The other cradle of humanity: How Arabia shaped human evolution

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New evidence reveals that Arabia was not a mere stopover for ancestral humans leaving Africa, but a lush homeland where they flourished and evolved

Humans 18 August 2021

By Michael Marshall

The Rub’ al-Khali desert was inhabited 80,000 years ago or more

Shutterstock/Hany Musallam

THE Rub’ al-Khali is both desert and deserted – a landscape of reddish sand dunes that stretches as far as the eye can see. This hyper-arid region in the south-east of the Arabian peninsula is approximately the size of France. Parts of it often go an entire year without rain. Almost nobody lives there; its name means “empty quarter”.

The rest of Arabia is less environmentally extreme, but still a very tough place to live without air conditioning and other recent technologies. However, the peninsula wasn’t always so parched. A mere 8000 years ago, it was wet enough for there to have been many lakes. The same was true at intervals throughout the past million years, when rivers criss-crossed Arabia, forming green corridors where lush vegetation and wildlife flourished amid the sand dunes. For much of recent geological time, the peninsula was at least partly green.

Arabia’s verdant past is no mere factoid: it suggests that the region was habitable at times in the distant past. That realisation has prompted archaeologists to start looking for evidence of occupation by humans, their ancestors and their extinct relatives. In just a decade, they have found countless sites where these hominins lived, stretching hundreds of thousands of years into the past. Arabia, it seems, wasn’t a mere stopover for hominins as they moved out of Africa into the wider world. It was somewhere they settled for long stretches of time. Indeed, many researchers now think Arabia should be thought of as part of a “greater Africa”, and that …

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