Episode 5: Middle Palaeolithic Humans in Arabia

After taking a look at Neanderthals last week, this week we take a look at how what we know about the lifestyles and habits of Middle Palaeolithic humans compares with what we know about Neanderthals. In comparison with Neanderthals, the evidence that humans buried their dead, that they may even have included grave goods in a couple of cases, and that Anatomically Modern Humans may also have decorated themselves with ochre and jewelry is still argued about in archaeology – but is far less hotly argued that the evidence for these self-aware activities when we are looking at Neanderthals.

Burial 11 from Qafzeh cave, Israel. On the left is a photo taken part-way though excavating the grave, showing the upper portion of the skeleton and the deer antlers clasped in the hand. On the right is a drawing of the burial showing the same. Image from Vandermeersch & Bar-Yosef 2019. The complete article can be found for free here.

We can generally think of Anatomically Modern Humans in pretty much the same way that we think of ourselves, just with all of our technology stripped off. In other words, we can think of them in a lot of the same ways that we can think of Neanderthals. They may have used their landscape a bit differently and moved around more, but they were probably just as intelligent and introspective as we humans are today.

Some of the Middle Palaeolithic shell pendants worn by humans living at Qafzeh cave. Image taken from Bar-Yosef Mayer et al 2009.

Anatomically Modern Humans are best known from moving out of Africa in the Middle Palaeolithic and living in the Levant, where their movements, cave sites and lifestyles have been a subject of intense study for nearly a century. In the last couple of decades, we have uncovered another important area of archaeological research into the lives of humans outside of Africa during the Middle Palaeolithic – the Arabian Peninsula.

The Arabian peninsula was not always as dry as it is today. During several periods in the past this large peninsula was a lush savannah – full of rivers and lakes and large animals, many of which are found today in Africa. Among these large animals which moved out of Africa and into the savannahs of Arabia were people of the Lower Palaeolithic – probably Homo erectus – and also in the Middle Palaeolithic, Anatomically Modern Humans.

Rainfall levels in the Arabian Peninsula today compared with those of on of the Middle Palaeolithic wet phases(Oxygen Isotope Stage 5). Images taken from Jennings et al 2015.

Most of the Middle Palaeolithic sites which we have found in Arabia are still only known from survey, although several have been excavated over the last two decades and more are currently under excavation. From these we know that humans were present in Arabia at least as long as they were present in the Levant, and possibly for tens of thousands of years before that.

Many of the sites have a specific variant of the Levallois technique called the Nubian complex, linking them to other Nubian complex sites in Egypt and the Sudan. Based on these stone tools, it was believed for the last couple of decades that these Middle Palaeolithic sites were probably made by Anatomically Modern Humans. Recently, two major discoveries have confirmed the presence of humans in Arabia during the Middle Palaeolithic. Both discoveries come from sites in the north-eastern part of Saudi Arabia.

A human finger bone was found at the site of Al Wusta two years ago. It dates to about 95-86,000 years ago. Comparisons with a range of humans and Neanderthals confirm that this finger comes from a human, making it the first – and currently only – skeletal proof of the presence of humans in the Arabian Peninsula during the Middle Palaeolothic.

The one – the only – the human bone discovered at the site of Al Wusta in Saudi Arabia, dating from 95-86,000 years ago. Image taken from

More recently, another big discovery of human presence has been made. At the site of Alathar and dating between 120 and 110,000 years ago archaeologists have found a series of footprints along the edges of a former lake. Many animals left their footprints here, including the footprints of at least two humans.

Three of the footprints found at Alathar. Photos of the individual footprints can be seen (left) as well as two Digital Elevation Models (centre and right) of the shape of each footprint. Image taken from Stewart et al 2020.

Two decades is not a lot of time in archaeology, and we are only now just scratching the surface of what the Arabian Peninsula has to tell us about its role in the lives of humans in the Palaeolithic. New discoveries are coming to light all the time, so we shall have to wait and see what new insights this peninsula can provide for the ancient lives of humans as we moved between Anatomically Modern Humans into modern humans.

Episode Bibliography:

Bar-Yosef Mayer, D.E., Vandermeersch, B. and Bar-Yosef, O. 2009. Shells and ochre in Middle Paleolithic Qafzeh cave, Israel: indications for modern behaviour. Journal of Human Evolution 56(3): 307-314.

Crassard, R., Petraglia, M.D., Drake, N.A., Breeze, P., Gratuze, B., Alsharekh, A., Arbch, M., Grocutt, H.S., Khalidi, L., Michelsen, N., Robin, C.L. and Schiettecatte, J. 2013. Middle Palaeolithic and Neolithic occupations around Mudnafan palaeolake, Saudi Arabia: implications for climate changes and human dispersals. PLOS One 8(7): e69665.

