Dalma Island has been centre of pearl diving for 7,000 years, say scientists

The sea has sustained the emirates for centuries, providing food, natural resources and trade with the world. Each week this summer we visit a key stretch of coast, beginning with the ancient pearl beds of Dalma Island.

Dr Anjana Reddy, left, and Dr Nurcan Yalman at Dalma, where archaeological work is bringing greater understanding of the Gulf’s Neolithic past to light and helping academics to a clearer picture of a society that has long been hidden. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

DALMA ISLAND // It is commonly thought that the roots of the UAE’s pearling heritage date back to the 19th century. But archaeologists working on Dalma Island suggest people in this region have been diving for pearls for thousands of years.

Excavations on the island, 42 kilometres off the coast of the emirate of Abu Dhabi and 116km from Doha, have discovered the remains of a house thought to belong to Dalma’s first inhabitants.

The 7,000-year-old site was excavated in 1993 but archaeologists are now looking at a layer of rubbish that contains clues about the people who lived there, including a large amount of pearl oyster shells.

This suggests the shallow banks of pearl beds around the island have been explored by humans for thousands of years, said Dr Mark Beech, head of the coastal heritage and palaeontology section at the Historic Environment Department of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

“Prior to oil, pearl oysters were the thing that gave people wealth and it shows that this wealth goes back far into pre-history,” said Dr Beech, whose team includes Dr Anjana Reddy, a coastal heritage archaeologist at the authority, and Dr Nurcan Yalman, research fellow at the Centre for International Heritage Activities in Leiden, the Netherlands.

“You are seeing a snapshot in time from 7,000 years ago when someone was sitting just outside the edge of the house, probably in the shade of the roof, opening pearl oysters, looking for pearls.

“Those people would have probably found it funny that we are taking such care excavating their rubbish but this is fantastic evidence,” said Dr Beech.

The rubbish also reveals what was routinely on the islanders menu – tuna, sea urchins, dolphins, dugongs, turtles as well as sheep and goat. The bones of hammour up to one metre in size were also found, providing a comparison as to the state of fisheries today.

The scientists have been able to determine the age of the rubbish through carbon dating on two date stones. One was found to be from 4,600 BC while the older was dated to 5,100 BC.

This confirmed what was already suggested by shards of pottery found at the site that appeared to be from the Ubaid period in Iraq, and made 7,500 years ago 700km away. It was unclear how the pottery reached Dalma, said Dr Beech.

Archaeologists also found the remains of what appears to be locally made copies of Ubaid pottery. The vessels were made from plaster and adorned with locally available haematite to resemble pieces from Ubaid, suggesting the indigenous people wanted to be part of an Ubaid identity, he said.

Dr Yalman said the work being done on Dalma is really important because, “This part of the world is unknown, especially prehistorically.” Finding out more details about the Neolithic people of the Gulf will contribute to the overall better understanding of life in those times and the way people interacted. “It is very exciting,” she said.

In contrast to the stone houses from the same period excavated on Marawah Island, the Dalma home was most likely made from palm leaves similar to the traditional areesh and round in shape with a diameter of between 7 and 8 metres.

Scientists also found a number of stone drills as well as the striped shells of a small gastropod Engina mendicaria. The shells appear to have been deliberately modified with the top sliced off, leading the team to believe the building was also used for bead production.

Geophysical surveys of the site in October last year suggested that more structures were buried underground.

The whole site could be as large as 200 metres by 150 metres.

“We are standing at just one house of what we believe is a whole village dating back 7,000 years,” said Dr Beech. He hopes one day the findings will be accessible to the public in the Dalma museum or a new facility. “This is a very important site here but obviously we need to be able to present it to the public and make explanation and have a display of some of the finds on the island,” he said.


Read more in our series:

Timeless tranquillity of life on Dalma Island

Special geology of salt dome island