraham Ronen.
The plan of the cave consists of a large, exposed outer chamber and a smaller, enclosed inner chamber. The roofs of both chambers collapsed in antiquity. A high arch in the cliff face is a remnant of the outer chamber; a roof fall in the inner chamber left a large chimney that opens in the hill above the cave.
Within a deposit some 25 m thick, Garrod's excavations exposed six Paleolithic layers: basal Tayacian, layer G; Late Acheulean, layer F; Acheulo-Yabrudian, layer E; Lower Levalloiso-Mousterian, layers D and C; and Upper Levalloiso-Mousterian, layer B (Garrod and Bate, 1937). Jelinek's investigation, confined to a 10-meter-section corresponding to Garrod's strata B–E and F, defined more than eighty-five geological beds in fourteen stratigraphic units. In following the natural stratigraphy of the deposit rather than arbitrary horizontal levels, Jelinek and his colleagues were able to trace episodes of accumulation, nondeposition, and collapse of sediments into underlying solution cavities (Jelinek et al., 1973).
In recovering more than forty-four thousand artifacts from the approximately 90 cu m of excavated sediment, Jelinek was able to trace in detail the artifact succession within the Tabun deposit. Within units XIV (Garrod's layer G) and XIII–XI (Garrod's layer E), he defined the Mugharan tradition, composed of three facies: Yabrudian, Acheulean, and Amudian. These are distinguished artifactually by relatively high frequencies of scrapers (Yabrudian), bifaces (Acheulean), and Upper Paleolithic elements, especially prismatic blades (Amudian). The Mugharan tradition shows a smooth transition into the overlying Levantine Mousterian horizon, as defined from upper unit XI–unit I. Following Garrod's initial cultural-stratigraphic partitions, the Levantine Mousterian succession consists of a D-type industry characterized by elongated Levallois points and blades; a C-type industry largely based on broad-oval Levallois flakes; and a B-type industry containing broad-based, “chapeau de gendarme,” points.
Since Garrod's initial research, evidence from the thick deposit at Tabun has been used for paleoclimatic reconstructions. Although the climatic implications of the classic Dama-Gazella curve developed by Garrod's colleague, Dorothea M. A. Bate, has been largely discredited, it undoubtedly inspired subsequent work. Based primarily on the geostratigraphy and sediment analysis of the cave's deposit in conjunction with palynological results, Jelinek's team traced a sequence of events thought to correspond to the global temperature oscillations and attendant fluctuations in sea level that stretched from oxygen isotope stages 5e–3. Such a sequence suggests that the basal unit XIV was deposited within the last interglacial, some 120–130 years ago. [See Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction.]
Considerable controversy surrounds the absolute dating of Tabun, however. If accurate, the recent electron spin resonance (ESR) dates on teeth would push much of the sequence (layers D–G) back beyond interglacial times. Aside from substantial internal variability in the dates, they fail to fit the traditionally held chronology for Mediterranean marine transgressions, or that developed for microvertebrates. Clearly, more dates are needed to resolve the problem.
In the initial excavation, Garrod recovered a partial skeleton of a female Neanderthal from either layer C or B, along with a damaged mandible of indeterminate taxonomic affinity from layer C. The presence of anatomically modern Homo sapiens remains from the nearby sites of Skhul and Qafzeh, in association with Mousterian industries similar to those at Tabun, suggests that the two hominid taxa may have been partially coeval within the Levant. The recent chronometry of the deposits even suggests that anatomically modern populations were indigenous to the region prior to a Neanderthal immigration from southeastern Europe some sixty thousand–ninety thousand years ago.
[See also Carmel Caves; and the biography of Garrod.]
- Garrod, Dorothy A. E., and Dorothea M. A. Bate. The Stone Age of Mount Carmel: Excavations at the Wady al-Mughara. Oxford, 1937. .
- Jelinek, Arthur J., et al. “New Excavations at the Tabun Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel, 1967–1972: A Preliminary Report.” Paléorient 1.2 (1973): 151–183. .
- Jelinek, Arthur J. “The Middle Paleolithic in the Southern Levant from the Perspective of Tabun Cave.” In Préhistoire du Levant: Chronologie et organisation de l'espace depuis les origines jusqu'au VIe millénaire, edited by Jacques Cauvin and Paul Sanlaville, pp. 265–280. Paris, 1981.
- Jelinek, Arthur J. “The Tabun Cave and Paleolithic Man in the Levant.” Science 216 (1982): 1369–1375. .
- Jelinek, Arthur J. “The Amudian in the Context of the Mugharan Tradition at the Tabun Cave (Mount Carmel), Israel.” In The Emergence of Modern Humans, edited by Paul Mellars, pp. 81–90. Edinburgh, 1990.
- Jelinek, Arthur J. “Problems in the Chronology of the Middle Paleolithic and the First Appearance of Early Modern Homo sapiens in Southwest Asia.” In The Evolution and Dispersal of Modern Humans in Asia, edited by Takeru Akazawa et al., pp. 253–275. Tokyo, 1992. .
- McCown, Theodore D., and Arthur Keith. The Stone Age of Mount Carmel, vol. 2, The Fossil Human Remains from the Levalloiso-Mousterian. Oxford, 1939. .
Donald O. Henry