International researchers uncover evidence of human occupation in Arabia from up to 210,000 years ago.

Thursday, 03 February 2022

Jebel Faya

An international research team, including experts from Oxford Brookes University, have found that humans adapted to harsh climate changes to occupy an area of Southern Arabia as far back as 210,000 years ago.

Professor Adrian Parker, Dr Simon UnderdownDr Gareth Preston, Dr Ash Parton and PhD student Kira Raith from the Human Origins and Palaeoenvironments Research Group (HOPE) at Oxford Brookes University joined a team of researchers, led by Dr Knut Bretzke, of the University of Tübingen, and Dr Sabah Jasim from the Sharjah Archaeology Authority along with Professor Frank Preusser from the University of Freiburg.

The team discovered evidence of repeated human occupation at the rock shelter site of Jebel Faya, in Southern Arabia in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), between 210,000 and 120,000 years ago. This new discovery shatters previously held ideas about when, and how, humans first moved into Arabia from Africa. 

Prehistoric humans adapted to changes to the climate 

Jebel Faya, located in Sharjah, UAE, is one of the most important Palaeolithic sites in Arabia. 

In 2009, excavations revealed human occupation dating back to 125,000 years ago, making it the then oldest known human site in Arabia. New archaeological data from Jebel Faya indicates that human settlement in Southern Arabia occurred under an unexpected range of climatic conditions and significantly earlier than previously thought. 

Previously it has been argued that Arabia was closed to prehistoric humans during dry climate phases and that humans had to wait for periods of more wet climatic conditions in order to expand into the region. 

The new results contradict this view, and show humans were far more adaptable than previously thought and not reliant on extended periods of favourable climate conditions to thrive. 

More discoveries to come from research at Jebel Faya?

Dr Underdown, Reader in Biological Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, said: “Using a cutting-edge range of archaeological, palaeo climatological and dating techniques, the team were able to reconstruct four distinct phases of human occupation between 210,000 and 120,000 years ago. 

“Crucially this demonstrates that humans occupied the site during dry and wetter climate events – challenging previous ideas about when humans could and could not occupy Arabian sites during the Palaeolithic, and opening up the possibility that Arabia may yet yield more evidence of the human journey out of Africa during drier phases.”

Dr Knut Bretzke, at the University of Tübingen, commented: “Most exciting for me personally is that our data provides first evidence for human occupation of Arabia between 210,000 and 170,000 years ago”

“This period is traditionally thought to be characterised by extremely dry conditions that must have prevented human presence in Arabia. 

“We think that the unique interplay of human behavioural flexibility, the mosaic landscapes of South-East Arabia and the occurrence of brief spells of more humid conditions enabled the survival of these early human groups. 

“To study the details of this interplay and the evolution of the human-environment interdependencies, Jebel Faya and its surroundings are the key area and I am convinced that more surprises will come.” 

Professor Adrian Parker, at Oxford Brookes University, who led the reconstruction of the palaeoenvironments, said: “Our data challenges previous assumptions that human occupation in Arabia was only confined to well-defined wetter climate phases. 

“Understanding the environmental context is paramount when evaluating human occupation. Well constrained evidence in Arabia is still limited and the complex interrelationships between humans, climate, and environment need careful re-evaluation especially in the light of our findings”. 

Professor Frank Preusser, of the University of Freiburg, who dated the phases of human occupation, said: "The fact that luminescence dating allows to determine time of the last daylight exposure of quartz grains embedded in sediment layers has revolutionised archaeological research. 

“The study from Jebel Faya is another milestone in enlightening the complex history of our species.” 

The research ‘Multiple phases of human occupation in Southeast Arabia between 210,000 and 120,000 years ago.’ is published in Scientific Reports

The paper is written by Bretzke, K., Preusser, F., Jasim, S, Miller, C., Preston, G., Raith, K., Underdown, S.J., Parton, A., Parker, A.G. Scientific Reports, 31st January 2022, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-05617-w