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.

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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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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“White Rus”: A History of Belarus

For this week in our alphabet of History, will be (pun intended) looking at the History of Belarus. The history of Belarus is a narrative of invasions, wars, unifications and atrocities, but is of great value to any whose interests involve History. Because Belarus’ history is so encompassing, to avoid making this blog seem like a small essay, I will be focusing on Belarus from the earliest days of Human occupation, up until the late medieval period – pre-modern Belarus essentially. I may finish off Belarus’ history in a future blog, but here is the first half!

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ABC World History: Andorra

Today we start the writing project that we are dedicating the rest of the year to, which is the ABC of World History! We are going to be writing every week and bringing you posts from all over the world following the letters of the alphabet. These were completely picked at random: we opened a list of countries in the world sorted alphabetically and rolled a die for each letter – no fumbles either so we are going with whatever came up first! With this e hoped to open new horizons, keep things a bit less Eurocentric and more diverse. This is also a great opportunity to get our mojo back on the writing game as we have been putting a lot of our energy on the podcast, so we really hope you enjoy it. And, without more delay, today we start with a for ANDORRA!

Having been born and brought up in Spain, Andorra is that country you are aware of, but not many people pay much attention to, unless you like skiing. So I started doing some reading into the history of Andorra and hit my first barrier: languages! This is a recurrent theme when we explore certain topics but, in case you wanted to know what the issues affecting Andorra are from a linguistic viewpoint here we go. First of all there isn’t an awful lo written on the history of this country, due to its size and the fact that has always been wedge between Spain and France, so politically speaking it gets buried under a lot of border and frontier changes. And then, there is the language issue: there is barely anything writing in English. Most sources I have used for this post were written in Catalan (or the Andorran variant of Catalan), a few more in Spanish, but the majority of the useful sources and reports I was able to use were in French. Now that we have cleared this out of the way, I’m going to take this chance to call up some Andorran historians to the front! This is a cool niche that deserves some recognition! And now that we all know where we stand, I’ll tell you more about what the blog post will be about: the prehistoric origins of this region.

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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.

Gegharot and the Armenian Bronze Age (Updated August 2018)

Some more updated information on something I wrote a while back – this site has become extremely important in the archaeological discourse of Armenia, the Bronze and the political relationships between countries in Europe and the Near East

Nu History

Today we are going to take a trip to the site of Gegharot in Armenia. This area is currently under excavation as part of the ArAGATS – American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies. The project which was developed in 1998 by Dr Adam Smith and Dr Ruben Badalyan focuses in the investigation of the Tsaghkahovit Plain of Central Armenia under the northern slopes of Mt. Aragats. Their aim is to understand the cultural diversity and historical issues in Armenia since ancient times and up to the modern age. Gegharot, is one of the specific field projects of the ArAGATS since 2005. In order for you to get the picture, I’ll give you first of all an overview of the site.

This is a Bronze Age settlement, with a fortified wall and a cemetery which was the main area of research upon its discovery in the…

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The Prehistoric Thames Valley

Despite living in London for most of my life, I only recently went to visit the Museum of London. The museum in general covers the entire history of the city, and has some great objects to go and stare at, especially in the medieval period for me. However, what I want to focus on right now is what the museum covers of period before the city, or any trace of it, even existed. This is the first part of the museum you’d see if you visit, and it covers the history of the Thames valley from before human settlement, and right through the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, and beyond of course.

The River Thames has played a vital role in the development and story of London for the last 450,000 years. It is only 352 kilometres from source to the sea, but throughout time it has continuously shaped the local landscape. It has been used by humans as a highway, a boundary, a food store and a sacred stream. In London today most of the Thames has artificial embankments, but in prehistory the river was wider and shallower, and probably flowed in a number of different channels. To Julius Caesar the river was known as Tamesa – ‘the flowing one’.

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Artist’s impression of the prehistoric River Colne, a tributary of the Thames.

