Researchers Discover Prehistoric Human Habitation Sites in the Nefud Desert

Thirteen sites could tell a story of human dispersal and survival in the northern desert region of Saudi Arabia.

Looking down from space in earth orbit, the Nefud Desert appears as an arid oval depression across the northern reaches of the Arabian Peninsula. On the ground, it is known for its sudden violent winds, large crescent-shaped dunes, and brick-red colored sand. It is 290 km (180 miles) long and 225 km (140 miles) wide, with an area of 103,600 km² (40,000 square miles). It sees rain only once or twice a year.

But in antiquity, there were lakes scattered across this otherwise unforgiving land.

Dr. Eleanor M.L. Scerri of the University of Bordeaux and her colleagues call them ‘paleolakes’. Today these ancient lakes are only arid areas with sediments and other stratigraphic features that tell us that there was once water in these places. But investigating scientists have also found that they contain fossil flora, fauna and archaeological features and artifacts— evidence that, at one time, tens of thousands of years ago, there were also plants, animals, and humans along their shores.

In a research report published online in the journal Quaternary International, Scerri and colleagues detail their discovery of 13 sites dated to Lower (2.5 m to 300,000 years ago) and Middle (300,000 to 30,000 years ago) Palaeolithic times that are associated with palaeolake basins. “One of the sites, T’is al Ghadah, may feature the earliest Middle Palaeolithic assemblage of Arabia,” writes Scerri, et al.*. The sites were discovered during a regional survey conducted under the auspices of the Palaeodeserts Project.

“Preliminary analyses show that the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic sites discovered display diverse technological characteristics, indicating that the Nefud was important for population turnovers and exchanges throughout the Pleistocene. Periodic environmental amelioration [improvement, or wet periods] appears to have attracted hominin [early human] incursions into the region, and subsequent ephemeral (short-term) occupations structured around lakes and, to a lesser extent, raw material sources.”*

In other words, according to Scerri and her research colleagues, ancient humans came and went in this region, following the rivers and settling around the lakes during wet periods, bringing with them stone tool cultures that differed among groups depending upon the time period of their arrival and their culture and, perhaps, where they originally came from. Who were these ancient humans? What human species did they represent? This is still a question open to debate among scholars…………thus far, no human fossils have been found at any of the sites.

Despite the diversity in their technologies, the researchers suggest that there was at least one common characteristic among these various ancient groups. “A rarity of formal tools, but strong similarities in lithic production techniques, are also suggestive of demographic affinities across the Nefud during the Pleistocene, and perhaps beyond”.* So how they produced their tools could give clues to their cross-cultural relationship, and perhaps their common origins.

The recent survey is one of a number of efforts by researchers under the Palaeodeserts Project designed to collect data that could eventually either support or refute their research model of human dispersal and habitation from northeastern Africa through Arabia and beyond. For Scerri, including Palaeodeserts Project head Michael Petraglia, early modern humans may have arrived at various times from northeastern Africa, traversing what is called the ‘Saharo-Arabian belt’ via land routes perhaps as early as more than 100,000 years ago and eventually crossing or settling in India. It is a theory, based on years of past research, that may help to explain how Southwest Asia saw the presence of early modern humans in prehistory. Considered controversial by some scholars, it contrasts with one widely-held theory that holds that early modern humans dispersed rapidly out of Africa into South Asia primarily along the coasts about 55,000 years ago. Championed by scholars such as Sir Paul Mellars, the evidence for this movement shows up in small blade technologies, very similar to stone tools made in what is called the ‘Howiesons Poort‘ industries of southern Africa, and symbolic items such as beads, incised and decorated items and bone tools. But Scerri, Petraglia, and others suggest a different scenario. “Human movements across Southern Asia would have been slow, continental advances during humid periods, and contractions (and even extinctions) during arid periods. This is opposed to the view that modern humans moved rapidly out of Africa and across Asia circa 60,000 years ago using coastal corridors. Mapping of environments from Arabia to Southeast Asia indicate dramatic variability in habitats. We argue that differences in environments would have shaped demographic responses through time.” Moreover, write the Paleodeserts Project authors, “major revisions in genetic coalescence ages, based on nuclear genome studies, suggest that Out of Africa movements may date to 120,000 years ago, which would correspond with fossils of Homo sapiens in the Levant and Middle Palaeolithic technologies in southern Asia.”** 

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firstarabians1View of area being surveyed for archaeological sites in the western part of the Nefud desert. (credit: Eleanor Scerri/Palaeodeserts Project)

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firstarabians2Sediments at the Jubbah site, a site excavated in the Nefud Desert, show environmental change through time. Young orange sand is on the surface; white sediments represent a phase of lake formation around 125,000 years ago; the fine sands below this date to more than 200,000 thousand years ago and contain some of the oldest identified Middle Palaeolithic artifacts in Arabia. (credit: Huw Groucutt/Palaeodeserts Project)

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Above: Topographic map showing locations of lithic artifacts around the Jubbah Paleolake. Jubbah is one among a number of sites in the Nefud that provide evidence of a Middle Palaeolithic human presence.

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Answering the questions revolving around whether or not early modern humans crossed over into Asia from Africa via coastal or inland routs, or both—and when—will be left to further research. But evidence thus far suggests an ancient human presence in the Nefud that may bear significantly on the study of prehistoric human dispersal. Conclude the report authors:

“These preliminary results support the view that the Arabian Peninsula was a critically important region of southwest Asia during the Late Pleistocene, in which demographic responses to climatic amelioration may have structured connectivity across the Saharo-Arabian belt, the Levant and as far as India.”*

But as Scerri, Petraglia, and other scholars would likely say, time and more research will tell the story.

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For a more extensive review of the discoveries now being made in Saudi Arabia, see the featured premium article published in the June 2014 issue of Popular Archaeology Magazine.

*Abstract from: Eleanor M.L. Scerri, Paul S. Breeze, Ash Parton, Huw S. Groucutt,Tom S. White, Christopher Stimpson, Laine Clark-Balzan, Richard Jennings, Abdullah Alsharekh, Michael D. Petraglia, Middle to Late Pleistocene human habitation in the western Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia, DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2014.09.036  2014 Quaternary International

**http://trackingourancestors.com/

Cover Photo, Top Left: View of area being surveyed for archaeological sites in the western part of the Nefud desert. (credit: Eleanor Scerri/Palaeodeserts Project)

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Dan McLerran

As Founder and Editor of Popular Archaeology Magazine, Dan is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in archaeology.  He studied anthropology and archaeology in undergraduate and graduate school and has been an active participant on archaeological excavations in the U.S. and abroad.  He is the creator and administrator of Archaeological Digs, a popular weblog about archaeological excavation and field school opportunities.