Scientists dig, but local knowledge guides discovery
It's not often that the United Arab Emirates grabs global news coverage because of a major scientific discovery. Last week, though, was an exception, with the announcement that palaeontologists had identified the longest track of fossilised elephant footprints anywhere in the world, dating to the late Miocene Epoch, between six and eight million years ago.
The announcement was picked up by television channels and news agencies around the world, as well as by science-focused websites and publications, following the release of a research paper in a British scientific journal.
The studies were undertaken by an international team that included researchers from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), which was recently merged with the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority into the new Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. Together, collaborators have provided the earliest evidence that elephants and their ancestors moved in herds.
But many of the news stories made it appear as though this was somehow a brand-new discovery. In fact, this is far from true.
In fact, the tracks at Mleisa, west of Abu Dhabi, were first recorded back in 2001 and have been reported in several publications in the last decade. Moreover, the site has been frequently included as a must-visit destination of weekend field trips by members of the UAE's natural history groups. The new angle - and it is, indeed, important - is that the detailed studies carried out early last year have shown that the site is even more important than was originally believed.
Such is the nature of scientific research, of course. An initial discovery is made, and then further studies find that it is of even more significance than was first recognised.
Sadly, though, one aspect of the Mleisa footprints was overlooked in nearly all of the media coverage.
The first scientific recording of the footprints in 2001 was made by a team of archaeologists working for the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, of which I was then the director. My colleagues didn't just stumble across them by accident. They were working at the sulphur mines inside the ADCO (Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations) terminal at Jebel Dhanna when an Emirati employee of ADCO, Mubarak Al Mansouri, told them about what he said were "dinosaur footprints" in the desert. These footprints, he said, had long been known to his family.
The archaeologists were sceptical, since there was no known evidence of dinosaurs in the UAE. But they succumbed to the prompting from Mr Al Mansouri anyway, and went to take a look. There, indeed, preserved in what had once been an ancient lake-bed, were a series of prints that looked like elephant tracks. Geologists eventually dated the rocks and the Mleisa trackway entered into the scientific record.
The studies have, indeed, shown that the footprints are even more important than was originally realised, but they might never have been recorded scientifically, or might have been destroyed, if it had not been for the knowledge handed down, perhaps over generations, through the family of Mr Al Mansouri.
It demonstrates once again that traditional knowledge can prove of enormous value in unlocking the secrets of a country's history and heritage. And Mleisa is not the only example.
Another site in western Abu Dhabi, where there are many camel bones exposed on the surface, has been known to local Bedu for generations. When archaeologists were first taken there, they thought that the bones, remarkably well-preserved, were probably relatively recent. But detailed studies showed that they dated to the late Stone Age, 6,000 or 7,000 years ago. This was long before camels were domesticated, and when the UAE's early inhabitants hunted wild camels.
Scientists get the credit for their analysis and interpretations - as they should. But Emiratis who have known about sites of interest for generations are now bringing them to the knowledge of scientists.
How many other examples are there? If only I could remember the name of the person who told me about the place in the desert where, according to tribal folklore, a Portuguese army perished in a great sandstorm. There must be something there to study, if only the archaeologists can be led to the site.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture
Updated: February 28, 2012 04:00 AM