Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. School of Archaeology, Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • Huw S. Groucutt
    •  & Eleanor L. M. Scerri
  2. Department of Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany

    • Huw S. Groucutt
    • , Nick A. Drake
    • , Eleanor L. M. Scerri
    •  & Michael D. Petraglia
  3. Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE), Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland, Australia

    • Rainer Grün
    • , Julien Louys
    •  & Mathieu Duval
  4. Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

    • Rainer Grün
    •  & Leslie Kinsley
  5. Saudi Geological Survey, Sedimentary Rocks and Palaeontology Department, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

    • Iyad A. S. Zalmout
    • , Abdullah M. Memesh
    • , Ammar J. Abdulshakoor
    • , Abdu M. Al-Masari
    •  & Ahmed A. Bahameem
  6. Department of Geography, King’s College London, London, UK

    • Nick A. Drake
    •  & Paul S. Breeze
  7. Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, London, UK

    • Simon J. Armitage
    • , Ian Candy
    •  & Richard Clark-Wilson
  8. SFF Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE), University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway

    • Simon J. Armitage
  9. Geochronology, Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución (CENIEH), Burgos, Spain

    • Mathieu Duval
  10. PAVE Research Group, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • Laura T. Buck
    • , Emma Pomeroy
    •  & Jay T. Stock
  11. Earth Sciences Department, Natural History Museum, London, UK

    • Laura T. Buck
  12. Skeletal Biology Research Centre, School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK

    • Tracy L. Kivell
  13. Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

    • Tracy L. Kivell
    •  & Nicholas B. Stephens
  14. School of Natural Sciences and Psychology, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK

    • Emma Pomeroy
  15. Department of Anthropology, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

    • Jay T. Stock
  16. Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Centre, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

    • Mathew Stewart
  17. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland, Australia

    • Gilbert J. Price
  18. Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum, London, UK

    • Wing Wai Sung
  19. Department of Archaeology, King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    • Abdullah Alsharekh
  20. Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    • Abdulaziz Al-Omari
    • , Khaled M. S. Al Murayyi
    •  & Badr Zahrani
  21. Department of Archaeology, Hazara University, Mansehra, Pakistan

    • Muhammad Zahir
  22. Human Origins Program, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USA

    • Michael D. Petraglia

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  24. Search for Ammar J. Abdulshakoor in:

  25. Search for Abdu M. Al-Masari in:

  26. Search for Ahmed A. Bahameem in:

  27. Search for Khaled M. S. Al Murayyi in:

  28. Search for Badr Zahrani in:

  29. Search for Eleanor L. M. Scerri in:

  30. Search for Michael D. Petraglia in:

Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

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

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary discussion, references, tables and figures.

  2. Reporting Summary

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Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0518-2

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