Ancient network of rivers and lakes found in Arabian Desert

May 1, 2012, Oxford University

Ancient network of rivers and lakes found in Arabian Desert
Satellite image of ancient lake showing location of archaeological sites. The lake size is blue and archaeological sites are coloured red. Image courtesy of Nick Drake.
( -- Satellite images have revealed that a network of ancient rivers once coursed their way through the sand of the Arabian Desert, leading scientists to believe that the region experienced wetter periods in the past.

The images are the starting point for a major potentially ground-breaking research project led by the University of Oxford into human evolutionary heritage. The research team will look at how long-term affected early humans and animals who settled or passed through and what responses determined whether they were able to survive or died out.

Until now this part of the world has been largely ignored by scholars despite its critical location as a bridge between Africa and Eurasia. In a project funded by €2.34 million from the ERC (European Research Council), a multidisciplinary team of researchers will study the effects of environmental change in the Arabian Peninsula over the last two million years. The systematic study of the Pleistocene to Holocene periods will be unique in its length and level of detail.

Over the course of five years the researchers will study the landscape features and excavate sites of likely archaeological interest, using the network of water courses as a map. They will use the latest dating techniques to pinpoint the ages of fossils of animals, plants and different stone tool technologies and compare the similarities and differences displayed in the region’s rock art.

The team's main focus will be the Arabian Desert, but the work will also cover the wider Peninsula. One key question they will attempt to answer is when the first early modern humans are likely to have first arrived in the Arabian Peninsula from and perhaps surrounding regions. They will also look for evidence that suggests how early modern humans were able to survive, or not, in arid and extreme conditions.

Project leader Professor Michael Petraglia, Co-Director of the Centre for Asian Archaeology at Oxford University's School of Archaeology, said: 'From NASA images taken of the Arabian Desert we can see physical landscape features that are visible from space that denote a whole network of former river valleys and lake basins. These lines and dips in the sand provide us with a map of the region upon which we will focus our research activity. The presence of water is an accurate indicator of where early humans and animals migrated to or settled.

'The Arabian Peninsula has a wealth of archaeological sites and spectacular deposits of former rivers and lakes. Yet despite its significance as a bridge between two continents, surprisingly very little is known about its early prehistory. This project draws on many disciplines: the sum of which should reveal a hitherto untold but very important story about the effect of climate change on early humans.'

The researchers will identify key excavation sites, including sites where work has already been done, and where stone tools and the fossils of animals, such as wild cattle, have been found. The researchers will also conduct field studies in former lake basins, where fossils of fish of up to a metre long were discovered.

A variety of dating techniques will be used by the researchers to pinpoint the ages of fossils and stone tools to set out the chronologies of archaeological sites. Dating work on animal and faunal fossils could provide new information about possible food sources of , as well as the timing of environmental changes.

The project will examine marine cores, caves, existing wide water wells and quarry pits to view the stratigraphy. They will also examine deposits between 30 to 60 metres deep to measure the effects of environmental change, observing any changes from plant fossils and rocks and strata indicating when the climate was wetter or drier.

The scientists will extract the DNA of animals derived from the Arabian Peninsula. The DNA acts as a molecular clock which can tell the researchers more about that animal's most recent common ancestor and when it is likely to have arrived. They will examine the DNA of a number of species from museum collections, such as ostrich, oryx, ibex, hyena, and honey badger to establish their origin, their demographic histories, and likely dispersal patterns.

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2.6 / 5 (7) May 01, 2012
Hah, Muslims knows that, not because they have a scientific proof, but because they have been told by a trusty source... it's a knowledge to Muslims and a prophecy also.

Prophet Mohammad said : The day of judgment will not come until the land of Arabs returns green as what it was before.

I know some guys will come and shout here but I didn't wrote this as scientific proof.. I just wrote it for those who will be interested... I know some guys are interested even in Nostradamus things :) so please no shouts...
5 / 5 (1) May 01, 2012
I hope nobody shouts, Xajel.The land of Arabia has mountains and lakes and we can hope some money will be spent to make it green, as it is now in some places. Perhaps we can make it at least as green as it was in the time of the first Muslims!
1.4 / 5 (10) May 01, 2012
Wetter periods in the past? Really?

