A huge prehistoric settlement discovered near Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologists offers new insight into how civilizations developed around the end of the Stone Age.

The 9000-year-old metropolis, uncovered during a survey before the construction of a new highway, is one of the biggest ever found, the Israel Antiquities Authority said.

The team estimated 2000 to 3000 people lived there, which would parallel a city by modern standards. It covered dozens of acres near what is today the town of Motza, some 5km west of Jerusalem.

Archeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority Hamoudi Khalaily holds a 9000-year-old stone figurine depicting a human face, found at the excavation site of a settlement from the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age).

Archeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority Hamoudi Khalaily holds a 9000-year-old stone figurine depicting a human face, found at the excavation site of a settlement from the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age). Photo: AFP / Gali Tibbon

Before the discovery, it was widely believed the entire area had been uninhabited in that period, during which people were shifting away from hunting for survival to a more sedentary lifestyle that included farming.

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“This is most probably the largest excavation of this time period in the Middle East, which will allow the research to advance leaps and bounds ahead of where we are today, just by the amount of material that we are able to save and preserve from this site,” Lauren Davis, an archaeologist with Israel’s antiquities authority, told Reuters.

The excavation exposed large buildings, alleyways and burial places, evidence of a relatively advanced level of planning, the antiquities authority said in a statement.

The team also found storage sheds that contained large quantities of legumes, particularly lentils, whose seeds were remarkably preserved throughout the millennia.

“This finding is evidence of an intensive practice of agriculture,” according to the statement. “Animal bones found on the site show that the settlement’s residents became increasingly specialized in sheep-keeping, while the use of hunting for survival gradually decreased.”

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Also found were flint tools, including thousands of arrowheads, axes for chopping down trees, sickle blades and knives.

-Reuters