The Palaeolithic period up to 8800BC is characterised by climate change. Gradual, but continual cycles of warming then cooling, with periods when Britain was too cold to be occupied. During warmer times nomadic hunter-gatherers moved in and out of Britain, via a land bridge, following herds of animals. People would have eaten big game like mammoth and reindeer along with foraged foods such as nuts, fruit and roots. At the beginning of the Ice Age in this period, the Thames was much longer and ran through a different part of the UK. It started in the Welsh uplands, flowed across the English midlands and eventually joined the river Rhine in the southern part of what is now the North Sea. Nearly half a million years ago it was diverted into its present valley by ice sheets. Since then, it has changed course many times because of changes in global climate and sea level. Each time the sea level dropped, the river had to cut its way down through the land to reach the sea, leaving behind a dry flood plain. Nowadays, these former flood plains, or gravel terraces, are rich in archaeological finds, which were carried there by Ice Age flash floods. These include basic flint tools such as ‘hand axes’, as well as animal bones.

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200,000 year old mammoth jaw found in Ilford, East London.

From 8800BC was the Mesolithic. As the climate warmed in this period the landscape changed from tundra to woodland. Hunter-gatherers continued to move in and out of Britain until it became cut off permanently from Europe around 6500BC. People began to manage the land to lure smaller prey such as red deer and wild boar into forest clearings. Tools changed and smaller worked flint was used to create weapons such as arrows. Evidence of transient Mesolithic occupation is provided by scatters of flint knapping debris found along the riverside of the Thames. The area of the Thames and its tributaries were widely used by mobile hunters and gatherers taking advantage of the rich fishing and wild fowling opportunities. As well as fresh water, the Thames provided these prehistoric people with a wide range of natural resources such as reeds, rushes and timber for building. The river bed was also full of flint nodules which were vital for making sharp tools. As mentioned, the wildlife was plentiful, and there were many types of fish and birds, and small mammals like beavers and otters. Larger animals, including deer and cattle, also came down to the river to drink. Seasonal runs of salmon, migrating birds and the occasional beached whale would have supplemented this diverse diet. Together, this made the Thames Valley a very prosperous place to live.

The fertile river banks were also prime soil to be farmed for grain, and this started to take place in the Neolithic period up to 2500BC. During this period there was a transition from nomadic hunter gathering towards small scale farming. Animals such as sheep and goats were domesticated and crops including spelt were grown. Excavations on the gravel terraces of the upper Thames at Yarnton in Oxfordshire show clear evidence of Early Neolithic farming. Here a rectangular ditched mortuary enclosure was constructed, a rectangular hall or communal longhouse defined by postholes, plus numerous pits and other postholes. It appears that Yarnton was an area of open grassland which was not continuously occupied, but was inhabited on an intermittent or seasonal basis for a long period of time by early pastoral farmers. The animal bones found at the site consist mostly of cattle, sheep, goat and pig. The presence of charred grain and bread demonstrates that cereals were produced nearby.

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Various Stone Age tools on display at the Museum of London.

During this time we see the first evidence of monuments and large earthworks such as henges and cursus. Although centuries of cultivation of the Thames gravels have destroyed almost all the standing earthworks within this region, aerial survey has revealed a landscape covered with cropmarks of all periods. These surveys have also revealed long barrows, cursus monuments, causewayed enclosures, numerous ring ditches, mortuary enclosures and multiple henge monuments. One area of the Thames Valley where its cropmarks have been extensively excavated is Heathrow Airport. Work here revealed part of the Stanwell early neolithic cursus, which was later replaced by a series of late Bronze Age ditched fields. Interestingly, the Bronze Age settlement at Heathrow initially respected the line of the cursus; it was only encroached upon later, perhaps implying that over time its significance or sacred status was forgotten.

