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Fossil herbivore stable isotopes reveal middle Pleistocene hominin palaeoenvironment in ‘Green Arabia’


Despite its largely hyper-arid and inhospitable climate today, the Arabian Peninsula is emerging as an important area for investigating Pleistocene hominin dispersals. Recently, a member of our own species was found in northern Arabia dating to ca. 90 ka, while stone tools and fossil finds have hinted at an earlier, middle Pleistocene, hominin presence. However, there remain few direct insights into Pleistocene environments, and associated hominin adaptations, that accompanied the movement of populations into this region. Here, we apply stable carbon and oxygen isotope analysis to fossil mammal tooth enamel (n = 21) from the middle Pleistocene locality of Ti’s al Ghadah in Saudi Arabia associated with newly discovered stone tools and probable cutmarks. The results demonstrate productive grasslands in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula ca. 300–500 ka, as well as aridity levels similar to those found in open savannah settings in eastern Africa today. The association between this palaeoenvironmental information and the earliest traces for hominin activity in this part of the world lead us to argue that middle Pleistocene hominin dispersals into the interior of the Arabian Peninsula required no major novel adaptation.

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Fig. 1: Map of the sampled fossil and modern sites within Saudi Arabia.
Fig. 2: Compilation of stone tools and bones with evidence for anthropogenic modification from the site of Ti’s al Ghadah.
Fig. 3: δ13C and δ18O measurements from the tooth enamel of fossil fauna from Ti’s al Ghadah, Saudi Arabia, analysed in this study.
Fig. 4: δ18O values for non-obligate and obligate drinking taxa at the East African localities of Laikipia (Kenya) and Tsavo (Kenya) reported by Blumenthal et al.34, for modern Saudi Arabia and for the middle Pleistocene Ti’s al Ghadah (TAG) (Saudi Arabia) assemblage.
Fig. 5
Fig. 6

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All data generated or analysed during this study are included in the published article and its supplementary information files.


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We thank HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman, President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage (SCTH) and Vice Presidents A. Ghabban and J. Omar for permission to conduct this study. This project was funded by the European Research Council (grant no. 295719 to M.D.P.), the Max Planck Society, and the SCTH. Z. Nawab, former President of the Saudi Geological Survey, provided research support. We thank A. Gledhill, University of Bradford, for his assistance with the stable isotope analysis. We thank K. Privat of the Mark Wainwright Analytical Centre (UNSW) for assistance with SEM imagery. H.S.G. and E.M.L.S. acknowledge the British Academy for funding. M.S acknowledges The Leakey Foundation for funding. ANA acknowledges the Deanship of Scientific Research at the King Saud University through Vice Deanship of Research Chairs for their additional funding.

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P.R., M.S. and M.P. planned the project. P.R., M.S., A.N.A., P.B., H.S.G., E.M.L.S., J.L.T., J.L., J.Z. and I.S.Z. performed the experiments. P.R., M.S., A.N.A., P.B., H.S.G., E.M.L.S., J.L.T., J.L., J.Z. and I.S.Z. performed the data analysis. All authors interpreted the data. All authors wrote and provided comment on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Patrick Roberts, Mathew Stewart or Michael Petraglia.

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Roberts, P., Stewart, M., Alagaili, A.N. et al. Fossil herbivore stable isotopes reveal middle Pleistocene hominin palaeoenvironment in ‘Green Arabia’. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 1871–1878 (2018).

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