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Human and animal footprints found in Tabuk, northern Saudi Arabia. Source: Heritage Commission Press Release

Footprints Reveal Passage of Early Humans From Africa Through Arabia

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In Saudi Arabia , an astonishing discovery has been made in the north-western desert. A team of archaeologists have found evidence of the oldest human habitation in the Arabian Peninsula . Several ancient footprints, made by humans, have also been found. These ancient footprints and other artifacts found in the area are providing researchers with a new window into the lives of some of our earliest ancestors, and the environment of the region over 120,000 years ago.

For ten years Saudi Arabian and international research teams, including the prominent Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History , have been engaged in fieldwork in some of the most inhospitable areas in the country. Their work is part of the Green Arabian Peninsula project which seeks to uncover evidence from a distant period when the area was much greener and wetter than today. The researchers focused on coastal areas and former volcanic hotspots, looking, especially, for evidence of early humans. Arab News reports that the Saudi government is “making great efforts to preserve and highlight mankind’s shared history.”

Dr Jasir Al-Herbish, Saudi Heritage Commission CEO, during the press conference. (Heritage Commission Press Release)

Dr Jasir Al-Herbish, Saudi Heritage Commission CEO, during the press conference. ( Heritage Commission Press Release )

Earliest Human Habitation In The Arabian Peninsula

Dr Jasir Al-Herbish, CEO of the Saudi Heritage Commission, which is part of the Ministry of Culture, announced this major ancient discovery at a press conference with local and international media. He told the assembled audience that researchers had found evidence of human habitation in “an ancient dry lake on the outskirts of Tabuk, in the kingdom's northwestern region,” reports The National . Astonishingly there is evidence of human activity dating back some 120,000 years, not long after modern humans first started to migrate out of Africa and into Eurasia. Dr Al-Herbish is quoted by the Saudi Gazette as saying that the discovery “represents the first scientific evidence of the oldest human habitation in the Arabian Peninsula.”

The research indicated that there were once many water sources which allowed humans and animals to survive in what is now a very arid and desolate area. Dr Al-Herbish was quoted by the Saudi Gazette as saying that:

”The team identified footprint traces of seven humans, 107 camels, 43 elephants and other animal traces from ibex, deer and bovine families, which were moving in groups of adults and offspring.”

Professor Michael Petraglia, the research study's senior author, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, taking a break with an iconic falcon in Saudi Arabia. (Conversations in Human Evolution)

Professor Michael Petraglia, the research study's senior author, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, taking a break with an iconic falcon in Saudi Arabia. ( Conversations in Human Evolution )

Evidence Of Elephants And Tigers In Ancient Arabia

It appears that many animals long extinct in the Arabian Peninsula lived around these prehistoric water pools, including elephants and oryx. Other extinct animals that once roamed this area include tigers and hyenas. In the past, the Nafud desert was similar to the modern African savannah . This is an indication of how much the climate of the Arabian Peninsula has changed, over the millennia.

Further investigations at the site indicated that there were seven archaeological layers. Some ancient stone tools were found that have been categorized as Acheulean, these are mainly oval-shaped hand axes. These stones were found to have been made by humans and their shape was not a result of erosion. These finds would show the existence of a stone industry, which was similar to finds in Africa, especially in the famous Olduvai Gorge .

An Acheulean flint found in the Arabian Desert, not far from Tabuk. (Palaeodeserts)

An Acheulean flint found in the Arabian Desert, not far from Tabuk. ( Palaeodeserts)

Early Humans Lived In Arabia Way Before We Thought!

There is also strong evidence, from elsewhere in the Kingdom that there were communities of early humans in Arabia. Earlier, the same team identified ancient footprints that belonged to human adults that date back 85,000 years, near an ancient lake also in the Nafud Desert. Furthermore, evidence was found from about 200,000 years ago of human groups living in Dawadmi, located 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of Riyadh. This is from a period when our ancestors had begun to migrate out of Africa to Eurasia. Increasingly it is being recognized that the Arabian Peninsula was on one of the migration routes taken by early humans.

In a Saudi Heritage Commission press release, Dr Al-Herbish in stated that “Discoveries such as these help us to contextualize the Kingdom’s history, allowing us to better understand the journey of our forebears from ancient civilization to where we are today,” reports The National . The latest findings, with the ancient footprints being the most spectacular, prove that way back in time the Arabian Peninsula was indeed incredibly different. During this key prehistoric period Arabia was green and there was lots of water, making it perfect for our distant ancestors to gradually move out of Africa into entirely new regions. These ancient footprints found on the Arabian Peninsula are leading researchers forward in their quest to understand how and when early humans went “out of Africa.”

Top image: Human and animal footprints found in Tabuk, northern Saudi Arabia. Source: Heritage Commission Press Release

By Ed Whelan

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