The long read: Out of Arabia, the story of early humanity


Hans-Peter Uerpmann started excavations at FAY-NE1 in 2003 and caused a sensation in 2011 when, along with Simon Armitage from Royal Holloway, University of London, he published a paper “The Southern Route ‘Out of Africa’: Evidence for an Early Expansion of Modern Humans into Arabia” in the journal Science.

Not only did the paper claim that Jebel Faya provided evidence of the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Arabia as early as 125,000 years ago, but it also proposed that they arrived via the Red Sea’s Bab El Mandeb Strait and not via the Nile Valley or the Near East, as had been suggested previously.

These ‘anatomically modern’ humans – like you and me – had evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and subsequently populated the rest of the world,” said Armitage in 2011.

At Jebel Faya, the ages reveal a fascinating picture in which modern humans migrated out of Africa much earlier than previously thought, helped by global fluctuations in sea-level and climate change in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Up until now we thought of cultural developments leading to the opportunity of people to move out of Africa,” Uerpmann told journalists at the time of the report.

Now we see, I think, that it was the environment that was the key.”

While there was widespread agreement about the site’s importance and uniqueness, the claims made by the Jebel Faya team provoked vigorous debate within the academy.

Sir Paul Mellars, professor emeritus of prehistory and human evolution in the department of archaeology at the University of Cambridge, told Science that he believed the team’s conclusions were flawed.

There’s not a scrap of evidence here that these were made by modern humans or that they came from Africa,” Mellars said.

Stony Brook University’s John Shea was also not persuaded about a direct link between Africa and the early toolmakers at Jebel Faya.

I think the verdict here is ambiguous,” the paleoanthropologist told Scientific American’s Katherine Harmon.

Shea stated that given all homo sapiens originated in Africa, “it is likely that either [the tools’] makers or their makers’ ancestors came from Africa” — but not necessarily directly.

Shea’s call for caution is echoed by the archaeologist Jeffrey Rose, director of the Dhofar Archaeological Project.

When Jebel Faya was published there was a bit of a race going on to decide which team would be the first to find the finger print of early humans [in Arabia],” Rose explains.

But now I think in the race to prove the out of Africa expansion people missed the most important thing about Jebel Faya, which is that it doesn’t really look like anything else. It’s very regionally distinct.”

Rose believes that the primitive techniques displayed in the assemblages at Jebel Faya prove that they are more likely to have been produced by archaic humans who could have entered Arabia as early as 200,000 years ago.

I think it’s a much older group that’s still living there because it’s a very crude way of making tools,” Rose explains. “From my perspective what this says is that there is an separate population holed up here that is unrelated to anybody else and to me that’s the most fascinating part about Jebel Faya.”

Rose has been working in Southern Oman and Yemen for more than a decade, searching for archaeological evidence that might shed light on the area’s role as a possible route out of Africa.

There was a theory at the time that humans had moved along the coast, had developed fishing technology and this new ecosystem enabled them to get from East Africa to Australia in a relatively small amount of evolutionary time,” the archaeologist explains.

In 2010, after six years’ searching without any results, Rose and his team began to discover lithic assemblages during their final season in the field that displayed a very specific type of stone tool technology used by the “Nubian Complex,” nomadic hunters from Africa’s Nile Valley.

This way of making stone tools had only been found in Africa along the Nile Valley up until that point,” Rose says. “We dated the finds to about 106,000 years ago and they pretty well matched the ones from the Nile Valley and once we found one site and started looking for them we found about 200 more all down in southern Oman.

We’d hit the jackpot,” Rose told National Geographic. “It was scientific euphoria. We had never considered the link to Africa would come from the Nile Valley, and that their route would be through the middle of the Arabian Peninsula rather than along the coast.

Geneticists have shown that the modern human family tree began to branch out 60,000 years ago. I’m not questioning when it happened, but where. I suggest the great modern human expansion to the rest of the world was launched from Arabia rather than Africa.”

Despite the controversy surrounding Jebel Faya the site’s publication was one of three events that, according to the University of Oxford’s Michael Petraglia, made 2011 an annus mirabilis for prehistoric archaeology in Arabia.

There were three independent publications in 2011, the one about Jebel Faya, one written by Jeff Rose about Oman and the one by us in Saudi Arabia that identified the first dated and stratified sites in the whole of Arabia which completely changed everything we know about the chronology of occupation in the Arabian Peninsula.”

As well as being professor of human evolution and prehistory at the University of Oxford’s department of archaeology, Petraglia is also the principle investigator for the Palaeodeserts Project, a five-year collaboration between the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities and University of Oxford which has involved more than 30 scholars from a dozen institutions and seven countries.

One of the project’s major achievements is to have used satellite technology to map the presence of almost ten thousand prehistoric rivers and lakes, many of which are likely to contain unidentified archaeological sites.

Petraglia sums up the magnitude of this discovery in a single phrase, “Green Arabia”.

Traditionally, there was an assumption that Arabia was marginal to out of Africa dispersals, that deserts were always avoided and that if there was any archaeology it would not be very well preserved, but that was because people really didn’t realise the wealth of the region’s archaeological record.”

The predominant model in academia has been that, as humans moved out of Africa repeatedly through time over a couple of million years they used the margins of Arabia and avoided the interior,” Petraglia explains. “But we are demonstrating very, very clearly now that is not the case. The bigger picture is that Arabia is now central to our understanding of humanity’s past. It’s not a side story, it’s the central story.”

For Rose, the concept of “Green Arabia” and the picture it paints of climate-dictated dispersals in which hunter-gatherer groups follow game and water courses not only matches the archaeology, it also makes sense.

People weren’t entering Arabia along its coastline, they were moving into the interior during green periods. They were being opportunistic and taking advantage of an Arabian Peninsula that was covered in grassland, rivers and lakes and the same plants and animals that they were already adapted to in north-east Africa.”

Rose now believes that the story of Arabia’s role in prehistory is now reaching a phase where the archaeological evidence and the models provided by genetic analysis are finally starting to coalesce.

For a long time it was as if there were two different languages being spoken,” the archaeologist explains.

Geneticists would go to conferences and they would present this very cut-and-dry story of a human expansion that started 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, but the Arabian archaeologists would be tearing their hair out saying, ‘There is nobody coming to Arabia 50 or 60,000 years ago from Africa. There’s no evidence for that’.”

For Rose this coalescence isn’t just the result of discoveries such as his own or the Palaeodeserts Project, but also stem from a more fundamental shift in perspective.

All this time we have been looking for an out of Africa but what we should have been thinking about is out of Arabia.”