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A lost civilization under the Persian Gulf?

Dec. 15, 2010
Courtesy of University of Chicago Press Journals
and World Science staff

Once fer­tile ground now sub­merged un­der the Per­sian Gulf may have been home to some of the ear­li­est hu­man popula­t­ions out­side Af­ri­ca, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port.

Jef­frey Rose, an ar­chae­o­lo­gist and re­search­er with the Uni­vers­ity of Bir­ming­ham in the U.K., said the ar­ea in and around this “Per­sian Gulf Oa­sis” may have been host to hu­mans for over 100,000 years be­fore it was swal­lowed up by the In­di­an Ocean around 8,000 years ago.

Rose’s hy­poth­e­sis in­tro­duces a “new and sub­stan­tial cast of char­ac­ters” to the hu­man his­to­ry of the Near East, he said, and sug­gests that hu­mans may have es­tab­lished per­ma­nent set­tle­ments in the re­gion thou­sands of years be­fore cur­rent migra­t­ion mod­els sup­pose.

His report is pub­lished in the De­cem­ber is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent An­thro­po­l­ogy.

In re­cent years, ar­chae­o­lo­gists have turned up ev­i­dence of a wave of hu­man set­tle­ments along the shores of the Gulf dat­ing to about 7,500 years ago, Rose said. “Where be­fore there had been but a hand­ful of scat­tered hunt­ing camps, sud­den­ly, over 60 new ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites ap­pear vir­tu­ally overnight,” he elab­o­rat­ed. “These set­tle­ments boast well-built, per­ma­nent stone hous­es, long-dis­tance trade net­works, elab­o­rately dec­o­rat­ed pot­tery, do­mes­ti­cat­ed an­i­mals, and even ev­i­dence for one of the old­est boats in the world.”

But how could such highly de­vel­oped set­tle­ments pop up so quick­ly, with no pre­cur­sor popula­t­ions to be found in the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal rec­ord? Rose be­lieves ev­i­dence of those pre­ced­ing popula­t­ions is mis­sing be­cause it’s un­der the Gulf.

It may be “no co­in­ci­dence that the found­ing of such re­markably well de­vel­oped com­mun­i­ties along the shore­line cor­re­sponds with the flood­ing of the Per­sian Gulf ba­sin around 8,000 years ago,” Rose said. “These new colonists may have come from the heart of the Gulf, dis­placed by ris­ing wa­ter lev­els that plunged the once fer­tile land­scape be­neath the wa­ters of the In­di­an Ocean.”

His­tor­i­cal sea lev­el da­ta show that, pri­or to the flood, the Gulf ba­sin would have been above wa­ter be­gin­ning about 75,000 years ago, Rose not­ed. And it would have been an ide­al ref­uge from the harsh deserts sur­round­ing it, with fresh wa­ter sup­plied by the Ti­gris, Eu­phra­tes, Karun, and Wa­di Ba­ton Riv­ers, as well as by un­der­ground springs. When con­di­tions were at their dri­est in the sur­round­ing hin­ter­lands, the Gulf Oa­sis would have been at its larg­est in terms of ex­posed land ar­ea. At its peak, the ex­posed ba­sin would have been about the size of Great Brit­ain, ac­cord­ing to Rose.

Ev­i­dence is al­so emerg­ing that mod­ern hu­mans could have been in the re­gion even be­fore the oa­sis was above wa­ter, Rose main­tains. Re­cently disco­vered ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in Yem­en and Oman have yielded a stone tool style that is dis­tinct from the East Af­ri­can tra­di­tion. That raises the pos­si­bil­ity that hu­mans were es­tab­lished on the south­ern part of the Ara­bi­an Pen­in­su­la be­gin­ning as far back as 100,000 years ago or more, Rose said. That is far ear­li­er than the es­ti­mates gen­er­at­ed by sev­er­al re­cent migra­t­ion mod­els, which place the first suc­cess­ful migra­t­ion in­to Ara­bia be­tween 50,000 and 70,000 years ago.

The Gulf Oa­sis would have been avail­a­ble to these early mi­grants, and would have pro­vid­ed “a sanc­tu­ary through­out the Ice Ages when much of the re­gion was ren­dered un­in­hab­it­able” due to drought, Rose said. “The pres­ence of hu­man groups in the oa­sis fun­da­men­tally al­ters our un­der­stand­ing of hu­man emer­gence and cul­tur­al ev­o­lu­tion in the an­cient Near East.” It al­so hints that vi­tal pieces of the hu­man ev­o­lu­tion­ary puz­zle may be hid­den in the depths of the Per­sian Gulf, Rose claims.


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Once fertile ground now submerged under the Persian Gulf may have been home to some of the earliest human populations outside Africa, according to a new report. Jeffrey Rose, an archaeologist and researcher with the University of Birmingham in the U.K., said the area in and around this “Persian Gulf Oasis” may have been host to humans for over 100,000 years before it was swallowed up by the Indian Ocean around 8,000 years ago. Rose’s hypothesis introduces a “new and substantial cast of characters” to the human history of the Near East, he said, and suggests that humans may have established permanent settlements in the region thousands of years before current migration models suppose. His research is published in the December issue of the research journal Current Anthropology. In recent years, archaeologists have turned up evidence of a wave of human settlements along the shores of the Gulf dating to about 7,500 years ago, Rose said. “Where before there had been but a handful of scattered hunting camps, suddenly, over 60 new archaeological sites appear virtually overnight,” he elaborated. “These settlements boast well-built, permanent stone houses, long-distance trade networks, elaborately decorated pottery, domesticated animals, and even evidence for one of the oldest boats in the world.” But how could such highly developed settlements pop up so quickly, with no precursor populations to be found in the archaeological record? Rose believes evidence of those preceding populations is missing because it’s under the Gulf. It may be “no coincidence that the founding of such remarkably well developed communities along the shoreline corresponds with the flooding of the Persian Gulf basin around 8,000 years ago,” Rose said. “These new colonists may have come from the heart of the Gulf, displaced by rising water levels that plunged the once fertile landscape beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean.” Historical sea level data show that, prior to the flood, the Gulf basin would have been above water beginning about 75,000 years ago, Rose noted. And it would have been an ideal refuge from the harsh deserts surrounding it, with fresh water supplied by the Tigris, Euphrates, Karun, and Wadi Baton Rivers, as well as by underground springs. When conditions were at their driest in the surrounding hinterlands, the Gulf Oasis would have been at its largest in terms of exposed land area. At its peak, the exposed basin would have been about the size of Great Britain, according to Rose. Evidence is also emerging that modern humans could have been in the region even before the oasis was above water, Rose maintains. Recently discovered archaeological sites in Yemen and Oman have yielded a stone tool style that is distinct from the East African tradition. That raises the possibility that humans were established on the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula beginning as far back as 100,000 years ago or more, Rose said. That is far earlier than the estimates generated by several recent migration models, which place the first successful migration into Arabia between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. The Gulf Oasis would have been available to these early migrants, and would have provided “a sanctuary throughout the Ice Ages when much of the region was rendered uninhabitable” due to drought, Rose said. “The presence of human groups in the oasis fundamentally alters our understanding of human emergence and cultural evolution in the ancient Near East.” It also hints that vital pieces of the human evolutionary puzzle may be hidden in the depths of the Persian Gulf, Rose argues.