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.

Japan – The Origins and Evolution of the Samurai

Welcome back to the ABC world history series! For my contribution I have J for Japan, and obviously I was going to write something about warfare. The first thing to come to mind when considering Japanese warfare history would undoubtedly be the samurai. Of course we all know about their modern reputation as honourable masters of the katana, but this was not always their way, and misrepresents the majority of the role they played in Japanese society throughout time. As with most things in history I think it’s interesting to look back where things began, so today I’ll be taking a look at the origins of the samurai, and how they evolved through the centuries.

China has influenced Japan more than any other nation, and the relationship between the two has had a massive impact on history. In the mid-seventh century Japan widely adopted many Chinese-style institutions. The Taihō Codes of 702, a set of statutes written in Chinese and inspired by Chinese models, mandated a stable, centralized state in control of a reformed military system emphasizing peasant infantry. Things began to change break down eventually however, and thanks to a political vacuum created by an ineffective central government between 900 – 1100, local leaders were forced to arm themselves and take matters into their own hands against many rebellions. These warriors of the countryside soon banded together, linked by ties of dependence and based in private estates on land they had claimed themselves. Eventually they were wholly relied upon for control of rural Japan, and finally in 1185 Yoritomo seized leadership of this new class and established a feudal system which allotted land to them in exchange for their martial service. Hence those previously known as bushi (warrior) started to take on the name of samurai, literally meaning ‘servant’, although until the seventeenth century it may have been an insult to refer to these them as such.

Overall this story is the commonly accepted history of how the samurai came to prominence in Japan, however it does gloss over a lot of the details. So to find out more we need to go back to the time of the early Chinese-styled Japanese military. The Japanese imperial government was vigorous during the early Heian period. Emperor Kanmu’s avoidance of drastic reform decreased the intensity of political struggles, and he became recognized as one of Japan’s most forceful emperors. Imperial control was spreading across the majority of Japan by this time, and thrust north with an army based mainly on the Chinese heavy infantry model of the Tang dynasty. Eventually however, they came upon people known as the Emishi (shrimp barbarians), or Mojin (Hairy people) of north-eastern Honshu. This distinct group had developed horse archery tactics similar to those of the Huns and Mongols. Although archery had been a major martial skill in Japan since prehistory, and there had been some use of cavalry by those that could afford it, the two had never been combined in an effective fighting force by the Japanese before. The more static infantry of the Japanese struggled to deal with these highly mobile and effective fighters, so eventually their tactics were adopted and the Emishi were gradually assimilated after 801 when they had finally been subjugated. This resilient group had a profound impact on the formation of the first Samurai, and it has been said that the very core of the Japanese spirit is the ‘ghost of the Emishi’.

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Ireland and Imperators: Iron-Age Ireland and the Roman world next door.

While Britain, from AD 43 to the historic date of AD 410, had undergone a cultural and socio-political metamorphosis through its incorporation into the Roman world, the land of Hibernia (modern-day Ireland) remained outside the political sphere of the empire. However, this does not mean that Ireland and Rome remained complete aliens to each other – each being an unknown world to the other, as popular belief may tend to lean to. For this week, the focus will be on prehistoric Ireland up to, and including, its existence with the Roman Empire as it’s neighbour.

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Guyana: The Country of the Golden myth

Guyana lies in the North West of South America, with the Atlantic Ocean to the North and Brazil to the South. The name Guyana derives from in indigenous language known as Amerindian and translates to the land of many waters. Currently, there are numerous indigenous tribes still inhabiting Guyana, thought the historical lens tends to focus on the Lokono and Kalina tribes which maintained a hegemony over the region, though to be replaced by the European powers following the (re-)discovery of the Americas. It is the discovery and the resultant colonial expansions that I wish to focus on in the blog as it was a defining moment in Guyana’s history as it was when Guyana actually entered history – at least the European-centric global history we often refer to. The arrival of Europe to America irreversibly transformed Guyana – as indeed it did for all of the Americas.

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Ethiopia in Prehistory and Antiquity

Ethiopia lies in horn of Africa and is the largest and most populated country within the horn. It is also one of oldest countries in the world, and has been universally known and engaged with since ancient times. It is the early days of Ethiopia – its prehistory and ancient history – that I want to focus on in this blog.

