What does climate change tell us about ancient Saudi Arabia?

Early humans once roamed a lush, green land of lakes and fertile valleys in the Arabian Peninsula

Climate change and the threat it poses to all life on Earth is a problem most people would associate with the modern world.

But to a team of international archaeologists working in Saudi Arabia alongside the Saudi Heritage Commission, climate is central to understanding the mysteries of half a million years' of human evolution, including mankind's early migration from Africa to the wider world.

On Tuesday, 20 international experts discussed their work at a landmark online conference, the Saudi Heritage Commission’s Virtual Forum of Archaeological Discoveries in Saudi Arabia.

Organised under the patronage of Prince Badr bin Farhan, Minister of Culture and chairman of the board of directors of the Heritage Commission, the event revealed a hidden wealth of discovery, with much still untapped and being explored with modern technology.

Saudi Arabia in general has a huge story to tell us and this region has huge importance to understanding the connections to other early human societies across the world
Michael Petraglia, Green Arabia Project

Discussion was moderated by Abdullah Alsharekh, an expert on the Arabian palaeolithic, or Old Stone Age period and Dr Khalid Asmari, an expert who focuses on the Neolithic period in northern Saudi Arabia.

“The Arabian Peninsula has experienced tremendous climate change and difficult conditions,” says Antony Sinclair, who specialises in Paleolithic archaeology at the University of Liverpool.

“At times when either humidity is higher and there is greater rainfall, or times when ancient coastal resources are accessible for us to see, we can see that humans were very active and visible in Saudi Arabia. The biggest issue we have at the moment is to understand where those humans were within the kingdom or at times when the climate was much drier.”

Climate change and early humans

One issue in focus was “green Arabia”, a period about 500,000 years ago when early man travelled through what was then lush terrain dotted with lakes and fertile valleys.

For Michael Petraglia at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, understanding the climatic context of the prehistoric Arabian Peninsula is central to his work at the Green Arabia Project, in collaboration with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage.

“We have sites over the last million years represented, and we’re putting these sites into an environmental context. We believe we really cannot understand the development of societies in Saudi Arabia unless we understand the environmental context,” he says.

This photo provided by Michael Petraglia shows six different views of a Homo sapiens fossil finger bone from the Al Wusta archaeological site in Saudi Arabia. In a report released on Monday, April 9, 2018, researchers say the bone provides a new clue about when and how our species migrated out of Africa, with hunter-gatherers reaching the Saudi Arabia area by 85,000 years ago. (Ian Cartwright/Michael Petraglia via AP)

Green Arabia has been responsible for some discoveries Mr Petraglia says are remarkable, including the first homo sapiens fossil in Arabia at Wusta – an 85,000-year-old finger bone found in an ancient paleolake – a depression that was once a lake thousands of years ago, as well as the first footprint site in the peninsula, dating from the same period.

His team have been scouring the the paleolakes and caves of the kingdom “north to south, east to west” tracking down ancient rock art, rock tools including hand axes, and monuments of a time before recorded history.

“Saudi Arabia in general has a huge story to tell us and this region has huge importance to understanding the connections to other early human societies across the world,” he says.

Ancient camel carvings

One of the more visually stunning discoveries in recent years was a series of life-size camel carvings in Al Jawf province in northern Saudi Arabia.

First discovered in 2018, the partially eroded rock reliefs, carved on three sandstone spurs, surprised archaeologists with the “astonishing quality of the carving." Initially, they were thought to be 2,000 years old but have more recently been identified as 8,000 years old, making them older than Egypt's 5,000-year-old pyramids.

“The camel site is very unique, it’s like a UFO in the Middle East," said Guillaume Charloux, who worked on analysis of the carvings as part of a joint French-Saudi Arabian team.

"It has links to many other rock sites in Saudi Arabia, large naturalistic representations of camels ... we've found other camel representations, very large camels, but they are much less detailed. And you can see a mini tradition there in northern Arabia," he says.

Mustatils of Al Ula

Dating from the same era as the Al Jawf camels, mustatils also captured the world's imagination in recent months.

About 1,000 of the long rectangular structures, comprising low stone walls, can be seen from the air across the desert landscape and while some are simple structures, others are more complex and involved internal rooms and pillars.

Experts think they may have served some sort of religious ritual function. To Sumio Fujii, the mustatils are only one example of a series of structures across Saudi Arabia that shed light on the formation of tribal society in the peninsula, including distinctive cairns, or stone structures – often burial mounds – and basic stone dwellings.

Mustatils are only one phenomenon in the kingdom to put Al Ula on the map, a governorate that is now a centrepiece of the kingdom's multi-sector plan to revive international interest in its culture and heritage, attracting millions of tourists along the way, as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 initiative.

To Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, Associate Professor of Archaeology at King Saud University and consultant at the Royal Commission of Al Ula, the province is "a land of historical depth," that Saudi Arabia "wants to share with the world."

Updated: November 2nd 2021, 3:20 PM