Planet Earth

Saudi Arabia, where monkey became man?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 16, 2011 4:18 AM


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As late as the 1980s it is reputed that prominent Saudi clerics were making the case for geocentrism. Of course presumably most Saudis are not geocentrists, but their religious establishment is so calcified that medieval science still retains some hold upon their imaginations. That's why I'm very, very, curious about the possibility which is emerging that a critical period of human evolution occurred in the Arabian peninsula. Maju points me to a paper in Quaternary Science Reviews which reports on the discovery of a site in north-central Saudi Arabia, the heartland of the House of Saud, which suggests human occupation ~75,000 years B.P. Middle Paleolithic occupation on a Marine Isotope Stage 5 lakeshore in the Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia:

Major hydrological variations associated with glacial and interglacial climates in North Africa and the Levant have been related to Middle Paleolithic occupations and dispersals, but suitable archaeological sites to explore such relationships are rare on the Arabian Peninsula. Here we report the discovery of Middle Paleolithic assemblages in the Nefud Desert of northern Arabia associated with stratified deposits dated to 75,000 years ago. The site is located in close proximity to a substantial relict lake and indicates that Middle Paleolithic hominins penetrated deeply into the Arabian Peninsula to inhabit landscapes vegetated by grasses and some trees. Our discovery supports the hypothesis of range expansion by Middle Paleolithic populations into Arabia during the final humid phase of Marine Isotope Stage 5, when environmental conditions were still favorable.

The material describing the site is basically Greek to me, so I had to "hum" my way through. Let's jump to the final paragraph:

Given the current absence of pre-Holocene hominin fossils in Arabia, and the fact that Levantine Mousterian assemblages are associated with both early modern humans and Neanderthals, caution is warranted in attributing a maker to the JQ1 and other Arabian Middle Paleolithic assemblages. The recovery of Middle Paleolithic artifacts at 75 ka, however, is consistent with the hypothesis that human populations utilized the southern route in MIS 5...If modern humans were responsible for the early Arabian toolkit, then our findings contradict the argument that the dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa was accompanied by a microblade technology 60 ka ago...Furthermore, the presence of JQ1 in the interior of northern Arabia, 500 km from the nearest coast, indicates that an exclusive coastal corridor for hominin expansion out of Africa...can no longer be assumed. Further archaeological and paleoanthropological research across the Arabian Peninsula will address these questions. The discoveries described here demonstrate the huge research potential of the region and the intimate relationships between climate change and hominin population history.

The main implication of this finding, if it stands the test of time, is that there is now an accumulating body of evidence that the model circa 2005 that modern humans speciated ~60,000 years ago in East Africa and exploded from a narrow tight locus to all regions of the world rapidly in the "Out of Africa" event simply can not account for all the evidence. Parts of it may still be correct. There were wide swaths of the world which only anatomically modern humans settled. Oceania, the New World, and Siberia, for example. But an arrival in Australia 40-50,000 years ago would far post-date a possible initial foray of African humans into Arabia ~75-100,000 years B.P.

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