In the archaeological record of the Natufian period, from about 12,500 to 10,200 years ago, in the part of the Middle East known as the Levant―roughly east of the Mediterranean and north of the Arabian Peninsula―we see clear evidence of agricultural origins. The stone tools of the Natufians included many sickle-shaped cutting blades that show a pattern of wear characteristic of cereal harvesting. Also, querns (hand mills) and other stone tools used for processing grain occur in abundance at Natufian sites, and many such tools show signs of long, intensive use . Along with the sickle blades are many grinding stones, primarily mortars and pestles of limestone or basalt. There is also evidence that these heavy grinding stones were transported over long distances, more than 30 kilometers in some cases, and this is not something known to have been done by people of preceding periods. Fishhooks and weights for sinking fishing nets attest to the growing importance of fish in the diet in some areas. Stone vessels indicate an increased need for containers, but there is no evidence of Natufian clay working or pottery. Studies of the teeth of Natufians also strongly suggest that these people specialized in collecting cereals and may have been cultivating them and in the process of domesticating them, but they were also still hunter-foragers who intensively hunted gazelle and deer in more lush areas and wild goats and equids in more arid zones.
The Natufians had a different settlement pattern from that of their predecessors. Some of their base camps were far larger (over 1,000 square meters) than any of those belonging to earlier periods, and they may have lived in some of these camps for half the year or even more. In some of the camps, people made foundations and other architectural elements out of limestone blocks. Trade in shell, obsidian, and other commodities seems to have been on the rise, and anthropologists suspect that the exchange of perishables (such as skins, foodstuffs) and salt was also on the increase. With the growing importance of wild cereals in the diet, salt probably became for the first time a near necessity: people who eat a lot of meat get many essential salts from this diet, but diets based on cereals can be deficient in salts. Salt was probably also important as a food preservative in early villages.
As always, there is more to a major cultural change than simply a shift in economics. The Natufians made (and presumably wore) beads and pendants in many materials, including gemstones and marine shells that had to be imported, and it is possible that this ornamentation actually reflects a growing sense of ethnic identity and perhaps some differences in personal and group status. Cleverly carved figurines of animals, women, and other subjects occur in many sites, and Natufian period cave paintings have been found in Anatolia, Syria, and Iran.More than 400 Natufian burials have been found, most of them simple graves set in house floors. As archaeologist Belfer-Cohen notes, these burials may reflect an ancestor cult and a growing sense of community emotional ties and attachment to a particular place, and toward the end of the Natufian period, people in this area were making a strict separation between living quarters and burial grounds. In contrast with the Pleistocene cultures of the Levant, Natufian culture appears to have experienced considerable social change.
The question of why the Natufians differed from their predecessors in these and other ways and why they made these first steps toward farming as a way of life remains unclear. There were climate changes, of course, and growing aridity and rising population densities may have forced them to intensify the exploitation of cereals, which in turn might have stimulated the development of sickles and other tools and the permanent communities that make agriculture efficient. But precisely how these factors interacted with others at play is poorly understood.