x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A mystery lurks in dugong bones

Archaeologists determine that a pile of old bones on Akab Island was more than just a 6,000-year-old dumping ground.

Left to right: Lorena Giorgio, Dr Sophie Mery and Dalia Gasparini examine the site.
Left to right: Lorena Giorgio, Dr Sophie Mery and Dalia Gasparini examine the site.

AKAB // For years, the pile of ancient bones on the small island of Akab was thought to be nothing more than a 6,000-year-old butcher's yard - a dumping ground for the remains of dugongs killed for food by the neolithic inhabitants of what was to become the UAE.

Now, it is clear that the bones were placed with careful precision, leading scientists to conclude that dugong-hunting was important to ancient rituals. More intriguing, the findings of the French Archaeological Mission in the UAE and the Umm al Qaiwain Museum are strikingly similar to those at much younger sites in Australia, about 10,000 kilometres away. While scientists are careful to discourage over-interpretation, the findings are intriguing.

"At least we can say that there is a very close connection between the Neolithic people of Akab and some marine mammals," said Dr Sophie Méry, director of the French mission. "The site will have a worldwide audience because it gives evidence of the symbolic use of animals in Neolithic times." The mass of bones was discovered in the Umm al Qaiwain lagoon in 1989 but was initially dismissed as just a dumping ground.

Situated on a slightly elevated sand dune, the site was almost flattened by bulldozers in a development project. By chance, the development was halted, so the site survived. In 2002, an archaeologist named Vincent Charpentier found evidence that Akab had been inhabited since at least the fifth millennium BC. It was decided the area should be studied in more detail. "We thought it was part of a bigger site that we had to search, excavate and explore," said Dr Méry, who has been leading excavation at the site every winter since 2006.

"It became clear that the site was not just an accumulation of bones, but a structure." The Australian sites were created by a people who fished the Torres Strait, a shallow passage between Queensland and Papua New Guinea, but these are only five to six hundred years old. "In Australia, the dugong bone mounds are integrated with ceremonial sites," Dr Méry said. "They are sanctuaries related to fishing rituals."

Dr Méry's team kept its discovery on Akab under wraps for three years as it gathered sufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that the site had ritual significance. The team's work was finally presented during the Second International Conference on the Archaeology of the UAE, held in Abu Dhabi last week. Akab, Dr Méry said, is nothing less than "the oldest ritual site in the world dedicated to the dugong".

The mound is a deliberately constructed oval structure, approximately 40 centimetres high, composed of the remains of 40 animals and covering an area of some 10 square metres. It consists of more than 3,500 bone fragments, all part of a complex and intentional arrangement. Skulls were found facing towards the east and aligned in rows. Bundles of ribs, painted with ochre dye, were laid in front of the first row of skulls.

The lower jaws of the animals were separated from the skulls and distributed at the edges of the structure, together with other selected bone fragments. Some of the remains, such as forelimbs, were those of freshly killed animals, Dr Méry said. Other compelling evidence of ritual is the discovery of beads and tools made from stone, bone and shell. Excavation is still not complete, but already more than of 1,000 of these have been found.

The dugong, also known as the sea cow, is a mammal that continues to live in this region and elsewhere, surviving on a diet of sea grass. They are peaceful, shy animals that are still hunted sustainably by traditional people in Australia but they are now protected by law in the UAE. Although their large size makes them dangerous to hunt - they can grow up to three metres in length and weigh 400kg - they were an important economic resource to ancient peoples in Australia.

Earlier this week, The National visited the site of the excavation, where six foreign specialists aided by an archaeologist from the museum will remain until next month. Several team members were continuing the painstaking work, slowly removing pile after pile of bones, using only brushes and a small vacuum tube to shift the layers of dust and sand. After each layer was removed, the structure was carefully documented and photographed.

Finds that were considered important, such as the remains of two large shell pendants, were carefully studied in context before being lifted. Careful notes were made of the exact location of all the bones and other finds, a technique, Dr Méry explained, used to study ancient communal graves that was developed during her work on an ancient tomb in Al Hili in Al Ain. The records are so precise that, if necessary, the whole structure could be rebuilt.

Because of the relative young age of the Australian sites, scientists have anthropological evidence about the use of the dugong sites there. In the UAE, however, there are no records of people who have handed down knowledge of the ancient practices. Can some kind of link be inferred between the types of societies represented by Akab's ancient people and those who lived on the Torres Strait sites? "This gives new avenues of questions," Dr Méry said.