And here I thought climate was gentle and friendly and life supporting until the advent of greedy Capitalists and the evil, foul smelling and soul crushing, Industrial Revolution.
1 / 5 (3) May 01, 2012
I hope nobody shouts, Xajel.The land of Arabia has mountains and lakes and we can hope some money will be spent to make it green, as it is now in some places. Perhaps we can make it at least as green as it was in the time of the first Muslims!

Why, for the love of God, would you intentionally destroy one environment, and replace it with another?
5 / 5 (2) May 01, 2012
Arabia has always been a mixed bag.

The book of Jeremiah mentions it as a desert, but earlier books mention forests and thousands of grazing rams, all pre-dating Muhammad and Islam by thousands of years.

Given the nature of total war in the ancient world, it is likely tribal in-fighting, warring factions probably destroyed the entire region, and used the wood to make ships, blacksmiths, or siege weapons.
2.6 / 5 (5) May 01, 2012
A desert is hardly an environment, just look at mars.

Given the nature of total war in the ancient world, it is likely tribal in-fighting, warring factions probably destroyed the entire region, and used the wood to make ships, blacksmiths, or siege weapons.

Thats right the climate of jungles and deserts are not that different.
The only difference is that in jungles you have healthy soil and shade from trees, life that holds water close to the ground.
In the desert when it rains its not hold by the soil or life simply because there is no ecology to hold the water.
You can turn a desert into a jungle by promoting soil ecology and shade.
4.2 / 5 (5) May 01, 2012
You know how much lumber it takes to make 600 ships that the persians launched against Greece?

Or how about the 600 England launched against the U.S. Colonies during the American Revolution, each armed with dozens of cannons. Can you imagine the fuel it takes for blacksmith to make those weapons before modern foundries? You'd have to cut down EVERY tree in the entire country, and they did, and they even used the lumber they had been importing from the colonies (a 10% tax on lumber and all goods, and a 20% tax on Gold and Silver.) Even houses don't use much lumber compared to ships and weapons. by the war of 1812, almost every tree east of the Mississippi had been cut down to make ships or weapons, and nobody really even thinks about it.

The wars were often pointless, because it costed more resources for the attacker to fight a war than the victory is worth, since both sides are destroying everything in both their own environment and the enemy's in order to make ships and weapons...
2.3 / 5 (6) May 01, 2012
War is always pointless, but it is about power not resources.
In africa the same things happened.
Massive farming, and biodiversity exhaustion have create deserts onto this planet, most deserts are not natural but created by plagues such as humans and locust. Which we can argue if we consider them natural or not.
5 / 5 (2) May 01, 2012
The above is related because it just demonstrates more recent examples of what I'm talking about.

Fact is, much of desertification is actually caused by man. Not all of it obviously, but much.

Just go look at some Egyptian monuments that are made of stone. how much wood do you think was used for making tools and scaffolding or ships to float stones when necessary? A whole region worth of forests, that's how much, just to make some worthless, over-sized tombs to bury some false man-gods in.

WE know Egypt and the surrounding region was once forests and wetlands with very large lakes over into the Lybia region. Then about the time the most ancient Egyptian civilizations started to arise, the entire environment changed. Some of that was natural, but how much was man-made from destroying everything to make weapons, stone cities, and monuments?

It takes a hell of a lot of wood scaffolding and carts and stuff even to make a stone city...
5 / 5 (1) May 02, 2012
The Sahara, Arabian, and Southwest USA deserts are all caused by the precession of the Earth. This cycle takes about 22,000 years to complete. We are just about at the apex because the last known lakes were about 10,000 years ago. There are vast subdesert water reserves under the Sahara. Some small areas percolate up as an oasis. The desert will slowly move South now and North Africa will be a forest in 5000 years.
not rated yet May 06, 2012
"There were those who even claimed that the huge Sahara Desert was a man-made product caused by shepherds burning the jungle, and by the subsequent overgrazing of ever larger herds of goats and sheep. Modern research has proved this to be so." -- Thor Heyerdahl, Fatu-Hiva

"Recent research has demonstrated that the Sahara was covered with trees as recently as 6,000 B.C., and that it was turned into a desert by nomadic tribes that burned the trees to provide grazing areas for their herds." -- Jacques Cousteau, The Ocean World

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