MONTREAL — Quebec filmmaker and science enthusiast Jean Bergeron lived the dream of his life when he dived alongside the discoverer of what has been called the “Atlantis of Israel.”
With some persistence, Bergeron was able to gain the confidence of marine archeologist Ehud Galili, who allowed him to make a documentary about Atlit Yam, a settlement from the late Stone Age now submerged off Israel’s coast, near Haifa.
The result is The Mystery of Atlit Yam: 10,000 Years Under the Sea, which will make its world première – in its original French version – at the Louvre in Paris on June 6.
This is the first film for a wide audience on what is termed the world’s most ancient known underwater archeological site, which lies at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
It flourished between 8,000 and 10,500 years ago.
Advance screenings were held this month at Concordia University, the Université du Québec à Montréal and Université Laval in Quebec City, under the auspices of the Consulate General of Israel, with Bergeron and Galili on hand to talk about their collaboration.
The film is expected to be broadcasted on Radio-Canada, its main financial backer, in September.
Bergeron heads the independent Montreal-based Alpha-Zoulou Films and is a popular science writer (in 2000, he wrote the book The Heirs of Frankenstein), and Galili is associated with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the University of Haifa.
Bergeron, working with a joint Quebec-Israeli crew, got to dive with Galili, making him the first ever to capture the site up close for the world to see.
In 1984, Galili found the first traces of what he dubbed Atlit Yam (Atlit being the nearest coastal town south of Haifa and “yam,” the Hebrew for sea.)
It has taken almost 30 years for divers from around the world to painstakingly uncover the tons of sand and clay under which this village of 40,000 square metres lay and piece together the settlement’s story.
The 30 or so families who lived there at any given time apparently lived peaceful and healthy lives, building homes and growing robust from agriculture, herding, hunting and, especially, fishing.
This was in an age when humans had yet to use metals and didn’t know how to make pottery.
Atlit is about a half-kilometre offshore and approximately 12 metres below sea level. It laid remarkably well preserved over the millenniums.
The coastline was a kilometre farther west into the Mediterranean at that time. The land was gradually inundated with the melting of the last Ice Age glaciers in what is now Canada, according to Galili.
Bergeron has included shots of Quebec’s North Shore, near Baie Comeau, where the water’s receding over thousands of years has left striation in the rock faces.
Despite the hour-long film’s title, quite a lot is known today about how these people lived, judging by Galili’s lecture at Concordia, which was hosted by the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies.
While it is not certain where they came from or where they went, the experts conclude that they looked very similar to modern-day humans. A total of 67 skeletons have been unearthed from graves.
The excavation of Atlit Yam, work that still continues, is far more difficult than digging on land. Divers have to use scuba gear, and equipment had to be invented for the task, including vacuums that suck up the tons of material moved, every speck of which is brought to the surface and combed through carefully.
Although discovered three decades ago, little information has been available to the general public about Atlit Yam until recently.
Bergeron learned about it through his reading of articles in scientific journals, which cited Galili as an author. A diver himself, Bergeron had a particular interest on former human habitations now undersea.
Galili, however, proved to be rather elusive when Bergeron tried to contact him. Bergeron turned to other co-authors of the articles, and one, Tel Aviv University forensic anthropologist Yisrael Herskowitz, who appears in the film, was more forthcoming and helped with an introduction to Galili.
The Atlit Yam people were surprisingly advanced, Galili explained. They constructed homes and walls, and built the most ancient stone-walled wells ever found.
They fashioned arrowheads and tools out of flint, developed the cultivation of grains and fruits (100 species of seeds were uncovered), expanded animal husbandry, including of cattle, and caught fish in quantity, possibly in boats.
Primitive olive-oil presses were found, their existence a half-millennium earlier than it was thought man began such production.
They also erected apparent ritual sites from huge boulders, some weighing a ton each, in a circular formation, almost miniature versions of England’s Stonehenge, which came along 4,000 years later. It was these strange formations that first drew Galili’s attention to the site.
He never dreamed that this was the creation of a prehistoric people, but rather thought the much more recent Phoenicians or Romans may have been responsible.
The Atlit Yam settlers appeared to have had exceptionally long lives, with half of them reaching at least age 50, perhaps due to their ample and varied diet.
Death came mainly from infection, and the site provides the earliest evidence of human tuberculosis and malaria.
Galili hopes that the inspiring story of these resourceful early humans will spur other Mediterranean nations to work together with Israel for the protection and preservation of other underwater archeological sites along the coast, yet to be so explored.
“We hope to build bridges of peace to all whose history goes back to these ancient people,” he said. “A whole chapter in the history of the Holy Land is under the sea, and it is up to we archeologists to find it.”
To see the trailer, visit YouTube and search for “Mystery of Atlit Yam, the official trailer.”