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Climate Change and Hominin Evolution in the Arabian Desert: Life and Death at the Cross-roads of the Old World

Final Report Summary - PALAEODESERTS (Climate Change and Hominin Evolution in the Arabian Desert: Life and Death at the Cross-roads of the Old World)

The Palaeodeserts project was designed to understand the relationship between climate change and human occupation history in the Arabian peninsula over the past 500,000 years. We chose Arabia because its dramatic desert setting, which we assumed changed in the past as a result of fluctuations in climate and rainfall. Moreover, given the central position of Arabia between Africa and Asia, we also believed that the region must have played a major role in human and animal migrations between continents. While we surmised that Arabia’s environments changed through time, and it may have been an important migration corridor, little information was available about the prehistory of this vast region. The ERC-supported Palaeodeserts project was thus launched to investigate this untold story.
The Palaeodeserts project is centered at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany). At the heart of the project is an interdisciplinary scientific approach, thus partnerships with leading international institutions and scholars were developed to form a strong team. A range of researchers from different disciplines were brought together (archaeologists, palaeontologists, geographers, geneticists, mapping specialists, rock art experts) to tackle a series of questions about the occupation history of Arabia. An agreement was reached with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage in order to search new areas for archaeological and palaeontological sites. Other Saudi government organisations, especially Saudi Aramco and the Saudi Geological Survey were also brought in for their expertise in geology and drilling of sediments for environmental reconstructions.
The Palaeodeserts project began with desk-top computer studies, including the application of computer simulations of rainfall changes through time, which provided an impression of what areas of the region were attractive for occupations versus those that remained arid and hostile for human habitation. Additionally, satellite imagery studies examined the topography of the peninsula, resulting in the identification of numerous ancient rivers and up to 10,000 lakes. Based on these environmental simulations and hydrology maps, archaeological survey was initiated. The surveys, and subsequent excavations, have had dramatic findings, resulting in the identification of numerous well-preserved archaeological and palaeontological sites extending back to 500,000 years ago. New sites with fossils and stone tools were found along ancient lakeshores and rivers. We have reconstructed these past environments, showing that Arabia had lush and green landscapes in the past, including freshwater lakes surrounded by grasslands and trees. We have also uncovered fossils of elephants, hippos, oryx, and foxes, to name a few. We have shown that animals and early humans expanded across Arabia during wet periods, using lakes and rivers during their migrations. Most importantly, we have also shown that no animal or human occupations are present during arid periods, suggesting communities died off or wandered away from Arabia when harsh conditions prevailed.
The picture of human survival changed dramatically during the last 10.000 years. The people of Arabia began to settle along oases, building structures to ensure a plentiful supply of water. They also began to incorporate domesticated animals and plants into their diet. This allowed these communities to survive through some of the harshest arid periods, thus leading to the pastoralist and oasis communities of Arabia familiar to us in recent prehistory and history. We have explored and excavated these human camps and settlements, and we have documented the extraordinary rock art of these populations.
The Palaeodeserts research project was able to illustrate the intimate relations between climate change, environments and human migrations and adaptations. While the last 10,000 years is a story of population continuity, our research also shows that our relationship with nature is fragile, and needs to be carefully managed to ensure our survival well into the future.