Abstract A detailed GC/MS study of biological marker compounds in the saturated and aromatic hydrocarbon fractions of oils and asphalts from the Dead Sea area, Israel, provided decisive information to the solution of a long-lasting controversy by showing that the asphalts are products of early generation in an immature stage from the same type of carbonate source rock which generated more mature oils. The asphalts are not biodegraded residues of the oils. Oils from six different wells, and asphalts from wells, outcrops, and a floating block from the Dead Sea all have very similar sterane and triterpane patterns. They all lack rearranged steranes (diasteranes) indicating a carbonate source matrix and compare reasonably well with a sample of Upper Cretaceous bituminous chalk from Nebi Musa. The main difference between the oils and the asphalts is a significantly higher triaromatic to mono- plus triaromatic steroid hydrocarbon ratio in the former. This is explained as a result of rapid subsidence and heating of their source rock close to the deep parts of the Dead Sea graben. The oils thus were generated in the more deeply buried source rock blocks under the graben fill, whereas the asphalts either originate from an immature source rock section closer to the graben rims or represent an earlier phase of generation and expulsion. This study also provides general information on the evolution of biological markers in carbonate source rocks. Low-activation-energy processes, like isomerisation of steranes, appear to occur much faster at low temperatures than in shales. The high sulfur content and less cross-linking of the biogenic organic matter into a complex kerogen structure are suggested to be responsible for this. Care should be taken when using only sterane isomerisation to assess the maturity of hydrocarbons from carbonate rocks and of carbonate-derived oils.