And it was the Bronze Age itself that came next from 2500BC to 800BC. The introduction of metal working changed lives and society. It is likely that those who controlled the supply, making and trade of bronze became more important and powerful. Britain was now a fully settled farming society. Widespread settlement would have led to friction between groups, and conflict over territory, and thus People began to live in more permanent roundhouses and protect their land. The emergence of weapons also becomes more prevalent during this time, perhaps for this reason. The Thames would have played an important role in these new issues, as the river acted as both a physical and psychological barrier. Settlements built on its islands used the water as a first line of defence. The remains of a number of wooden bridges have been found along the Thames. In the last century BC, the Thames also acted as a tribal boundary. Archaeologists have mapped out prehistoric territories using coins, and their conclusions suggest the river might have represented the boundary between neighbouring groups. According to Julius Caesar, the river was ‘fordable at one point only, and even there with difficulty’.

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Bronze spearheads at the Museum of London.

Large numbers of objects have been recovered from the Thames during dredging. These include human remains, particularly skulls, as well as weapons, tools and ornaments made from stone, bone and metal. Many are beautifully made and seem to have been placed in the river deliberately. This happened in rivers across northern Europe. There may have been a variety of reasons why prehistoric people did this. Was it to appease the river’s power in times of flood? The later second millennium BC was a period of climatic deterioration and rising river levels. These events may have prompted the development of a new water-oriented cult, replacing an earlier sky or earth oriented cult. This new cult could explain the numerous discoveries of bronze tools and weapons during dredging of the lower Thames, as offerings to the river.

From 800BC is the Iron Age. New strong iron tools enabled people to plough heavier soils and clear more forest. This created a farming boom which In turn saw an increase in the population. People had different roles in society such as druids, craftspeople and farmers. Wealthy leaders showed off their prestige with decorated gold and bronze objects, jewellery and imported goods. Coins were produced as symbols of power. Eventually the Romans write about life in Britain, even prior to their invasion of the island, and this ends the prehistory of Britain. London was established as Londinium in AD43 on a site that guarded the Romans’ bridgehead on the north bank of the Thames and a major road nexus.

That covers the history of prehistory in the Thames valley, and London before London. To see artefacts from this whole period, and further beyond up to the present day then take a trip to the Museum of London, I really recommend it! I should have gone a long time ago myself.

Prehistoric Thailand- Ban Chiang

Ban Chiang is a prehistoric archaeological site situated in Thailand with UNESCO world heritage status since 1992. It is famous for its red pottery designs that depict swirling lines. It is specifically located in the Nong han district within Udon Thani Province. The site was discovered by Steven Young, an Anthropology student at Harvard college in 1966.

The site was found to contain an array of pre-historic objects, the oldest some of which were said to have dated back to 2100 BC. It was suggested that Ban chiang came about in the Neolithic age however when humans were not working with metal tools, then through to the Bronze and Iron ages. Using technology; including radiometric dating, over time the timeframe of this site has become more defined.

Farm tools, jewellery, ceramics and pottery were all discovered as well as skeletal remains. The jewellery was found to contain bracelets, anklets and rings that were made of bronze. The tools were found to contain blades, spears, axes and hooks. This strongly implies that the people who lived at Ban Chiang were farming the land considering the tools that were found. This was particularly evident upon the discovery of rice fragments at the site too, suggesting this was what the settlers at Ban Chiang cultivated and included in their diet. There was also evidence to suggest the settlers during this stage held domesticated animals, which again heavily implies are farming community once thrived at Ban Chiang.

It was suggested that the discovery was found to contain a cemetery initially, but it was eventually found to be a burial dwelling, whereby the deceased were buried near or beneath their dwellings. This means that a lot of the artefacts found were buried with the skeletal remains. The makes sense considering the fine pottery, ceramics and jewellery that was found as this strongly implies the culture and burial practices of the people at Ban Chiang. However, it was also probable that they were used for personal wear.

Today Ban Chiang is a pivotal insight into Thailand’s prehistoric past and is said to be one of the greatest prehistoric discovered sites in all South-East Asia. The site heavily implies what life was like for the people who lived at Ban Chiang in terms of human evolution, social, agricultural and manufacture.

