The capital of the UAE has just unveiled its latest remarkable archaeological discoveries – evidence found on one of Abu Dhabi’s islands of the oldest known built structures in the Arabian Peninsula. The discoveries that have been unearthed on Ghagha Island have forced experts into a radical rethink about early human history in a region that covers Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, as well as the UAE.
Before structures and artefacts were discovered on Ghagha by archaeologists from the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi), it was believed the earliest settlements in the region were no earlier than 8,000 years ago. It has long been assumed that these first coastal settlements originated as a result of maritime trade opportunities, which developed during the neolithic period. However, these new finds upend that assumption, stretching the origins of neolithic settlement in the area back by at least 500 years, when maritime trade was not that common. The discoveries not only provide another facet for understanding past human history on both a regional and global scale, but they have also thrust the UAE and the region into the global spotlight.
The remains from Ghagha indicate that 8,500 years ago, the islands of Abu Dhabi provided a rich array of food resources, including sea life and wild animals. The discoveries are groundbreaking. For the past 100 years, scholarly attention has focused on investigating early communities across the Middle East, the economies of which were based on agriculture. Many of these are found in the so-called "Fertile Crescent". Ghagha island and, indeed, the surrounding islands were an ecological hotspot during this time and can be thought of as a "fertile coast", where there were abundant food resources, including fish, marine mammals such as dugong and birds. Attracted by the rich resources available, people began to sail into the open waters and develop knowledge, not just of the sea and its many resources, but also the tides, the weather and the wind patterns. Importantly, that knowledge was passed down from generation to generation and is still found today. The discoveries, therefore, are a physical reminder of the longevity of Emirati maritime culture.
The discoveries place Abu Dhabi firmly at the centre of ancient developments in the region, and come as part of DCT Abu Dhabi’s emirate-wide archaeological programme, in line with the organisation’s mandate to preserve, protect and share with the wider world the ancient history and cultural heritage of the emirate.
Abu Dhabi has been found to contain some of the most prized and unique cultural and historical attractions and finds, not only in the region, but also internationally. In addition to the discoveries on Ghagha island, there are remains of an ancient monastery on Sir Bani Yas island, as well as the Unesco-inscribed Cultural Sites of Al Ain, comprising a series of oases, historic monuments, archaeological sites and natural areas that have featured on Unesco's World Heritage List since 2011.
Abu Dhabi’s archaeological treasures also include Miocene Trackways (footprints of a herd of an extinct form of ancient elephant) which date to 6 to 8 million years ago; numerous 3,000-year-old aflaj in Al Ain (which indicates the earliest known widespread use of this irrigation technology in the world); stone tools dating to over 300,000 years ago, which were found in surveys around Jebel Hafit mountain (indicating that the UAE was an important pathway for the dispersal of early humans across the globe); and a well preserved Iron Age fortress dating to 3,000 years ago, which was discovered during excavations at Al Ain’s Hili 14 archaeological site.
This treasure trove of discoveries unearthed by DCT Abu Dhabi archaeologists in our emirate have quite rightly resonated around the world. The Department is proud that its mandate encompasses the preservation of the past, which aligns with the values of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father, who believed in the importance of protecting and promoting our cultural heritage, preserving this knowledge for the world and for the generations to come.
DCT Abu Dhabi’s ongoing mission is to uncover the very earliest roots of civilisation in the region, as we strive to understand where humanity came from. The important discoveries on Ghagha Island will no doubt add even more substance to Abu Dhabi’s standing as a global focal point for reframing our understanding of the past via archaeological discoveries, enabling us to map out more confidently the region’s extraordinary history.