News

Green Arabia Drilling Workshop

Interdisciplinary researchers at Green Arabia Drilling Workshop

A number of interdisciplinary scientists recently met at the Max Planck, in Jena, Germany, to explore the potential of the Jubbah sediment record and how state of the art research methods and protocols can be applied. The workshop hosted leading scientists in such fields as chronological dating techniques, sedimentology, geochemistry, palaeoecology, mapping, archaeology and archaeogenetics. New research will now be conducted to examine the environmental history of Jubbah palaeolake and the Nefud Desert. For more information click here

Core cutting in Potsdam

Jubbah palaeolake core cutting at the GFZ, in Potsdam, Germany

The Jubbah palaeolake was recently drilled by Saudi Aramco, and supported by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. 80 meters of drill cores were sent to the GFZ in Potsdam, Germany, for storage and core cutting. A entire drill core has been recently split, allowing the team to observe a number of environmental changes through time. A team of interdisciplinary scientists will come together to analyse the sedimentary history of the lake through time. The sedimentary and environmental history of the Jubbah palaeolake and the Nefud Desert will now be documented and published over the next several years. 

Drilling of the Jubbah palaeolake

Drilling of Jubbah palaeolake in the Nefud Desert of Saudia Arabia. 

The Jubbah palaeolake has been successfully drilled, providing an unprecedented opportunity to examine environmental change in Saudi Arabia from the present and back to more than 500,000 years ago. It is expected that the drill cores will show fluctuations in the lake through time, from a deep water body to a dried up bed. Fluctuations in lake levels are likely to shed light on the ability of humans to live in the Nefud Desert during both wet and dry periods.  The project is supported by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Saudi Aramco, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.  

Unravelling the pattern, impacts and drivers of early modern human dispersals from Africa

Excavations along ancient lake shorelines in Saudi Arabia. New excavations will examine past environments and assess when early human populations migrated across Arabia.

A team of researchers has been awarded a grant by the Leverhulme Trust to explore the migrations of humans out of Africa. The project is led by Simon Blockley of Royal Holloway, University of London, Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Simon Armitage of Royal Holloway, University of London, and Chris Stringer of the British Natural History Museum. The project began on July 1, 2017, and is titled “Unravelling the pattern, impacts and drivers of early modern human dispersals from Africa.”  For more information, click here.

Fossil of extinct elephant found in the Arabian Peninsula

The Pleistocene vertebrate record of the Arabian Peninsula is poorly known. In our latest paper we report on an important contribution to the record and describe the results of collaborative investigations with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage and Saudi Geological Survey of the fossil site of Ti’s al Ghadah in the southwestern Nefud desert.

Excavations underway at Ti’s al Ghadah

Excavations underway at Ti’s al Ghadah

Our dating analyses indicate that the fossil assemblages, which were recovered in situ underlying an ancient lake deposit, are c. 500, 000 years old. The identified animals indicates the presence of large bodies of water and substantial grassland habitats in the Pleistocene of the southwestern Nefud: we infer that animal bones accumulated at Ti’s al Ghadah because herbivores, as well as their predators and scavengers, were attracted to freshwater and plant resources in the inter-dune basin.

The identified assemblages include extinct mammals such as the elephant, Palaeoloxodon, and the Eurasian jaguar, Panthera cf. gombaszogensis, as well as extant mammals such as oryx, onager and golden wolf. The excavations also yielded the first stratified Pleistocene bird bones from the Arabian Peninsula, which include records of Egyptian vulture, grebe, ostrich and sandgrouse.

Read more in Middle Pleistocene vertebrate fossils from the Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia: Implications for biogeography and palaeoecology in Quaternary Science Reviews.

 

Lions and leopards: estimating early Holocene prey biomass from the rock art of Shuwaymis

The prehistoric environment of northwestern Arabia remains largely unknown. In this paper we use the animal species depicted in the rock art of Shuwaymis to reconstruct carnivore populations and prey biomass requirements. A typical pride of lions would have required over 38,000 kg of prey or approximately 166 onager to survive in the area, while a single leopard would have required a biomass equivalent to 72 mountain gazelles.

Habitat and prey preferences (based on mass) for a hypothetical Shuwaymis community for the early period of rock art. Preferred prey in black lines and prey taken relative to abundance in grey lines. Cattle are indicated in grey

Habitat and prey preferences (based on mass) for a hypothetical Shuwaymis community for the early period of rock art. Preferred prey in black lines and prey taken relative to abundance in grey lines. Cattle are indicated in grey

The simultaneous presence of lion, leopard and cheetah also suggests a mosaic of habitats with thicker vegetation along the water courses of the wadis and more open vegetation in the landscape around them. Moreover, the long-term persistence of large carnivores suggests that they were connected to larger metapopulations outside Shuwaymis, with corridors that allowed immigration and emigration of individuals.