Although the site might not be as popular as Sukhothai Historical Park in Lower Northern Thailand it is still a captivating site that has  helped to shape our understanding of Thailand’s prehistoric past to the world since the 1960s.

Prehistoric Art

The hardest part of a being a historian is finding your interest travelling further and further back in history to discover your primary sources become scarcer and the history books become drier. However, one of the most enduring aspects of history can always been seen all over the walls in the form of art and sculpture, all through every countries history, and it envelopes the world in interconnecting strands of historical story-telling and passion. Prehistoric art is not classified as a movement like the Renaissance or Impressionism, but it still gives an image of an era that has no voice from the contemporary people. The artworks range from cave paintings to crude figurines found buried in archaeological dig from China to South America. Prehistory is considered by most historians to be between 3million and 5,300 years ago.

It is a shame prehistoric art is not studied in such depth by art historians or historians as an element of significance in human history. But the mere fact it predates printing, writing and traditional paint should make people see it as part of evolutionary progress and a time portal to the lives who lived the cave paintings depicted. Perhaps cave painting is maligned because of the crudeness and there are no written recordings of the meaning or thought behind the process. On the other hand, anthropologists have taken these pieces as a chance to study the human kind with a distance that nobody with a living memory can contest. As with the medieval era and parchment, only the hardiest of materials from the prehistoric era have stood the test of time to be analysed and debated. The prehistoric art ranges from Palaeolithic through to the Iron Age that expanded across the growth of humanity towards history, therefore the art is given the more generic name of pictographs and were thought to be the backdrops of ceremonies. Not all the art is understood and can be interpreted with any sort of certainty. Much of the cave art also consists of holes in the rock which have baffled all ‘oloigts’ that come across it.

The art that came from ‘modern man’ is analysed to come from the Pleistocene era from 1.6m to 10000 BCE towards the Holocene era that created evidence of human civilisation. Naturally history cannot be pigeon holed into specific eras therefore all dates and ranges for this post is purely speculative. Anything created during these eras are attributed to the use of stone is create tools and markings as they were the instruments of progress. This was not limited to stone but also included bone, ivory and antlers from ancient creatures that existed alongside the early homo sapiens. The first cave art appeared around 39000BCE, that historians are aware of, in the area now known as Spain, Italy and France. They are monochrome using charcoal and natural ochre, and depict figures of people, elephants, tigers and all sorts of predator prey situation. Hunter gatherer scenes also appear in some caves. From close inspection it is clear the images were crudely configured using plant bristles, fingers and sticks. The art has been used to assess the types of weaponry used and can track the use from sticks and rocks to sharpened arrow and spear heads. This era also produced early examples of architecture in huts and shelters that housed the communities it served. Prehistoric settlements have also unearthed evidence of ivory jewellery and anthropologists assess the growing use of fine arts with the development of motor skills and hand eye co-ordination that allowed smaller movements to create objects. Art also spread from caves to practical objects in use in society for example prehistoric pottery from Croatia with drawings, paintings and relief carvings into the moulds. Prehistoric art changed rapidly once the Mesolithic era began in 10000BCE as communities along around globe that had seasons began to shift from hunter gatherer to agricultural beings. More discoveries from this era are prevalent and are used to assess what life was like during these periods. Alongside the art that showed hunters and farmers the earth itself is revealing the history within its soil. The rise of forestry across western Europe began to affect the cave paintings as the hunting strategies changed and more human figures appear on the walls instead of just animals. Art also starts to appear on rocks because the weather is becoming warmer globally. Considering cave painting is not considered a true expertise other than an extra interest in specialists on the era it shows to true spread of the humans and their changes. It occurred over millions of years but also seemly rapidly. Art has always been the forefront in assessing what a world looked like and prehistoric art should be considered its own movement. The art may have been functional in its time but it showed a need for decoration and a need for people to attempt reinterpretation as to their meanings.

For further information please visit: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric-art.htm