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Djibuoti: Punt & Macrobians

We are back one again for the ABC of World history. We have now landed on D and a dice roll determined today I would talk to you about Djibouti which for those of you unaware of its location, it is a country in the Horn of Africa and bordered by Somaliland (that part of Somalia that is desperately trying to be acknowledged a its own state), Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti has had many names throughout history, been part of many states and nations, and governed by different groups, whether it was the local Somali and Afar peoples, the Islamic empires that took over the north of Africa, or the French colonists in its most recent history. However, officially as the Republic of Djibouti, it has existed since its independence granted by French authorities in 1977. It has a long history as anthologist and archaeologist agree that its strategic location would have been key for the crossing of the early homonym groups, and there is consensus that it has been consistently occupied since at least the Neolithic. I must confess that I was incredibly tempted to start talking about the wonderful archaeological remain that are found around this area or the incredible painting of giraffes in Balho, but today I decided to talk about the uncertain history of Djibouti. Because, you see, its geographical location, means that it is a perfect breeding ground for all those potential places of antiquity we are not entirely sure where they exactly were. So today I will briefly cover the potential role of Djibouti as the land of Punt and Macrobians.

The Land of Punt

The majority of the information we have regarding the so-called Land of Punt comes from the perspective of the ancient Egyptians who left records of their mysterious trading partner in this land of Punt. Where was Punt exactly? Well, its difficult to say, and the lack of consensus means that we are currently working with the space between Egypt and the red Sea all the way down to the Horn of Africa, so, you know just a few places…So where do the records come from? The Egyptians started mentioning gold coming form Punt since the Fourth Dynasty, and the first official expedition to this region was organised in the Fifth dynasty by Pharaoh Sahure (around 25th century BC). But it wasn’t until the reign of Hatshepsut that the most famous expedition is organised and from, we get most of the information we have to date about Punt. Her chroniclers describe the land at length even describing it as a rich area with anything imaginable littering the land, a place worthy of Gods. The descriptions of the trade good that came to the Egyptians through Punt, suggest that the Puntites were well established as a mercantile nation, as they also traded with goods from adjacent areas, suggesting they had developed a solid network. Reliefs of these trading missions by ship can still be found in Hatshepsut’s temple at Dayr al-Bahri. We even have mentions of the Puntite rulers of this time: King Parahu and Queen Ati. However after the reign of Ramses III, it seems the majority of narratives about the land of Punt become so unreal that perhaps indicate a certain level of mythification and legendary romanticism which makes us questioned what happened between these two nations or if previous records had also been exaggerated.


The Macrobian are a people that we have record of thank to Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BC) the Greek writer and geographer. But, we need to take all we know about Macrobians with a pinch of salt as Herodotus is our main source and from the accounts themselves, these come across as sort of mythological people living in the extremities of the world known to the Greeks. He describes the Macrobians as living somewhere south of Ethiopia, which could fit with the current location of Djibouti. He presents them as tall and handsome people, excellent seafarers and living in a prosperous land, which sort of matches the imagery developed earlier by the Egyptian Pharaoes. Herodotus description of diet (milk and meat), remarks on stature and prowess resonates with the pastoral Somali tribes of the area so, it is likely that if Macrobians was a real place it could be aligned with Djibouti. Another reason to believe this is the same area than Punt and perhaps even the same people is the remark on their wealth and gold, to the point that, probably exaggerating, Herodotus remarks that even their slaves were chained in this metal. The biggest issue that we have with Herodotus Macrobians accounts is that later authors of Greece, refer back to these same people (allegedly the same Macrobians) but then placing them in further remote areas corresponding to locations in India, but this again comes mostly from one source written by Pliny the Elder.

As you can see there is a lot of uncertainty around these areas, and I wish I Could clarify these things a little more for you, however the research on these areas is pretty lacking. In fact there aren’t many sources available in English that talk a bit more in depth about the history of Djibouti and the states prior to its formation that make this such a rich historical land. As usual, eurocentric historical ideas take us away from reachign a better udnerstanding of the world as a whole. So I really hope if nothing else, that this series of ABC World History inspires some of you to go look further south than Gibraltar.

Confucius: A Brief History of Master Kong

Today I am writing about a long overdue historical figure that I have admired for a long time: Confucius. The name itself is actually the latinisation of the title he was known by Kǒng Fūzǐ (which means something like Master Kong – Kong was his family name). His given name was Qiu. However, the Jesuit priests that got to China during the 16th century adapted it to their ears and languages, like it often happens with so many Asian names in Western culture.