CosmosCommunity Earth System Models (COSMOS) climate simulations show that Shuwaymis was at the northern edge of the African Summer Monsoon rainfall regime during the Holocene humid phase. This suggests that Shuwaymis was ecologically connected with the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula and that large carnivores are likely to have found suitable habitats in the areas that were reached by the monsoon.

Read more in Rock art imagery as a proxy for Holocene environmental change: A view from Shuwaymis, NW Saudi Arabia in The Holocene.

 

 

Using 3D photogrammetry to analyse handaxes

2D image of handaxe from the Nefud

2D image of handaxe from the Nefud

 

Increasingly, 3D artefact models are being used as the foundation for analysing shape differences between handaxes, enabling a much greater understanding of variation in the Arabian Lower Palaeolithic.

On the right is a 2D image of a handaxe found in the Nefud desert by the Palaeodeserts team in 2015.

The 3D model below of the same handaxe is constructed from a series of 2D photographic images and allows us to analyse shape differences in such handaxes in much greater detail, using geometric morphometric techniques. 

Saudi Arabia handaxe by ellie_s on Sketchfab

 

Note: Use Google Chrome to view the 3D image; 3D does not work on Internet Explorer

Oxford and Cambridge collaboration

Palaeodeserts team members from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, along with other collaborators, are currently analysing early stone tools and their landscape settings from the Dawadmi area of central Saudi Arabia.

Oxford collaboration - crop

Huw Groucutt with a large flake found by the team in the Dawadmi area of Saudi Arabia. The flake was made hundreds of thousands of years ago by early humans

Recent fieldwork identified a huge number of sites dating to the Acheulean (Lower Palaeolithic). These include the only excavated site for this period in Arabia, for which we are currently finalising the age results using optically stimulated luminescence dating.

These are fascinating archaeological sites where early humans produced extremely large flakes (see picture), which were then shaped into handaxes that could be used for a variety of tasks. The density of Acheulean sites in this part of Saudi Arabia makes it one of the most important areas anywhere in the world for understanding this period.

How did Homo sapiens expand out of Africa into Eurasia?

Current fossil, genetic, and archaeological data indicate that Homo sapiens originated in Africa in the late Middle Pleistocene. By the end of the Late Pleistocene, our species was distributed across every continent except Antarctica, setting the foundations for the subsequent demographic and cultural changes of the Holocene. The intervening processes remain intensely debated and a key theme in hominin evolutionary studies.

EA Paper Figure 3 copy - crop

The distribution of Middle Paleolithic sites across East Africa, the Saharo-Arabian belt, and India, plotted on a modeled precipitation map for the last interglacial (MIS 5) with positions of major paleolakes (dark blue areas) and paleorivers, which form extensive riparian corridors (blue lines)

In this paper we review archaeological, fossil, environmental, and genetic data to evaluate the current state of knowledge on the dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa. The emerging picture of the dispersal process suggests dynamic behavioral variability, complex interactions between populations, and an intricate genetic and cultural legacy. This evolutionary and historical complexity challenges simple narratives and suggests that hybrid models and the testing of explicit hypotheses are required to understand the expansion of Homo sapiens into Eurasia.

Read  more in Rethinking the Dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa in Evolutionary Anthropology.

The western Nefud from the air

In January 2016, colleagues from the Palaeodeserts project and Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) performed a collaborative aerial survey of locations across the western Nefud.
PB - 3

Dr’s Armitage and Groucutt surveying the Nefud from the air

 

Sampling - PB 2

Dr Iyad Zalmout of the SGS and the SGS helicopter

The use of the SGS helicopter allowed the team to examine numerous new locations deep in the Nefud, where major lake sediment outcrops testify to much wetter episodes in the past of this arid area.

 

In combination with the analysis of satellite datasets, the results of these collaborative expeditions are revealing the overall distribution of surviving lake sediments, fossils and archaeology across the whole western Nefud, including areas away from the accessible desert fringes.

The team sampling and surveying deep in the Nefud desert

The team sampling and surveying deep in the Nefud desert

By using these data, and dating the lake sediments and archaeology and fossils that highlight their former exploitation by prehistoric populations and animals, the team is gradually forming a picture of how the environments and occupation of this area of the Nefud have changed over prehistory.