Palaeodeserts: Climate Change and Human Evolution, Life and Death at the Crossroads of the Old World

How did past climatic fluctuations shape the emergence of humans out of Africa, and their subsequent success in dispersing around the rest of the world? The Palaeodeserts Project is taking a multidisciplinary approach to addressing these critical human evolutionary questions in a key region: the Arabian peninsula.

Note: This project was hosted by the former Max Planck Institute of the Science of Human History. The project concluded in 2017.

One of the hottest topics at the moment in human evolutionary studies concerns the migration of Homo sapiens, and earlier humans, out of Africa.  The Arabian peninsula forms a critical geographic region for understanding the earliest migration of people from Africa to the rest of Eurasia.  However, little detailed archaeological information from this key region is available, and how human movements relate to dramatic environmental changes over the past one million years is unclear. 

The Palaeodeserts Project was launched to rectify our lack of understanding about Arabian prehistory.  An international, and interdisciplinary group of scholars from a range of disciplines (archaeology, geochronology, earth sciences, palaeontology, remote sensing, genetics, rock art studies) has been assembled to conduct new surveys and excavations in Saudi Arabia.      

Remote sensing has indicated that the Arabian peninsula was criss-crossed by a network of rivers in the past, and up to 10,000 lakes were present.  Survey of some of the lakes have now recovered archaeological sites ranging over the last 500,000 years, demonstrating that early humans and our species, Homo sapiens, migrated into the region during wet periods, when there were permanent water bodies, grasslands and woods.  Fossils also indicate the presence of elephants, hippos, oryx and a range of carnivores.  Though we assume that human and mammal communities contracted or even went extinct during arid and hyper-arid periods, much more research needs to be conducted to understand the interplay between environmental change and human history. 

Related Publications

Stewart, M., Louys, J., Breeze, P. S., Clark-Wilson, R., Drake, N. A., Scerri, E. M. L., Zalmout, I. S., Al-Murfarreh, A., Soubhi, S. A., Haptari, M. A., Alsharekh, A., Groucutt, H. S., Petraglia, M. D. 2020 A Taxonomic and Taphonomic Study of Pleistocene Deposits From the Western Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia. Quaternary Research. 95:6.

Petraglia, M. D., Groucutt, H. S., Guagnin, M., Breeze, P. S., Boivin, N. 2020 Human Responses to Climate and Ecosystem Change in Ancient Arabia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 117(15):8263-8270.

Guagnin, M., Breeze, P., Shipton, C., Ott, F., Stewart, M., Batemann, M., Martin, L., Graham, L., Dossary, S., Kingwell-Banham, E., Zahrani, B., Al-Omari, A., Alsharekh, A. M., Petraglia, M. D. 2020 The Holocene Humid Period in the Nefud Desert: New Evidence for Hunting and Herding in the Jebel Oraf Palaeolake Basin, Saudi Arabia. Journal of Arid Environments. 178:104146.

Stewart, M., Louys, J., Groucutt, H. S., Candy, I., Clark-Wilson, R., Breeze, P. S., Drake, N. A., Price, G. J., Al-Mufarreh, Y. S. A., Soubhi, S. A., Zalmout, I. S, Alsharekh, A. M., Al Omari, A. A., Petraglia, M. D. 2019 Taphonomic and Zooarchaeological Investigations at the Middle Pleistocene Site of Ti's al Ghadah, Western Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia. Quaternary Science Reviews. 218:228-253.

Stewart, M., Louys, J., Price, G. J., Drake, N. A., Groucutt, H. S., Petraglia, M. D. 2017 Middle and Late Pleistocene Mammal Fossils of Arabia and Surrounding Regions: Implications for Biogeography and Hominin Dispersals. Quaternary International. 515:12-29.

Scerri, E., Guagnin, M., Groucutt, H. S., Armitage, S. J., Parker, L. E., Drake, N., Louys, J., Breeze, P. S., Zahir, M., Alsharekh, A., Petraglia, M. D. 2018 Neolithic Pastoralism in Marginal Environments During the Holocene Wet Phase, Northern Saudi Arabia. Antiquity. 92(365):1180-1194.

Groucutt, H. S., Grun, R., Zalmout, I. A. S., Drake, N. A., Armitage, S. J., Candy, I., Clark-Wilson, R., Louys, J., Breeze, P. S., Duval, M., Buck, L. T., Kivell, T. L., Pomeroy, E., Stephens, N. B., Stock, J. T., Stewart, M., Price, G. J., Kinsley, L., Sung, W. W., Alsharekh, A., Al-Omari, A., Zahir, M., Memesh, A. M., Abdulshakoor, A. J., Al-Masari, A. M., Bahameem, A. A., Al Murayyi, K. M. S., Zahrani, B., Scerri, E., Petraglia, M. D. 2018 Homo Sapiens in Arabia 85,000 Years Ago. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 2:800-809.

Guagnin, M., Shipton, C., El-Dossary, S., Al-Rashid, M., Fares, M., Stewart, M., Ott, F., Alsharekh, A., Petraglia, M. D. 2018 Rock Art Provides New Evidence on the Biogeography of Kudu (Tragelaphus imberbis), Wild Dromedary, Aurochs (Bos primigenius) and African Wild Ass (Equus africanus) in the Early and Middle Holocene of North-western Arabia. Journal of Biogeography. 45(4):727-740.

Scerri, E. M., Shipton, C., Clark-Balzan, L., Frouin, M., Schwenninger, J.-L., Groucutt, H. S., Breeze, P. S., Parton, A., Blinkhorn, J., Drake, N. A., Jennings, R., Cuthbertson, P., Al Omari, A., Alsharekh, A., Petraglia, M.D. 2018 The Expansion of Later Acheulean Hominins Into the Arabian Peninsula. Scientific Reports. 8:17165.

Parton, A., Clark-Balzan, L., Parker, A. G., Preston, G. W., Sung, W. W., Breeze, P. S., Leng, M. J., Groucutt, H. S., White, T. S., Alsharekh, A., Petraglia, M. D. 2018 Middle-Late Quaternary Palaeoclimate Variability From Lake and Wetland Deposits in the Nefud Desert, Northern Arabia. Quaternary Science Reviews. 202:78-97.

Roberts, P., Stewart, M., Alagaili, A. N., Breeze, P., Candy, I., Drake, N., Groucutt, H. S., Scerri, E. M., Lee-Thorp, J., Louys, J. and Zalmout, I. S., Al-Mufarreh, Y. S. A., Zech, J., Alsharekh, A., Al Omari, A., Boivin, N., Petraglia, M. D. 2018 Fossil Herbivore Stable Isotopes Reveal Middle Pleistocene Hominin Palaeoenvironment in ‘Green Arabia’. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 2:1871.

Guagnin, M., Perri, A. R., Petraglia, M. D. 2017 Pre-Neolithic Evidence for Dog-assisted Hunting Strategies in Arabia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. 49:225-236.

Shipton, C., Blinkhorn, J., Breeze, P. S., Cuthbertson, P., Drake, N., Groucutt, H. S., Jennings, R. P., Parton, A., Scerri, E. M. L., Alsharekh, A., Petraglia, M. D. 2018 Acheulean Technology and Landscape Use at Dawadmi, Central Arabia. PLoS ONE. 13(7):e0200497.

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