A Survey of the Prehistoric Settlements at Jericho

By the time of the great empires of the ancient Middle East, the city of Jericho was already an important military and commercial centre. One account of its fall even appears in the Judeo-Christian Bible. However, Jericho’s history is much older, with prehistoric settlements dating back to almost 10,000 B.C. This makes Jericho one of the oldest surviving cities anywhere in the world.

According to anthropologist Bruce Owen of Sonoma State University, the spring and oasis at Jericho were the site of camps and settlements for thousands of years before a genuine city appeared, with permanent buildings and defensive walls. The first inhabitants were probably Natufian nomads who set up relatively permanent camps but spent most of their time away, foraging for wild wheat. The Natufian settlers appeared around 9,600 B.C. Earth’s climate was just emerging from a cold spell known as the Younger Dryas, during which vegetation in the region might have been too sparse to support these settlements. Owen says that there were around 200 Natufians at Jericho at any one time. The Natufian phase at Jericho is marked by round stone houses and remnants of stone tools.

Within a thousand years, however, the Natufians were being replaced by an unknown agrarian culture. Archaeologists know these people by the dry title of “Pre-Pottery Neolithic A,” or “PPNA” for short. Andie Byrnes, an archaeology researcher at University College London, says that the name simply means that the PPNA people farmed the land, unlike the Natufians, but didn’t make ceramic pottery, like the people who came after them did. Beyond this, archaeologists know very little about the PPNA people, except that they embarked upon a period of great construction at Jericho by 8,000 B.C. According to Owen, during the PPNA era, Jericho became a sizeable town of mud brick houses with a population of anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people.

Their most important accomplishment was the first known wall of Jericho. It was made of stone and reached about 13 feet high. A much higher stone tower was then built to overlook the town’s defences. To Owen, walls of such size were “absolutely unprecedented” during that period of Middle Eastern prehistory. Such a wall implies that the PPNA people of Jericho feared an unusually powerful enemy – and that they were able to organize themselves in unprecedented ways to coordinate such a massive construction project.

At this point, an archaeological mystery occurred: The PPNA people abandoned Jericho. Owen says his fellow archaeologists still aren’t sure why, since this set of walls shows no evidence of having been destroyed. In any case, over the next several thousand years, Jericho was regularly occupied, briefly abandoned, and then reoccupied again by various groups. After the PPNA phase, for instance, it was held by a second unknown culture. (Because they know little about these people either, archaeologists call them the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B people, or PPNB). The PPNB people abandoned Jericho around 6,000 B.C.

During the 20th century, archaeologists linked the biblical story of the destruction of Jericho with the rise and fall of one of these periodic resettlements. This site is designated “City IV” and attributed to Canaanite settlers. This set of ruins, unearthed in the mid-20th century, definitely featured the largest and most elaborate defensive walls, a multi-tiered system of earthen mounds, stone walls and mud brick ones. The houses at City IV also suggest that the city was destroyed during some sort of major catastrophe, possibly an earthquake followed by a fire.

These findings have been intensely controversial. Some Jews and Christians have taken them as evidence for the biblical account of Jericho’s destruction. Archaeologists counter that City IV was destroyed by about 1,600 B.C., and would have laid in ruins by the time the Israelite forces swept through the area under Joshua (if, indeed, they ever did). In any case, the site was once again uninhabited for quite some time, but it was eventually resettled. The most recent resettlement, and the current version of the city of Jericho, is located at a slight distance from the sites of the ancient cities and prehistoric settlements.