Homo sapiens in Arabia by 85,000 years ago


Understanding the timing and character of the expansion of Homo sapiens out of Africa is critical for inferring the colonization and admixture processes that underpin global population history. It has been argued that dispersal out of Africa had an early phase, particularly ~130–90 thousand years ago (ka), that reached only the East Mediterranean Levant, and a later phase, ~60–50 ka, that extended across the diverse environments of Eurasia to Sahul. However, recent findings from East Asia and Sahul challenge this model. Here we show that H. sapiens was in the Arabian Peninsula before 85 ka. We describe the Al Wusta-1 (AW-1) intermediate phalanx from the site of Al Wusta in the Nefud desert, Saudi Arabia. AW-1 is the oldest directly dated fossil of our species outside Africa and the Levant. The palaeoenvironmental context of Al Wusta demonstrates that H. sapiens using Middle Palaeolithic stone tools dispersed into Arabia during a phase of increased precipitation driven by orbital forcing, in association with a primarily African fauna. A Bayesian model incorporating independent chronometric age estimates indicates a chronology for Al Wusta of ~95–86 ka, which we correlate with a humid episode in the later part of Marine Isotope Stage 5 known from various regional records. Al Wusta shows that early dispersals were more spatially and temporally extensive than previously thought. Early H. sapiens dispersals out of Africa were not limited to winter rainfall-fed Levantine Mediterranean woodlands immediately adjacent to Africa, but extended deep into the semi-arid grasslands of Arabia, facilitated by periods of enhanced monsoonal rainfall.

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Fig. 1: Al Wusta location, map of site and stratigraphy.
Fig. 2: Photographs and micro-computed tomography scans of the AW-1 H. sapiens phalanx.
Fig. 3: Scatterplot of the first two principal component scores of the geometric morphometric analysis of the AW-1 phalanx compared with a sample of primates, including hominins.
Fig. 4: Scatterplot of the first two principal component scores from the geometric morphometric analyses of AW-1 and a sample of comparative hominin second, third and fourth intermediate phalanges.
Fig. 5: Selected Al Wusta lithic artefacts.
Fig. 6: The chronological and climatic context of Al Wusta.


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We thank HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), and A. Ghabban, Vice President of the SCTH for permission to carry out this study. Z. Nawab, President of the Saudi Geological Survey, provided research support and logistics. Fieldwork and analyses were funded by the European Research Council (no. 295719, to M.D.P. and 617627, to J.T.S.), the SCTH, the British Academy (H.S.G. and E.M.L.S.), The Leverhulme Trust, the Australian Research Council (DP110101415 to R.G., ARC Future Fellowship Grant FT150100215 to M.D., and FT160100450 to J.L.), European Union Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship (PIOF-GA-2013-626474, to M.D.), and the Research Council of Norway (SFF Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour, 262618). We thank P. Cuthbertson, K. Janulis, M. Bernal, S. Al-Soubhi, M. Haptari, A. Matari and Y. Al-Mufarreh for assistance in the field. We thank I. Cartwright (Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford) for the photographs of AW-1 (Fig. 2a), I. Matthews (RHUL) for producing the Bayesian age model and M. O’Reilly (MPI-SHH) for assistance with the preparation of figures. We acknowledge the Max Planck Society for supporting us with comparative fossil data, and we thank curators for access to comparative extant and fossil material in their care (Supplementary Tables 5 and 7). Maps were created using ArcGIS software by Esri.

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H.S.G. and M.D.P. designed, coordinated and supervised the study. H.S.G., I.S.A.Z., N.A.D., S.J.A., I.C., R.C.-W., J.L., P.S.B., M.S., G.J.P., A.A., A.A.-O., M.Z., A.M.M, K.S.M.A, B.Z, E.M.L.S and M.D.P conducted excavation, survey and multidisciplinary sampling at Al Wusta. L.T.B., T.L.K., E.P., N.B.S. and J.T.S. conducted the morphological analysis and comparative study of the AW-1 phalanx. R.G., M.D. and L.K. carried out the U-series and ESR analyses. S.J.A. and R.C.-W carried out the OSL dating. I.C. and R.C.-W conducted the stratigraphic and sedimentological analysis of the site, with input from N.A.D., J.L. and G.J.P. W.W.S. analysed the diatoms. M.S. and J.L. analysed the vertebrate fossils, with input from G.J.P. Lithic analysis was conducted by H.S.G. and E.M.L.S. Spatial analyses were conducted by P.S.B. All authors helped to write the paper.

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Correspondence to Huw S. Groucutt or Michael D. Petraglia.

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Groucutt, H.S., Grün, R., Zalmout, I.A.S. et al. Homo sapiens in Arabia by 85,000 years ago. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 800–809 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0518-2

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