One of the world's most important historic sites ruined by bulldozers

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A ROW has broken out in Israel over what archaeologists say is the destruction of one of the world's most important prehistoric sites, containing priceless information about the life of early man as he migrated out of Africa.

Excavations on the upperJordan river have been under way since 1935, but have stopped since water officials sent in bulldozers - in a secret night-time operation - to dig out the area to prevent flooding.

The scientific community is furious. They say the site, which is on a major prehistoric migratory route, contains fossil bones of elephants, rhinos, hippos, birds and reptiles dating back 750,000 years, plus plants and seeds, tree remains and primitive tools used byHomo erectus, the predecessor of Homo sapiens.

"This is one of only a few sites in the world that provides information about the colonisation of the planet by early man coming from Africa," said Prof Na'ama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University's Department of Prehistoric Archaeology, who has written letters of protest to the Israeli government. Twenty-four researchprojects were underway at the site, including studies of flora and fauna, the landscape and climate and the habits of prehistoric man.

The culprit, the Kinneret Drainage Authority, insisted it had to send in the bulldozers as it was vital to dig out the area to prevent flooding of a nearby farming valley, which has flooded in the past, putting lives at risk. It held off for months because of objections by Israel's Antiquities Authority. But finally the drainage authority - exercising what it claims is its legal right - moved in at night without warning.

An official told the Jerusalem Post that all the diggings had been left nearby "so that archaeologists can examine them thoroughly". But the scientists are not reassured. They say that once roughly removed from the soil, prehistoric remains have little value as they have no "context".

The Antiquities Authority condemned the "act of vandalism", lodged a complaint with the police and secured a temporary court order to stop the digging. It says the site is one of the rarest outside Africa, and thus in the world.

"We want these people to be punished because this was a criminal action," said a spokeswoman. "They knew they did not have any permission to do any work there and did it at night, like thieves."