The prehistory of Arabia used to be one of archaeology's backwaters. Experts felt the area had little to reveal about the development of Man and his relationship with a very challenging environment. That view is being challenged more and more thanks to an upsurge in research in southern Arabia and the Gulf, much of it supported by Gulf countries keen to fill in the blanks in their past. Some of the latest research was presented at the annual Seminar for Arabian Studies, held at the British Museum in London last week (24-26 July). It left the 160 participants confident that some of the key issues relating to life in the Arabian peninsula - where and when the camel was domesticated, who first cultivated the date palm, when livestock herding began - were on the way to being resolved.
Archaeologists are notorious for taking a long time to reach any conclusions: indeed some of them have gone to their graves before daring to put a date on a particular pile of stones they spent years investigating. But modern excavation techniques, where every seed and scrap of bone is carefully sieved from the dirt, as well as scientific research tools and analytical modelling systems, are all speeding up the process.
"Our understanding of internal processes within Arabia has expanded rapidly in recent years," said Peter Magee, associate professor of Near Eastern archaeology at Bryn Mawr College in the US. In contrast to the view that Arabia was a "backward area", he said that new evidence showed that people there had adapted earlier than previously thought to create a successful human economy in a difficult environment.
"We archaeologists like to hedge our bets - and so we should - but now we can say that some clear facts are emerging: the falaj system of underground irrigation was used from 3,000 years ago in Oman and the UAE. Oasis-style economies, which rely on the clever use of water and sophisticated modes of agriculture, were occurring 5,000 years ago." It has long been known that the Bronze Age was a boom period for the area due to abundant deposits of copper. It was exported to the great civilisations of the day - Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and the Indus valley (modern day India and Pakistan), ensuring that the area was linked to the great trading networks.
"Copper then was like oil today - a very important source of income for people living in a marginal space," said Christian Velde, resident archaeologist at the Ras al Khaimah department of Antiquities and Museums. But there was much more happening than just trade. Apart from developing the oasis economy in the third millennium BC, the people of the Gulf left signs they were developing more complex societies.
On the basis of studies of ruins of early Bronze Age settlements at Ja'alan, on the coast of Oman, Valentina Azzara, from the University of Paris I, concluded that nuclear families were being regrouped in a clan-structured society. The date palm - without which life in the Gulf would have been near impossible - is slowly giving up the secrets of its origins thanks to a scientific assault from a team led by Claire Newton, an archaeo-botanist from the University of Nottingham.
The research is not finished, but is likely to conclude that the date palm's origin lies in the Gulf region. The world's most ancient date seed, which dropped to the ground some time in the 6th millennium BC, was found on Dalma Island, off the coast of Abu Dhabi. What is still puzzling archaeologists is the mystery of why a flourishing Bronze Age civilisation in the Gulf region suffered a catastrophic collapse about 2100BC, which seems to have lasted some 700 years.
"Something happened quite abruptly at that time," said Robert Carter, chairman of the Seminar for Arabian Studies. "There are theories about climate change - the climate certainly seemed to be getting more arid through the second millennium. But it could be some other trigger that caused a depopulation of the area. The number of settlements trailed off, until the start of the Iron Age 700 years later. We need to do a lot more digging."
In general, expert opinion now tends toward the belief that major developments were occurring earlier than previously thought. Excavations in Wadi Sana, in the Hadhramaut, have revealed that cattle and goats were kept there as early as the sixth millennium BC at the same time that gazelles were hunted. All this can be established from small pieces of animal bone preserved in the sand for 7,000 years.
But there is one exception: the camel. It seems to have resisted domestication until quite late - about 900BC, a few hundred years later than originally thought. We should soon know a lot more about the camel from a new discovery in Abu Dhabi, where the skeletons of at least 60 wild camels from as early as the 6th millennium BC have been found south-east of the Baynounah Plantation. Three skeletons were found literally on the surface, according to Mark Beech, who presented a paper on the discovery to the seminar.
Investigation of the site is only just beginning. It is interesting that the camels - or at least the skeletons visible from the surface - do not appear to have been butchered for meat, as their legs are still articulated. It is a mystery why so many animals died in the same place. One explanation is that there was a catastrophic deterioration in the climate - perhaps limited in duration - which killed them off. Only detailed investigation will reveal the truth.
The camel graveyard should reveal a lot about the development of the camel and its interaction with people in the Gulf. "But what is most interesting," said Professor Magee, "is that, even though Abu Dhabi is developing very rapidly, there are sites of immense importance still waiting to be discovered. Indeed, you can literally trip over them." @Email: email@example.com