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Did humans leave Africa much earlier than was thought?

Jan. 28, 2011
Courtesy of Nature
and World Science staff

Although mainstream scientific thinking holds that modern humans left Africa to disperse globally starting about 60,000 years ago, a team of researchers now says it may have happened much earlier.

Artifacts unearthed in the United Arab Emirates date back 100,000 years and imply a new time frame for the departure, according to Simon Armitage of the University of London in Surrey, U.K. and colleagues.

They suggest that humans arrived in eastern Arabia as early as 125,000 years ago—directly from Africa rather than via the Nile Valley or the Near East, as researchers have suggested in the past.

Armitage and colleagues say that an ancient toolkit excavated from the Jebel Faya archaeological site in the United Arab Emirates resembles the technology used by early humans in East Africa, but not the craftsmanship that emerged from the Middle East. This toolkit includes relatively primitive hand-axes along with a variety of scrapers and perforators. Its contents, they said, imply that technological innovation was unnecessary for early humans to migrate into Arabia.

The findings are published in the Jan. 28 issue of the research journal Science.

Not all researchers are convinced, though. Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford University in California, told the New York Times that the report is "provocative, but in the absence of human remains, it's not compelling."

Armitage's group also analyzed historical sea-level and climate change records for the region and concluded that the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which separates Arabia from the Horn of Africa, would have dried up enough to allow safe passage at the time. The Arabian Peninsula was then much wetter than today, with greater vegetation cover and a network of lakes and rivers. Such a landscape would have allowed early humans access into Arabia and then into the Fertile Crescent and India, according to the researchers.

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