Crassard, R. and Hilbert, Y.H. 2013. A Nubian Complex site from Central Arabia: implications for Levallois taxonomy and human dispersals during the Upper Pleistocene. PLOS One 8(7): e69221.

Crassard, R., Hilbert, Y.H., Preusser, F., Wulf, G. and Schietteatte, J. 2019. Middle Palaeolithic occupations in central Saudi Arabia during MIS 5 and MIS 7: new insights on the origins of the peopling of Arabia. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 11: 3101-3120.

Delagnes, A., Tribolo, C. Bertran, P., Brenet, M., Crassard, R., Jaubert, J., Khalidi, L., Mercier, N., Nomade, S., Peigné, S., Sitzia, L., Tournepiche, J.-F. Al-Halibi, M., Al-Mosabi, A. and Macchiarelli, R. 2012. Inland human settlement in southern Arabia 55,000 years ago. New evidence from the Wadi Surdud Middle Paleolithic site complex, western Yemen. Journal of Human Evolution 63: 452-474.

Derevianko, A.P. 2016. The Middle Paleolithic of Arabia. Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia 44(4): 3-25.

Goder-Goldperber, M., Gobenko, N. and Hovers, E. 2016. “Diffusion with modifications”: Nubian assmblages in the central Negev highlands of Israel and their implications for Middle Paleolithic inter-regional interactions. Quaternary International 408(B): 121-139.

Grocutt, H.S., Grün, R., Zalmout, I.S.A., Drake, N.A., Armitage, S.J., Candy, I., Calrk-Wilson, R., Louys, J., Breeze, P.S., duval, M., Buck, L.T., Kivell, T.L., Pomeroy, E., Stephens, N.B., Stock, J.T., Stewart, M., Price,G.J., Kinsley, L., Sung, W.W., Alsharekh, A., Al-Omari, A., Zahir, M., Memesh, A.M., Abdulshakoor, A.J., Am-Masari, A.M., Bahameen, A.A., Al Murayyi, K.S.M., Zahrani, B., Scerri, E.M.L. and Petraglia, M.D. 2018. Homo sapiens in Arabia by 85,000 years ago. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2: 800-809.

Grocutt, H.S. and Petraglia, M.D. 2012. The prehistory of the Arabian Peninsula: deserts, dispersals and demography. Evolutionary Anthropology 21: 113-125.

Grocutt, H.S., White, T.S., Clark-Balzan, L., Parton, A., Crassard, R., Shipton, C., Jennings, R.P., Parker, A.G., Breeze, P.S., Scerri, E.M.L., Alsharekh, A. and Petraglia, M.D. 2015. Human occupation of the Arabian Empty Quarter during MIS 5: evidence from Mundafan Al-Buhayrah, Saudi Arabia. Quaternary Science Reviews 119: 116-135.

Jennings, R.P., Parton, A., Clark-Balzan, L., White, T.S., Grocutt, H.S., Breeze, P.S., Parker, A.G., Drake, N.A. and Petraglia, M.D. 2016. Human occupation of the northern Arabian interior during early Marine Isotope Stage 3. Journal of Quaternary Science 31(8): 953-966.

Jennings, R.P., Singrayer, J., Stone, E.J., Krebs-Kanzow, U., Khon, V., Nisancioglu, K.H., Pfeiffer, M., Zhang, X., Parker, A., Parton, A., Grocutt, H.S, White, T.S., Drake, N.A. and Petraglia, M.D. 2015. The greening of Arabia: multiple opportunities for human occupation of the Arabian Peninsula during the Late Pleistocene inferred from an ensemble of climate model simulations. Quaternary International 382: 181-199.

Osypinski, P. and Osypinksi, M. 2016. Optimal adjustment or cultural backwardness? New data on the latest Levallois industries in the Nile Valley. Quaternary International 408: 90-105.

Peraglia, M.D. and Alsharekh, A. 2003. The Middle Palaeolithic of Arabia: implications for modern human origins, behaviour and dispersals. Antiquity 77: 671-684.

Petraglia, M.D. and Rose, J.I. (editors) 2009. The Evolution of Human Populations in Arabia: Paleoenvironments, Prehistory and Genetics. London: Springer.

Stewart, M., Clark-Wilson, R., Breeze, P.S., Janulis, K., Candy, I., Armitage, S.J., Ryves, D.B., Louys, J., Duval, M., Price, G.J., Cuthbertson, P., Bernal, M.A., Drake, N.A., Alsharekh, A.M., Zahrani, B., Al-Omari, A., Roberts, P., Grocutt, H.S. and Petraglia, M.D. 2020. Human footprints provide snapshot of last interglacial ecology in the Arabian interior. Science Advances 6: eaba8940.

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