Jordan Rift Valley was gateway to Eurasia for early humans 84,000 years ago

Ancient tools suggest our ancestors followed overland route from Africa along river corridor

Wadi Hasa area, in Jordan. Tools found on the edges of these ancient river channels are evidence of water sources that have since dried out. Photo: Dr Mohammed Alqudah, Yarmouk University
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Newly discovered tools and artefacts have painted a vivid picture of ancient human journeys from Africa to Eurasia, through the Jordan Rift Valley, about 84,000 years ago.

A team of scientists from the University of Southampton in the UK, Shantou University in China and other institutions has published evidence that early humans followed a “corridor” of rivers that ran through the Sinai peninsula.

The findings confirm earlier theories that our ancestors trod a verdant land path across the peninsula, venturing through the Jordan Rift Valley as they migrated towards western Asia and northern Arabia.

Modern humans, who evolved in Africa between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago, undertook several migrations out of the continent.

Previous theories suggested some of these migrants used a southern crossing via the Red Sea.

However, the latest findings, published in the journal Science Advances, suggest that a northern land route, abundant in water and resources, was favoured.

Paul Carling, professor of geomorphology at the University of Southampton, said: “It’s long been thought that when the sea level was low, humans used a southern crossing, via the Red Sea from the Horn of Africa, to get to south-western Arabia.”

Prof Carling told The National: “The [Jordan Rift] extends from north of the Dead Sea where the Jordan River historically provided a reliable water supply, through to the Red Sea thus providing a potential migration corridor from Africa into Asia Minor to the north and the Sinai Peninsula to the east.”

During fieldwork in the Jordan Rift Valley, the team unearthed hand tools, referred to as “flakes”, which form part of evidence of water sources that have since dried out.

The tools were found on the edges of ancient river channels called wadis.

Luminescence dating techniques estimated that these tools were likely used and abandoned about 84,000 years ago.

Prof Carling explained the significance of the discovery.

“The Jordan Rift Valley lies on the Dead Sea Rift, which is the plate boundary between the Arabian continental plate and the African plate. The rift likely is an extension of the Red Sea Rift. It is tectonically active with earthquakes occurring from time to time.”

This created a possible migration pathway from Africa to Asia Minor in the north and towards the Sinai Peninsula in the east.

While the region is exceedingly dry nowadays, a few springs scattered along its edges have sustained nomads.

“Our study confirms there was a well-trodden passage to the north, across the only land-route from Africa to Eurasia. While previous studies have sought evidence of large lakes as potential water sources, our findings underscore the importance of small wetlands as crucial stopovers during migration,” Prof Carling said.

Dr Mahmoud Abbas, the study's lead author from Shantou University, said, rather than a dry desert, savannah grasslands “would have provided the much-needed resources for humans to survive during their journey out of Africa and into south-west Asia and beyond”.

Prof Carling said “perhaps the most interesting finding” was that very small wetlands were important watering holes for early humans who probably hunted across neighbouring savannah grasslands.

“As these wetlands occur along the margins of the Rift they allowed humans to use the Rift as a migration corridor ‘out of Africa’ from as early as 123,000 years ago into Asia Minor and Sinai, with the potential to spread further into Europe and Asia,” he told The National.

The study not only helps trace the paths of ancient human migration but also highlights the profound relationship between climate change, human survival, and migration patterns.

Updated: October 05, 2023, 10:09 AM