Economic and industrial progress frequently comes at the expense of environmental sustainability. For the early Iron Age (~ eleventh to ninth centuries BCE) smelters of the ancient copper industry of the Timna Valley, southern Israel, where today the hyper-arid Aravah Desert provides sparse vegetation, woody fuel for metallurgical furnaces constituted the greatest limiting factor for continued operations. This study presents the first investigation into the fuel sources relied upon by this industry during its most intensive period, as reflected by hundreds of charcoal samples collected from two well-stratified and chronologically anchored accumulations of industrial waste. The two sites demonstrate similar results: a heavy reliance on the local vegetation, particularly Retama raetam (white broom) and the ecologically significant Acacia spp. (acacia thorn trees), two high-calorific and high-burning taxa best suited for such purposes. It was also observed that over the course of the industry, the search for fuel expanded, as evidenced by the later appearance of taxa unsuited for the prevailing regional conditions, hinting at the detrimental toll the industry took on the local ecosystem. Altogether, it is suggested that the lucrative copper industry ended due to limits in the availability of fuel, caused by anthropogenic hastening of desertification and environmental degradation.
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