Northern Saudi Arabia, where humans were repeatedly present during periods of increased rainfall over hundreds of thousands of years ©Palaeodeserts Project (photo by Ceri Shipton).

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Past climate change transformed the Arabian desert into lush grassland, enabling human migrations

An international group of researchers, including Dr Tom White, Senior Curator of Non-Insect Invertebrates at the Natural History Museum, have found evidence of repeated early human migration into Southwest Asia during ‘green windows’ over the last 400,000 years. 

‘Our research positions northern Arabia as a crucial migration route and crossroads for early human populations’ said Dr White. ‘It’s helping us to fill in the gaps and answer questions about environmental response to climate change and Arabia’s significance in the peopling of the planet’.

Until now, the prehistory of the arid interior of the region has been poorly understood. The new findings reveal at least five hominin expansions into the Arabian interior and include the oldest dated hominin occupations in Arabia, dated to approximately 400,000 years ago. The research is described as a ‘breakthrough in Arabian archaeology’ by archaeologist Dr Huw Groucutt, lead author of the study and head of the ‘Extreme Events’ Max Planck Society Research Group in Jena, Germany, based at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology.

The team examined findings from the unique Khall Amayshan 4 (KAM 4) and Jubbah Oasis sites associated with the remains of ancient lakes in the Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia. Each ancient lake represents a stable period of climate, formed when climate change led to periods of increased rainfall approximately 400, 300, 200, 130-75, and 55 thousand years ago. This transformed what is now a hyper-arid desert region into a green savannah much more favourable to human habitation, together with animals that thrive in wetter conditions. Aquatic molluscs and hippos are evidenced in the fossil record from the site, which Dr White used in palaeoecological reconstructions of the region. This repeated ‘greening’ of the desert gave early humans and other animals the opportunity to expand into the challenging environments of Arabia.  

Thousands of stone tools found by the team reveal the distinct and changing cultures of the human species that colonised the region, coinciding with these periods of reduced aridity. At the KAM 4 site, assemblages from the lake sequences document the evolution of stone tool technologies. The oldest lakes contained evidence of two phases of Lower Palaeolithic Acheulean handaxe technology typically associated with earlier hominin species, while the younger lakes revealed three distinct stone flake-based Middle Palaeolithic technologies associated with more recent species, namely Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. 

This diverse material culture indicates that multiple hominin populations, and probably even species, were expanding into the region at different times. Ancient populations likely came from Africa as well as different regions of Eurasia, suggesting that Arabia may also have been a crossroads for different hominin groups. Animal fossils also indicate that this was the case, with species from Eurasia and Africa being present in the findings.

‘This research further solidifies Arabia as a key region for understanding how humans spread beyond Africa and came into contact with other human species’ said Dr White. ‘It also serves as a reminder of the profound ways in which environmental change has affected, and continues to affect, the survival of life on our planet’.

The study Multiple hominin dispersals into Southwest Asia over the last 400,000 years is published in the journal Nature and will be available online here.


Notes for editors

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Partnerships: The fieldwork in Saudi Arabia was jointly led by the Heritage Commission of the Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany). The international consortium of scientists includes members from organisations and universities in Saudi Arabia, Germany, Australia, Pakistan, Spain, and the UK.