For our first adventure in Israel, we only had a few hours after Austin’s initial work orientation day and before the start of Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath starts at sundown on Friday night). So, we stayed close to our home base of Haifa and drove a few minutes south to Nahal Me’arot Nature Preserve. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the caves in this area house archaeological evidence of Neanderthal and human habitation for the past 500,000 years! When we arrived, we only had about an hour to explore before it closed for the Sabbath, so we bought tickets at the gift shop and headed out to the short cave trail. The nature preserve has several hiking trails, clearly marked by color and of varying length. Because we were short on time, we opted not to hike this time around, but to look at the caves and learn more about the significance of the site.
This area was an ancient coral reef before humans lived here. The cliffs were full of holes made by rudists (a kind of shelled sea creature) and other animals. The fossilized remains of these animals were clearly seen in the rocks surrounding the caves. After climbing the stairs to the first cave, we looked out across the wadi (dry ravine) to Etsba Cliff, which was once the core of the fossilized reef.
The first cave we saw showed different geological strata and the archaeological evidence they have of continuous habitation through three different cultures and thousands upon thousands of years! Archaeologists have found different tools in the strata showing progress from primitive hand stones to scrapers and points for hunting. They found the remains of deer, gazelles, hippos, and extinct species of camel and rhinoceros in the cave. In the Mousterian culture time period (250,000-50,000 years ago), there were two different prehistoric human groups living in the caves- Neanderthals and modern humans! It is the only instance in the world of two different hominoids living in such close proximity. The land of Israel seems to have always been a crossroads between different peoples and cultures throughout the ages!
This cave had very helpful signs that highlighted different findings in the strata. It was cool to see this cave first, and learn about all the different people who lived in the cave over thousands of years. We were learning about real-life cave people! The strata cave was not too interesting for Landon, but the next cave with the cave people showing a typical cave dwelling certainly caught his attention! They found flint tools in this cave during excavations.
All of these caves are karstic caves, formed when rainwater seeped down through the soil and dissolved the limestone underneath (like Cave of the Mounds!) The last cave we explored was the largest of them all- 90 m to the end of the passageway. This cave was inhabited more recently, first inside the cave, and then a settlement was built at the entrance of the cave. There, archaeologists found a cemetery with shells and a wild boar’s jaw bone adorning the dead. They found a retaining wall and more advanced tools- some made of bone or horn. This cave was all lit up in different colors, and had an impressive entry way. There was a movie at the back of the cave, but we came in right as it was ending, and it didn’t restart by the time we were done looking around.
Had we planned more time, we would have also at least taken the geological hiking route around to the top of the reef mountain opposite the caves. There are many different options for hiking, but the man who sold us our tickets said that the gate locked at 4, so we wanted to make sure we didn’t get stuck inside! I think he meant the gate into the cave area, but we did not take any chances.
Nahal Mea’rot nature preserve was a beautiful and family-friendly place to spend some time outdoors. We liked the short hike exploring the prehistoric caves, and we wish we had more time to do more hiking! The setting of the preserve is beautiful with the rock contrasted with the surrounding vegetation. We would definitely return to hike more if we had time! We packed our toddler in a baby carrier as this site was not stroller friendly. With picnic tables, bathrooms and a small gift shop at the entrance, this place had everything we needed for a nice day relishing the ancient history of Israel!