Giant steps on trail of ancients
Far from the deserts of today fossil finds reveal that the UAE was once a fertile savannah populated by huge animals such as the four-tusked elephant, sabre-toothed cat and a primitive horse – many of which have left their marks.
When was the last time you travelled through time? On Wednesday evening, an archaeologist and a geologist will take to the stage at Manarat Al Saadiyat and invite their audience to do just that.
They will take the audience on a journey from the UAE’s very distant past to a moment in its near future, taking in the broad sweep of Abu Dhabi’s geological history and the possible contents of the forthcoming Zayed National Museum.
The 65-million-year trip will challenge even the most fertile of imaginations. Because of this, the scientists plan to use fossils to help their audience on their improbable journey, from a time when the Arabian Peninsula had yet to emerge from the oceans to a moment about seven million years ago when, rather than arid desert, Abu Dhabi’s coastline was defined by large freshwater rivers, forests and an animal-rich savannah.
“The idea is to give people a taster of the future content of the Zayed National Museum where one of the gallery themes will be the UAE’s land and water,” says Dr Mark Beech, head of coastal heritage and palaeontology with Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA).
Alongside a history of palaeontological discovery in the emirate Dr Beech will present the audience with a fossilised crocodile skull he discovered in 2010 at a place called Gerain Al Aysh with the now-deceased Yale University paleontologist Andrew Hill.
“When we found it in the desert it was almost complete but we couldn’t quite believe it because it was in a horizontal position and as we cleaned the ground around the fossil it was almost as if the crocodile was rising up out of the desert,” Dr Beech remembers.
The archaeologist will be joined on stage by Dr Khalid Al Bloushi, the head of geology at UAE University in Al Ain, who, as well as talking about the unique geological riches of the UAE, will present a 65 million-year-old fossil of a bivalve sea creature known as rudist.
Sea-floor dwelling invertebrates that clustered together to form reefs in the warm, shallow and highly saline waters of the late Cretaceous period – the time of the last great dinosaur extinction – rudist fossils from the UAE provide evidence of a time when Arabia was still submerged beneath the Tethys Ocean, a continuous waterway that ran around the equator before the emergence of the continents we know today.
Dr Beech’s talk will focus on the international importance and fossil riches of a geological strata known as the Baynunah formation that runs for almost 250 kilometres along Abu Dhabi’s coastline from Jebel Barakah in the west to the outskirts of Mussaffah near Abu Dhabi, reaching almost 60 kilometres inland.
The most important site for understanding the early emergence of modern animal species in the whole of the Arabian Peninsula, the Baynunah Formation is a unique set of fossilised gravel, silt and rocks that provide evidence of what life and the environment was like in the region 7 million years ago.
A barren-looking landscape where fossils literally emerge from the ground, the sand and rocks of the Baynunah formation can descend to depths of almost 60 metres. But it contains conspicuous mounds near its surface that have produced fossils belonging to long-extinct elephants, antelopes, ancient gazelles and primitive three-toed horses called Hipparions, as well as enormous predators such as crocodiles, hyenas and large sabre-toothed cats.
Rather than marine deposits or wind-driven accumulations, the sands of the Baynunah were produced by an extensive river system that once flowed from Arabia’s interior to the coast.
“We know that there were large rivers running through the Baynunah but next to these rivers you have to imagine a very different landscape with quite dense vegetation,” the archaeologist says. “Today you may look and see empty desert, but if you went back 6 to 8 million years you would have seen rivers 100 metres wide and 4 or 5 metres deep with trees and vegetation that would have been forest-like near the river and savannah-like further away.”
The result was a landscape that would not have looked too dissimilar from the one that can now be found in places such as Kenya and Tanzania with one important exception. All of the species – apart from the crocodile – are now extinct.
“The main thing about these fossils is that the Abu Dhabi specimens are the only vertebrate fossils known in the whole of Arabia between about 15 million years ago and the beginning of the Pleistocene 2.5 million years ago,” Dr Beech says.
“They represent a unique window on the period’s terrestrial life and the early Arabian environment. This was a key period for the evolution of the kind of flora and fauna that we see today. It was an optimal period of warmer global climates that gave rise to the formation of grasslands and the emergence of mammals and trees.”
The sands of the Baynunah Formation have produced fossilised remains of several species that have only been found in this part of Arabia.
In 2009 Dr Faysal Bibi, a researcher at the International Institute for Paleoprimatology and Human Paleontology in Poitiers, France, the Museum of Natural History in Berlin and the co-director of the Baynunah Palaeontology Project, discovered a cheek tooth from the earliest discovered member of a member of the Cercopithecini tribe, a type of Old World primate whose modern descendents include guenons, vervet monkeys and talapoins, all of which live in Africa.
The tooth remains the only evidence of Cercopithecini to have been found outside Africa and was only the second piece of evidence discovered to show that monkeys inhabited Arabia during the Miocene epoch, the period in which the Baynunah Formation developed. The other, a canine tooth from a male Old World monkey, was discovered in the Baynunah Formation at Jebel Dhanna in 1989.
Unique discoveries include fossils belonging to a gerbil that has now been named Abudhabia baynunensis, and a primitive, three-toed horse known as Hipparion abudhabiense.
In 2011 Dr Beech and his colleagues also discovered the teeth of a long-extinct species of cane rat which, thanks to its small, round, yellow teeth, they named Protohummus dango after the local, chickpea-based delicacy. The genus name, Protohummus, includes the Arabic word for chickpeas, and the species name, dango, is taken from an Emirati dish that uses boiled chickpeas as its chief ingredient.
Of the many thousands of fossils to have been found in the Baynunah Formation, however, it is not the remains of an animal but the remains of an animal track that captured the attention, not just of the world’s media but of the international scientific community as well.
Discovered in 2011 at an inland site called Mleisa 1, the trackway is not only one of the largest preserved trackway sites in the world, but also provides the earliest known evidence of how prehistoric elephants interacted socially.
“Basically, this is fossilised behaviour,” Dr Bibi told The National’s Vesela Todorova in 2012. “This is an absolutely unique site, a really rare opportunity in the fossil record that lets you see animal behaviour in a way you could not otherwise do with bones or teeth.”
Despite the fact that scientists had been aware of the footprints at Mleisa 1 since at least 2001, Mr Bibi and Mr Beech’s team only realised their significance when one of their colleagues, Nathan Craig, mounted a Canon S90 camera on a kite in January 2011 and used it to take hundreds of aerial pictures of the site that were stitched together digitally.
“The results were astonishing. This is the earliest known evidence of herding behaviour in elephants anywhere. They were probably the primitive, four-tusked elephant Stegotetrabelodon syrticus, because that is the most common elephant fossil we have but they were behaving just as elephants do today. We were able to determine 11 or 12 female and smaller elephants walking together in a herd and a lone male walking in a different direction,” says Dr Beech.
“These are sites of international importance for science, the finds have been published in all of the major scientific journals, and this work really places the UAE, and Abu Dhabi in particular, on the scientific map but that means that these sites have to be protected,” he insists.
“All of the famous fossil sites in East Africa have research centres built near the fossil area and we need something similar in Abu Dhabi to allow scientists to keep an eye on the sites but also to allow them to conduct research. We’ve already discovered fossil remains of four new species in the last five years so who knows what will be found in the future?”
• Multaqa Zayed National Museum: The Ancient Land of the UAE takes place on Wednesday evening at 7pm at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Prior registration is required, call +971 2 657 5800, or email firstname.lastname@example.org