The Middle Palaeolithic of Arabia: Implications for Modern Human Origins, Behaviour and Dispersals. (Research)

Article excerpt


The Middle Palaeolithic record has a central role for understanding biocultural evolution and the origins of modern humans (e.g. Mellars & Stringer 1989; Trinkaus 1989). Recent palaeoanthropological syntheses indicate that the Middle Stone Age (MSA) of Africa may coincide with a variety of key evolutionary events, including the emergence of modern human morphology, the development of more complex adaptations, and the dispersal of modern humans outside of Africa (e.g. Foley & Lahr 1997; McBrearty & Brooks 2000). These syntheses propose that H. helmei and H. sapiens produced MSA assemblages in Africa, signalling a behavioural shift by c. 300-250 000 years ago. In West Asia, Levantine Mousterian assemblages are associated with Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens, taken as evidence that human populations moved through the Levantine corridor during episodes of climatic deterioration and ameliorations (Bar-Yosef 1994). Various researchers have examined the timing and routes of modern human dispersals outside of Africa by examining patterns of morphological, genetic, and archaeological diversity (e.g. Lahr & Foley 1994, 1998; Quintana-Murci et al. 1999; Stringer 2000).

Despite its importance to understanding the emergence of modern humans and the evolution of behaviour, the Middle Palaeolithic record of the Arabian peninsula has been sidelined in palaeoanthropological syntheses, and this marginalisation of the Arabian record prevails to the present day despite its potentially crucial geographic position. At least three Out of Africa dispersal routes may be envisioned which have different evolutionary and behavioural implications. One is a northern route through north-east Africa via the Sinai peninsula towards the Levant, with subsequent movements into Arabia; a second is through the Horn of Africa across the Bab al Mandab Strait, spreading along coastlines and into inland zones; and a third is a coastal migration along the Arabian Sea margin towards southern and south-eastern Asia, some populations perhaps employing basic seafaring technology.

Although archaeological investigations on the Arabian Peninsula have lagged behind those of surrounding regions, preliminary surveys executed during the past twenty-five years have, in fact, resulted in the identification of a number of Palaeolithic sites (Figure 1). While serious problems remain in Arabian archaeology today, an aim of this review is to bring the Middle Palaeolithic record of the region into the fold of palaeoanthropological models, thereby providing for a more holistic treatment of biocultural and behavioural patterns across the Old World. As a consequence, the record of human occupation in the Arabian Peninsula assumes great importance in discussions about hominin biogeography, the pattern and route of hominin dispersals, and the use of coastal zones for movement.


Geography and environments

The Arabian Peninsula is demarcated by the modern-day countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen. The landmass is large, measuring 2.3 million [km.sup.2] in total extent. The peninsula is bounded on three sides by the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Arabian Gulf. In contrast, the northern area is a vast open steppe that unrolls towards the Mediterranean with no major geographic obstructions, likely leading to a free exchange of hominin populations across a wide area.

In north-cast Africa, fluctuations in arid and humid phases have been documented, Middle Palaeolithic occupations corresponding to lake and spring deposits dating to between 175 000 and 70 000 BP (e.g. Wendorf et al. 1993; Van Peer 1998; McBrearty & Brooks 2000). Likewise, palaeoenvironmental scientists have observed marked changes in the Arabian palaeoenvironments. A pollen core from the Arabian Sea, ranging from the Holocene to more than 128 000 yrs, indicated that glacial periods produced low sea levels and saline littoral and arid and steppe inland conditions, while high sea-level corresponded with savannah-type vegetation (Van Campo et al. …