I could write loads about him, but I will try to keep it to a brief overview, where I am mostly using the work of Michael Schuman as a reference. According to his research, there I a possibility that the great master may have been an illegitimate child. Confucius’s father, Kong He, die when the child was barely a couple of years old. Kong He was a lot older than Confucius mother, Yan Zhengzai, who was only a teenager at the time of the child’s birth on the 28th of September 551 BC. Schuman is of the idea that Zhengzai was shunned by the Kong family which is why Confucius was raised essentially in poverty. According to Burton Watson, it is evident from Confucius writing in his Analects that this experience of living a life of struggle and misery is what gave him a particular understanding and viewpoint of wealth and class. The child, perhaps guided by a higher purpose, or in an attempt to restore his family’s honour and glory, dedicated himself to the relentless study of history, literature ad philosophy.

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Nu History Podcast – Episode 7: Classical Art and Architecture

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by special guest Analisa from Accessible Art History, as well as returning guest James, to talk about Greek and Roman art and architecture, focusing on a few particular themes and examples.

Find more from Analisa at Accessible Art History:

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

I’m not saying it was Aliens…

History of the meme along with its place in the historian’s professional landscape

Tabby's Star faded substantially over past century.

Aliens have become somewhat infamous in the world of history writing. Every historian from the armchair variety through to the academic professor has more than likely come across that  one particular meme. The one featuring Giorgio A. Tsoukalos  standing there with his style of hair in its usual kind of crazy way an holding his hands out stating the words “aliens.” And honestly, it doesn’t matter what style or period of history one is exploring. The meme seems to have made its way into all of them. The infamous image itself comes from the 2010 Ancient Aliens TV series that Tsoukalos, himself an Alien expert,  was the host for. Spinning out of the concepts raised in the Ancient Aliens series, one of the key ideas that made this program notable is the wide variety of historical phenomena that it attributes to aliens. That is to say, iconic historical products of civilizations and peoples such as the Nazca Lines or Baalbek become attributed to extraterrestrials instead of the cultures that produced them. This concept is termed conversely “ancient astronauts” and “paleocontact” and can be defined through the attributing of great and sophisticated works of the past to extraterrestrials.

Ancient Astronauts and Colonial Psychology

The concept of ancient astronauts is not dissimilar from the effects of colonial propaganda. Briefly, colonial empires would create and impose an image of inferiority onto the peoples it colonized, and likewise, an image of ascendancy for the colonizing peoples.  From this standpoint, the colonial entity would project outward, through its arts and literature, the idea that its cultural developments were inherently superior to those they colonized.  Concerning notions of cultural works, the concept of superiority shown through technology still exists and is tied to the lingering colonial psychology. Indeed, within the 19th, 20th and continuing into the 21st century, western society underwent a massive degree of technological revolution in a relatively short span of time. That, further, this time period has brought with it unprecedented forms of technology and social issues. While the same could be said to be true of any technological revolution, from the perspective of those within it the past must be, by definition, less capable. For instance, the 20th century has seen technology develop from the assembly line to splitting the Atom, being able to propel humans into space to having wireless communication networks spanning the globe. While the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th centuries certainly had its technological advances (the functional button of the 13th century, for example), there is the mentality that the current developments are more progressive largely because they are more pertinent to us. Outside the sense of temporal pertinence, the past must be lacking the sophistication of technology the contemporary enjoys.

I often argue that western society has lost their colonial empires (to greater or lesser degrees), but has maintained the colonial psychology of perceived and projected inferiority. The current perception of technology as equating with superiority falls into that colonial mentality and for 21st century capitalism, is part of the colony’s legacy.  Yet, there are products of other cultures that present a compliment to or empathize with that sense of pertinence. Items such as the Saqqara Bird, Machu Picchu, the Moai and others are routinely attributed to extra-terrestrials.    As an examples of objects that can be situated into contemporary western perceptions about technology, the ancient astronaut notion offers an easy method of situating the sophistication of past and non-western societies. Thus, lacking the precise same means, the products of another time or culture become attributed to aliens as a source of equivalency of method and psychology. The ancient astronaut, the alien, becomes the appropriate stand in: A technologically advanced helper from somewhere far away, a benevolent invader, a colonist.  

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Nu History Podcast – Episode 6: The Origins of Warfare

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined once again by James to talk about a favourite topic of his and Alex’s; Warfare. We specifically get into the possible origins of warfare in prehistory, how it may be distinct from other forms of early human conflict, and how it may link into the concept of civilization itself. We also take a look at Sparta as an example of a highly militaristic society.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.