In September 2014, Earth Pages reported how remote sensing had revealed clear signs of extensive fossil drainage systems and lakes at the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, now the hyper-arid Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali). Their association with human stone artifacts dated as far back as 211 ka, those with affinities to collections from East Africa clustering between 74-90 ka, supported the sub-continent possibly having been an early staging post for fully modern human migrants from Africa. Member of the same archaeological team based at Oxford University have now published late Pleistocene palaeoclimatic records from alluvial-fan sediments in the eastern United Arab Emirates that add detail to this hypothesis (Parton, A. et al. 2015. Alluvial fan records from southeast Arabia reveal multiple windows for human dispersal. Geology, advance online publication doi:10.1130/G36401.1).
The eastern part of the Empty Quarter is a vast bajada formed from coalesced alluvial fans deposited by floods rising in the Oman Mountains and flowing westwards to disappear in the great sand sea of dunes. Nowadays floods during the Arabian Sea monsoons are few and far between, and restricted to the west-facing mountain front. Yet, older alluvial fans extend far out into the Empty Quarter, some being worked for aggregate used in the frantic building boom in the UAE. In one of the quarries, about 100 km south of the Jebel Faya Upper Palaeolithic tool site , the alluvial deposit contains clear signs of cyclical deposition in the form of 13 repeated gradations from coarse to fine waterlain sediment, each capped by fossil soils and dune sands. The soils contain plant remains that suggest they formed when the area was colonized by extensive grasslands formed under humid conditions.
Dating the sequence reveals that 6 of the cycles formed over a 10 thousand-year period between 158 to 147 ka, which coincides with a peak in monsoon intensity roughly between 160 and 150 ka during the glacial period that preceded the last one. Three later cycles formed at times of monsoon maxima during the last interglacial and in the climatic decline leading to the last glacial maximum, at ~128 to 115 ka, 105 to 95 ka, 85 to 74 ka. So, contrary to the long-held notion that the Arabian Peninsula formed a hostile barrier to migration, from time to time it was a well watered area that probably had abundant game. Between times, though, it was a vast, inhospitably dry place.
The authors suggest that the climatic cyclicity was dominated by a 23 ka period. As regards the southern potential migration route out of Africa, via the Straits of Bab el Mandab, which has been highly favoured by palaeoanthropologists lately, opportunities for migration in the absence of boats would have depended on sea-level lows. They do not necessarily coincide with wet windows of opportunity for crossing the cyclically arid Arabian peninsula that would allow both survival and proceeding onwards to south and east Asia. So far as I can judge, the newly published work seems to favour a northward then eastward means of migration, independent of fluctuations in land-ice volume and sea level, whenever the driest areas received sufficient water to support vegetation and game. In fact most of NE Africa is subject to the Arabian Sea monsoons, and when they were at their least productive crossing much of Ethiopia’s Afar depression and the coastal areas of Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt would have been almost as difficult as the challenge of the Empty Quarter.
From time to time between 130 and 75 ka fully modern humans entered the Levant from Africa, which is backed up by actual fossils. But up to about 2010 most palaeoanthropologists believed that they moved no further, because of the growth of surrounding deserts, and probably did not return to the Middle East until around 45 ka. The consensus for the decisive move out of Africa to Eurasia centred on crossings of the Straits of Bab el Mandab at the entrance to the Red Sea, when sea level fell to a level that would have allowed a crossing by rafting over narrow seaways. The most likely time for such n excursion was during a brief cool/dry episode around 67 ka that coincided with an 80 m fall in global sea level: the largest since the previous glacial maximum (see Evidence for early journeys from Africa to Asia).
In 2011 finds reported from the United Arab Emirates of ‘East African-looking’ Middle Palaeolithic tools in sediment layers dated at 125, 95 and 40 ka led some to speculate that there must have been an eastward move from the Levant by anatomically modern humans (see Human migration – latest news). That view stemmed from the fact that the earliest date was during the last interglacial when sea level would have been as high as it is today, and around 95 ka it would have been little different. That report coincided with others about freshwater springs having emanated from uplifted reefs around the edges of the Arabian Peninsula during the last interglacial, and the existence of substantial lakes deep within the subcontinent around that time (see Water sources and early migration from Africa). Substantial funding followed such exciting news and results of new research are just beginning to emerge (Lawler, A. 2014. In search of Green Arabia. Science, v. 345, p. 994-999).
A team led by Michael Petraglia of the University of Oxford has used field surveys and remote sensing to reveal a great many, now-vanished lakes across the Arabian Peninsula, including many in the fearsome Rub al Khali or Empty Quarter. They are linked by an extensive, partly sand-hidden network of palaeochannels, which include several of the major wadis; a system that once drained towards the Persian Gulf. As well as abundant freshwater molluscs and other invertebrates, former lakeshore sediments are littered with huge numbers of stone tools, also with East African affinities (Scerri, E.M.L. et al. 2014. Unexpected technological heterogeneity in northern Arabia indicates complex Late Pleistocene demography at the gateway to Asia. Journal of Human Evolution, In Press http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2014.07.002). Using optically stimulated luminescence dating, which shows how long stone objects have been buried, the British team has found tools dating back as long as 211 ka, with a cluster of dates between 90 to 74 ka. Modern humans, Neanderthals and even Denisovans may have made these tools; only associated fossil remains will tell. Yet it is already clear that for lengthy periods – perhaps of a few hundred or thousand years – the hyper-arid interior of Arabia was decidedly habitable. It may have been a thriving outpost of emigrants from Africa, whose abandonment as climate shifted to extreme dryness as the last interglacial gave way to Ice Age conditions, could well have been the source of the great migration that colonised the rest of the habitable world. Petraglia’s team has already courted controversy with their claim for anatomically modern humans’ tools in South Indian volcanic ash beds that date to the Toba eruption around 74 ka: considerably earlier than the more widely accepted post-65 ka dates of human eastward migration.