Long before the stories in the bible supposedly took place, the Levant was a beautiful wilderness sparsely populated by humans. The Levant is the region encompassing the modern day boundaries of Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. For millions of years climatic fluctuations have caused a waxing and waning of 2 different types of environments here–Mediterranean evergreen oak woodlands and Irano-Turanan steppe consisting of deciduous oak trees and grassy understories. Habitat for both forest species and grassland fauna has been available during every climatic stage. The region is also a gateway between Eurasia and Africa, so animals from 3 continents converge here, making it rich in diversity. African species such as elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hippos, gazelles, hartebeest, warthog, macaque, hyena, lion, leopard, cheetah, and Cape Hunting dog formerly lived side by side with Eurasian species including aurochs, bison, horse, ass, camel, deer, wild boar, ibex, wolf, and brown bear.
Map of the Levant.
The fossil record suggests the fallow deer ( Dama dama ) was the most common large herbivore in the Levant for over 2 million years. This species prefers fairly dense woodlands, so their abundance in the fossil record surprises me because I always think of this region as arid. However, during Ice Ages, the climate in the Levant was cooler and rainier than it is today, though drier climate phases did occur cyclically. The extinct giant deer ( Megaloceros giganteus ) and elk ( Cervus sp. ), known as red deer in Europe, also made the Levant their home. The wild ibex ( Capra aegargus ), ancestor of the domestic goat ( C. hircus ), was common on rocky hillsides; gazelles, hartebeest, and an extinct species of warthog roamed the grassy plains.
During warmer climate cycles hippos inhabited Lake Kinnaret. Long chains of lakes often existed along the Jordan River, and during some climatic stages Lake Kinnaret joined the extinct Lake Amora and the Dead Sea to become 1 giant primeval lake known as Lake Lisan. Oddly enough, geologists believe Lake Lisan was a freshwater lake in the part that covered the current site of Lake Kinnaret, while the rest of the lake was salty.
A primitive genera of elephants known as stegodon became extinct in Africa about 1 million years ago, but they still lived in the Levant for hundreds of thousands of years past their African extinction. Stegodon survived until the end of the Pleistocene in southeastern Asia. Two species of elephants roamed the Levant during the Late Pleistocene–the steppe mammoth ( Mammuthus trogontherii ) and the straight-tusked elephant ( Paleoloxodon antiquus ). The former evolved into the woolly mammoth during a later Ice Age. Straight-tusked elephants were a temperate species that couldn’t survive the climate deterioration of the last Ice Age in most of Eurasia. However, the Levant probably provided a refuge for this species then. I hypothesize humans overhunted straight-tusked elephants to extinction in their final refugia. And I believe the same fate befell the temperate species of rhino ( Stephanorhinus hemiotoechus ) that occurred throughout Eurasia. The Levant likely served as a refuge for these 2 species of megafauna during previous glacials, but human populations and/or hunting skills increased enough to permanently eliminate these slow breeding animals sometime within the timespan of the most recent Ice Age.
The lion ( Panthera leo ) that lived in the Levant was the same subspecies as the Asiatic lion found today in 1 small area of India–the Gir Forest. This big cat survived in remote regions of the Levant until the 19th century. There is still a small population of leopards in the Levant. Two species of wolves ranged through the Levant–the timber wolf ( Canis lupus ) and the Egyptian wolf ( C. lupaster ). Though the latter species occasionally interbreeds with golden jackals ( C. aureus ), a genetic study determined they are more closely related to C. lupus. A single specimen of Cape Hunting dog ( Lycaon pictus ) was excavated from Hayonim Cave, Israel. The paper written about this site incorrectly states this as the only fossil material of Cape Hunting dog ever found outside Africa, but fossils of closely related species have been discovered in Alaska and Texas.
Asiatic lions in Gir Forest–the same subspecies lived in the Levant until the 19th century.
Pleistocene megafauna suffered fewer extinctions in the Levant than in the Americas. Wildlife there co-occurred for a longer time with low populations of primitive humans and had time to evolve better avoidance strategies. Moreover, many Levant species that did become extinct in the wild still live on as domesticated descendents. Nevertheless, most of the megafauna species were extirpated from the Levant by the 20th century.
Marder, Ofer; et. al.
“Mammal Remains of Rantis Cave, Israel and mid to late Pleistocene Paleoenvironment and Subsistence in the Levant”
Journal of Quaternary Science 2011
Stimer, Mary; and Ofer Bar-Yozef
“The Fauna of Hayonim Cave, Israel: A 200,000 Year Record of Paleolithic”
American School of Prehistoric Research 48 2009