One of a group of off shore islands that run west along the Abu Dhabi coast as far as Sir Bani Yas, Marawah Island has long been known as a place of archaeological interest.
It was here, 8000 years ago, that a group of nomads settled and built houses for the first time.
Millennia later, in 1829, a survey ship for the East Indian Company finally recorded the island’s location for the maps.
It was another 150 years until the Abu Dhabi Islands Survey, commissioned by UAE Founding Father Sheikh Zayed, identified 13 sites of interest on the island, dating from the Neolithic period to Islamic times.
The survey noted that the island was in “an area renowned for its dangerous navigation waters,” rising only seven metres above sea level and part of a limestone plateau.
It had three small population centres, providing season shelter for fisherman, the largest of which was Liffa.
More than 50 archaeological structures or features were found, along with dozens of flint tools, and a mound partly concealing a curved dry stone wall.
“Its date remained uncertain”, the survey noted, adding that the site’s location: “Would have provided an excellent base for hunting and fishing, with easy access to a rich sea life including fish, dugong and crustaceans.”
In 2004 more details emerged, with a new discovery by a team from ADIAS working with the Environment Agency.
Beginning in Spring 2003, digging began on a site known as MR-11, a group of stone mounds that revealed several structure, the best preserved being a house with walls still standing at a height of more than metre in some places.
A flint spear and arrowhead were also found, along with a fragment of a pestle used for grinding food.
Samples of ash from some of the floors were sent to the University of Glasgow for carbon dating, and dated to around 6,500 and 7,000 years ago.
Later excavations unearthed an intact and highly decorated ceramic jar, made in what is now Iraq and firm evidence that the people of Marawah were part of an extensive trade route along the Gulf.
Two years ago, the first inhabitants of the ancient community came to light. Under a partial collapsed roof, a partial skeleton was found, leading archaeologists conclude that the building was a “house of the dead.”
Later a second skeleton was found, with archaeologist Ahmed Abdalla Elhag Elfaki observing that it was a: “form of burial is typical of other known Late Stone Age burials, such as those known from Jebel Buhais in Sharjah.”
It is now believed the Marawah community existed for several hundred years, thriving in a time when the region was much wetter and greener than today, with freshwater lakes and plentiful game to hunt. Other neolithic sites discovered in the UAE include a shell midden, or refuse dump, in Umm Al Quwain. Evidence shows these early inhabitants hunted for gazelle, raised sheep, dogs and goats, and organised expeditions to find flint.
Even earlier is Jebel Feyar in Sharjah, where 125,000 stone axes were found, evidence that early mankind trekked through region as they made their way out of Africa. More recent sites include the 5,000 year old Umm Al Nar tomb, also in Sharjah, and a similar structure in Ras Al Khaimah. A Bronze Age settlement was found in the late 1950s on Umm Al Nar, or the island of fire, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi near the Sheikh Zayed Bridge.
The Neolithic period was a crucial time in the development of communities in the Gulf, with the first pearl fishing, and the beginning of date palm cultivation on nearby Dalma Island.
New analysis of the carbon dating now places the village, which is still not fully excavated, closer to 8,000 years old.
It was a time when humans were previously thought to live a nomadic existence, wandering the land with flocks of sheep and goats.
Dr Mark Beech, a leading archaeologist who has worked on the site for TDC Abu Dhabi, said stone structures from this period had been found in Kuwait and Qatar, but much less sophisticated in design.
“There is nothing as beautiful as these Marawah ones,” he said.
Slightly older Neolithic buildings have been found in Jordan, Cyprus and Byblos in Lebanon, he said, with the possibility that the design was brought to the site by early traders from the west.
The builders had used local limestone found on the island and situated their community close to a natural harbour: “It was a very strategic location.”
The archaeological team plans to return next year to resume work in the cooler winter months. “We have only excavated two out of seven mounds,” said Dr Beech. “Maybe there will be further houses or structures — or surprises.”
Marawah’s antiquity means that it is the earliest place discovered with permanent stone buildings, the first village in what is now the UAE.
It seems now that it is here that people first put down roots and decided to stay put, building homes, creating industries and technologies, going out in the world to trade and discover, a way of life that continues to this day.