Ostrich Distribution and Exploitation in the Arabian Peninsula
Potts, D. T., Antiquity
Consider these two facts:
1 Not one ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus) bone has ever been recorded in an archaeological excavation anywhere in the Arabian peninsula;
2 the ostrich does not inhabit this region today. If a statement of this sort were made about virtually any other bird or animal, one would not hesitate to declare its historic absence from the region in question. Yet the presence of ostrich in Arabia in the recent past is demonstrated with certainty by numerous sightings reported in the ethnohistoric literature and its presence in the more remote past is strongly suggested by depictions of ostrich in petroglyphs, on rock reliefs and on painted pottery; and by finds of ostrich egg-shell on archaeological sites. Apart from providing a cautionary lesson in the tradition of that time-honoured maxim, `absence of evidence is not evidence of absence', an examination of the Arabian finds may help to resolve at least three outstanding questions of more general interest:
1 how widespread was the genus Struthio in the past?
2 what does the occurrence of ostrich eggshell on archaeological sites tell us about the geographical distribution of Struthio populations in the wild? and
3 to what extent was ostrich actively hunted in antiquity?
How widespread was the genus Struthio in the past?
Miocene finds (6-8 million years old) of fossil ostrich egg-shell from the Baynunah Formation (FIGURE 1) in western Abu Dhabi (Whybrow & Clements 1999a: table 23.3; 1999b: 467) strongly suggest that Struthionids were indigenous to the Arabian peninsula rather than immigrants from North Africa, as so often assumed (e.g. Finer 1982: 71; Camps-Fabrer 1995: 427). Ornithologists have suggested that the range of Struthio camelus syriacus was originally between c. 34 [degrees] and 22 [degrees] N, or roughly from the Damascus-Baghdad line to a point just south of Riyadh, and from Sinai in the west to the Euphrates and Gulf region in the east (Meinertzhagen 1954: 574; Greenway 1967: 140). Yet such a view belies a northern bias in the modern sources (TABLE 1), most of which derive from 18th-century East India Company merchants, 19th-century travellers and early 20th-century political and military officers active in the north Arabian desert between Syria and the Mesopotamian plain. Indeed, so common were sightings in this region during the 19th century that Victorian travellers who failed to see an ostrich in their wanderings (e.g. Blunt 1880: 96; Euting 1886: 277) felt aggrieved enough to comment upon it.
[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
[TABULAR DATA 1 NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
It is clear, however, that the ostrich originally inhabited areas stretching far to the south of the 22nd parallel. Ibn al-Mujawir, for example, says that ostriches (Arabic na'am) abounded in Yemen, i.e. the extreme southwest of the peninsula, during the 13th century (Serjeant 1976: 2, cf. Wadi Na'am which runs south towards the western end of Wadi Hadramawt just above Shibam), suggesting that the southern range of the ostrich should be extended to at least 14 [degrees] N. The continued presence of the ostrich in southern Arabia as late as the early 20th century is also suggested by the testimony of an Otaibi tribesman who told J.J. Hess that, while his father used to hunt ostrich in central Arabia, they now occurred only `in the south' (Pieper 1923: 34). This is supported by Bertram Thomas who, in 1931, wrote, a propos the eastern Rub al-Khali, that although `Members of my party had shot ostriches here ... firearms and the pursuit of an unenlightened self-interest by the Badu have extinguished the ostrich' (Thomas 1931: 214; 1932: 147). Although Philby suggested in 1933 that the ostrich had been hunted out of existence in the southern Rub al-Khali `about forty or fifty years' earlier (Philby 1933b: 9; cf. Pollog 1934: 139; Philby 1950: 215), Meinertzhagen believed it only became extinct around 1941 (Meinertzhagen 1954: 574) while, according to Greenway, the last Arabian ostrich was `killed and eaten by Arabs near the oil pipe line north of Bahrein, Hasa Province, between 1940 and 1945' (Greenway 1967: 139; cf. …