Oman in the Paleolithic: Migration and Desertification

For my second contribution to ABC world history I have found myself with O for Oman! Having never significantly looked into the history of the Arabian Peninsula, let alone the region that modern day Oman covers, I decided to go early with it, and take a general overview of the different Paleolithic periods important to this part of the world leading up to the Neolithic revolution.

The present-day Sultanate of Oman lies in the south-eastern Arabian Peninsula, but there are different definitions for Oman, Oman traditionally included the present-day United Arab Emirates, though its prehistoric remains differ in some respects from the more specifically defined Oman proper which corresponds roughly with the current central provinces of the country. Oman is surrounded by the vast Rub Al-Khali desert to the west and the Arabian Sea and Sea of Oman to the south and east. The country is naturally divided into three geological zones: the Al-Hajar Mountains in northern Oman, the Huqf depression in the interior and the Dhofar Mountains in the southwest. Many wadis (valleys or dry riverbeds) cross the plateaus of the central region that once would have flowed with ancient rivers that led into perennial lakes in the lowlands. There is plenty of evidence that this would have once been a fairly productive landscape of grasslands before the region became the very arid place it is today.

Dhofar region cave art

Arabia as a whole wasn’t always a vast desert, but the incorrect perception of Arabia as always unchanged from its current state has seems to have contributed to a relative lack of archaeological research. What recent research there has been is also affected by the nature of this now arid land, with most prehistoric sites consisting of scattered stones from surface contexts. As a result, knowledge of Arabian prehistory often comes from sites potentially representing multiple phases of occupation, which lack absolute dates and environmental information. It is a land of total archaeological visibility, with few preserved sediments.

Despite these challenges it has been seen as important to look further into the prehistory of this region. As the geographic bridge between Africa and Asia, the Lower Paleolithic archaeological record in Arabia provides important clues for tracking the evolution and dispersal of human species through a major corridor of migration. Previously In anthropological literature the Arabian Peninsula often served as a useful blank on the map in which to draw hypothetical arrows of human dispersal. The specific environmental and geographical characteristics of Arabia are usually overlooked in theories of human genetic variation, but it is precisely such contexts that are critical to defining patterns of human migration and adaptation. As genetic studies of Arabian populations have increased in more recent years, they reveal a complex pattern in which modern Arabian populations are mostly derived from Western Asia. However In some areas there are relatively high levels of African lineages.

In Oman, specifically the Dhofar region, there has been recent research on the Lower Paleolithic stone tools found, which is the most reliable archaeological evidence to be found in such an environment. This indicated that the first archaic human toolmakers in Dhofar, arrived sometime in the Early Pleistocene around 1.5 million years ago, and lived in a vastly different and greener landscape than that of today. It was previously thought that some tools found were actually from much later, in the Neolithic period, but this new research shows that there were indeed very early stone tool users in this southern region of Oman.

Moving into the Middle paleolithic, a period starting around 300,000 years ago in which we see more distinct local stone tool traditions develop across different parts of the globe. In this period there has been a rich evidence for human habitation across southern Arabia and Oman specifically. The vast majority of Middle Paleolithic assemblage types in southern Arabia belong to the Nubian Technocomplex, which is a very characteristic method of stone tool production that is highly associated with northern African humans, traced originally to Northern Sudan 150,000 years ago. These people using this method were likely to be anatomically modern humans, meaning Homo sapiens. Although there is just a small amount of evidence linking Homo sapiens remains to sites of this type, there have been no archaic forms of human associated with these particular tools. Finding so many of these sites across southern Arabia provides evidence for connections between modern humans across the Red Sea over 100,000 years ago, however the actual direction of these population movements remains an open question.

Nubian complex locations

Remains dating between approximately 45,000 and 15,000 years ago are classified as from the Upper Paleolithic period. It was during this time that our species spread into Australia and the Americas, drew pictures on cave walls, carved portable art objects and musical instruments, and outlived every other human species on earth. In the Oman Peninsula, a period known as the Late Paleolithic succeeded the Upper Paleolithic, falling between approximately 14,000 and 7,000 years ago. The Late Paleolithic is a cultural unit distinct to South Arabia that is widespread from the Hadramawt Valley in central Yemen to the Al-Hajar Mountains in northern Oman. The late Paleolithic is characterised by a new stone tool production style that is surprisingly uniform across the region, something of a change from earlier periods when tools were increasingly diverse. Genetic studies of Modern South Arabian populations in Dhofar have revealed deeply rooted lineages reaching as far back as 12,000 years old, which fall into the Late Paleolithic time frame. An analysis of DNA estimates the effective breeding population of Dhofar jumped from about 1,000 to 10,000 people during this period. Shortly after this relative boom in population, sometime between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago, domesticated cattle and goats were introduced to southern Arabia, heralding the Neolithic revolution. But by 6,000 years ago the Holocene Climatic Optimum came to an end, leading to a millennium of drought and desertification.

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