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Arabian Desert (Evelyn Laeschke): Satellite images have revealed that a network of ancient rivers once coursed their way through the sand of the Arabian Desert, leading scientists to believe that the region experienced wetter periods in the past. The images are the starting point for a potentially ground breaking research project that will study the effects of environmental change in the Arabian Peninsula over the last two million years. Scientists will look at how long-term climate change affected early humans and animals who settled or passed through and what responses determined whether they were able to survive or died out.

Until now this part of the world has been largely ignored despite its critical location as a bridge between Africa and Eurasia. The systematic study of the Pleistocene to Holocene periods will be unique in its length and level of detail. Over the course of five years the researchers will study the landscape features and excavate sites of likely archaeological interest, using the network of water courses as a map. They will use the latest dating techniques to pinpoint the ages of fossils of animals, plants and different stone tool technologies and compare the similarities and differences displayed in the region’s rock art.

The team’s main focus will be the Arabian Desert, but the work will also cover the wider Peninsula. One key question they will attempt to answer is when the first early modern humans are likely to have first arrived in the Arabian Peninsula from Africa and perhaps surrounding regions. They will also look for evidence that suggests how early modern humans, and our closest relatives, were able to survive, or not, in arid and extreme conditions.

“From NASA images taken of the Arabian Desert we can see physical landscape features that are visible from space that denote a whole network of former river valleys and lake basins,” said Professor Michael Petraglia, the project leader and Co-Director of the Centre for Asian Archaeology from Oxford University’s School of Archaeology. “These lines and dips in the sand provide us with a map of the region upon which we will focus our research activity. The presence of water is an accurate indicator of where early humans and animals migrated to or settled. The Arabian Peninsula has a wealth of archaeological sites and spectacular deposits of former rivers and lakes. Yet despite its significance as a bridge between two continents, surprisingly very little is known about its early prehistory.”

The researchers hope to identify key excavation sites, including sites where work has already been done, and where stone tools and the fossils of animals, such as wild cattle, have been found. The researchers will also conduct field studies in former lake basins, where fossils of fish of up to a meter long were discovered. They will use a variety of dating techniques to pinpoint the ages of fossils and stone tools to set out the chronologies of archaeological sites. Dating work on animal and faunal fossils could provide new information about possible food sources of early humans, and the timing of environmental changes.

The team plans to examine marine cores, caves, existing wide water wells and quarry pits to view the stratigraphy. They will also examine deposits between 30-60 meters deep to measure the effects of environmental change, observing any changes from plant fossils and rocks and strata indicating when the climate was wetter or drier.

DNA extracted from animals derived from the Arabian Peninsula will act as a molecular clock which can tell the researchers more about recent common ancestors and when it is likely to have arrived. They will examine the DNA of a number of species from museum collections, such as ostrich, oryx, ibex, hyena, and honey badger to establish their origin, their demographic histories, and likely dispersal patterns.

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