Human occupation of the Arabian Empty Quarter more than 80,000 years ago

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Dr Ceri Shipton with stone tool excavated from Mundafan

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Two stone tools excavated from Mundafan

Recent excavations by the Palaeodeserts team in the Arabian Empty Quarter, the largest sandy desert in the world, have provided the first evidence of human occupation going back more than 80,000 years. Using a range of luminescence dating techniques, the Middle Palaeolithic artefacts recovered from the stratified sediments at the site of Mundafan Al-Buhayrah, have been dated to between 100,000 and 80,000 years old.

The discovery of securely-dated archaeological material in the Empty Quarter, including stone tools, has important implications for hypotheses concerning the timing and routes of the dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa into Eurasia.

Read more in Human occupation of the Arabian Empty Quarter during MIS 5: evidence from Mundafan Al-Buhayrah, Saudi Arabia.

Working with the Saudi Geological Survey

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Paul Breeze (left) and Dr Huw Groucutt prepare for a flight over remote parts of the Nefud in the Saudi Geological Survey helicopter

Collaboration between the Palaeodeserts Project and the Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) continued on the field trip to the Nefud desert of northern Saudi Arabia in January 2016, with SGS kindly offering the use of their helicopter to survey some of the remotest parts of the Nefud.

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Aerial view of the Nefud showing a major lake sediment outcrop testifying to much wetter episodes in the past

Access to parts of the desert which can only easily be reached by air gave us unprecedented access to palaeolakes (ancient lakes) deep in the desert, which were magnets for animals and early humans.

We are employing a variety of scientific techniques to date these lake sediments and are examining the archaeology and fossils that highlight the former exploitation of the lakes by prehistoric populations and animals. Analysis of these remote sites will provide important new information on climate change, the variety of ancient animals living in Arabia, how the environments and occupation of the Nefud have changed over prehistory, and the movement of early humans out of Africa.


HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman visits rock art team


Dr Maria Guagnin showing new rock art discoveries to HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz

His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) and sponsor of the Palaeodeserts Project, was joined by Dr Ali bin Ibrahim Al Ghabban, Vice President of SCTH, and Dr Saad Abdulalziz Al-Rashid on a visit to see the team at work during their field season in Jubbah. Leader of the field season, Dr Maria Guagnin, demonstrated to the Prince newly-discovered rock art panels, which include ancient engravings of large human figures and paintings probably dating to the first millennium BC.

Saudi Shura Council hear more about early Arabians

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Dr. Prince Khalid Abdullah Mohammad Moqrin Al-Meshari Al Saud (on left) examines ancient stone tool

Dr. Prince Khalid Abdullah Mohammad Moqrin Al-Meshari Al Saud and other members of the Saudi Shura Council visited Oxford to learn more about the work of the Palaeodeserts Project in Saudi Arabia. The Council members were fascinated to learn that far from being a desert, the region was once covered by lush vegetation and criss-crossed by rivers, providing rich hunting grounds for our ancestors.

The Council heard that varied disciplines in the Palaeodeserts team, including archaeology, palaeontology, geochronology and mapping, have come together to take a multidisciplinary look at the role played by the Arabian Peninsula in the movement of early humans out of Africa. Michael Petraglia described how the team have uncovered evidence of human occupation, including handaxes, arrowheads and Neolithic rock art, next to ancient lakes and rivers extending back thousands of years, challenging previously-held theories and illuminating the vital role played by the Arabian Peninsula in the exodus of humankind out of Africa.

Archaeology in the Nefud – 2016 season

Huw field trip - cropThree weeks of archaeological survey and excavation were conducted in the Nefud Desert, east of Tayma, Saudi Arabia. The combined team of specialists in various disciplines came from the Palaeodeserts Project, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, and the Saudi Geological survey. More than 30 new archaeological and paleaontological sites were discovered during the season, and thousands of stone tools and animal fossils recovered.

The findings cover a broad span of prehistory, from the Lower Palaeolithic to the Neolithic, and offer several important avenues in understanding human history, climate change and the fauna of Arabia. Excavations were conducted at several sites. The Saudi Geological Survey helicopter was used to survey deep into the Nefud Desert. Several publications are envisaged on the findings of the season.

Saudi students participate in Palaeodeserts fieldwork

Rock art 1 - crop 4A survey of rock art and associated archaeological sites was carried out in Jubbah, Ha’il Province. For the first time the team was joined by two postgraduate students from King Saud University and three undergraduate students from Ha’il University. In particular the collaboration with Sarah El-Dossary and Mona Bin Sleimah, who are currently finishing PhD and MA dissertations on their own rock art research, was very productive. Both sides learned a great deal from each other.

Together, the team was able to survey hundreds of previously undocumented panels, which include rock art from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Jebel Um Sanman. The results of OSL samples taken to date one of the panels are currently awaited and will be published later this year.

Palaeodeserts work reported in BFSA Bulletin

BFSA cropThe journal of the British Foundation for the Study of Arabia, The BFSA Bulletin, has reported on the work of the Palaeodeserts Project, asking the question “Was Arabia once full of lakes and lush plantlife?” In his article, Ash Parton describes the exciting new evidence found by the Palaeodeserts team for wetlands instead of desert in Arabia, and that animal and human populations expanded their seasonal range beyond Africa and the Levant, exploiting new pastures deep into the Arabian interior. Click here to read the article.



MBI Al Jaber Foundation supports the Palaeodeserts Project


Michael Petraglia delivering a lecture supported by the MBI Al Jaber Foundation

Michael Petraglia gave the first joint British Foundation for the Study of Arabia / MBI Al Jaber Foundation Lecture at the MBI Al Jaber Building, Corpus Christi College, Oxford in March 2014 and also contributed to the first MBI Al Jaber Lecture Series at the MBI Al Jaber Building, SOAS. The MBI Al Jaber Foundation has generously supported the Palaeodeserts Project with a donation to its research into Climate Change and Human Evolution in the Arabian Desert.  For more information see this Link.


Collaboration with Palaeontology Unit, Saudi Geological Survey

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Yahya A. Al-Mufarreh, Head of Palaeontology Unit, with Dr Chris Stimpson, Palaeodeserts Project palaeontologist

The Palaeodeserts team and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities began working with the Palaeontology Unit, Saudi Geological Survey, during the recent season at the fossil site of Tis al Ghadah.  Joint cooperative research is being undertaken to identify the fossil fauna and to better understand the environments of the Nefud Desert.  Joint research and publication of the results of the palaeontological research will be undertaken in the near future.

Saudi National Day Celebrations

Saudi National Day

HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud greeting guests

Professor Michael Petraglia and Dr Ash Parton were invited to Saudi National Day celebrations at the Saudi Embassy, London.  This is the day that Saudis reflect on their unity and security.

We were privileged to attend such a spectacular event and we would especially like to thank HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud for the invitation.  We look forward to working with the Saudi Embassy to promote the heritage of the Kingdom.