Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

, Volume 11, Issue 7, pp 3101–3120 | Cite as

Middle Palaeolithic occupations in central Saudi Arabia during MIS 5 and MIS 7: new insights on the origins of the peopling of Arabia

  • Rémy CrassardEmail author
  • Yamandú H. Hilbert
  • Frank Preusser
  • Gerwin Wulf
  • Jérémie Schiettecatte
Original Paper


Although Middle Palaeolithic stratified and dated sites are still rare in Arabia, recent archaeological, palaeoenvironmental, population genetic, geomatic and geochronological studies have noticeably contributed to a re-evaluation of the prehistory of the region. Here, we report the discovery of a stratified open-air Middle Palaeolithic site in central Saudi Arabia, a novelty given the paucity of dated Pleistocene lithic assemblages in the region. The site of Umm al-Sha’al is located in the Rufa Graben where a substantial number of Middle Palaeolithic surface occurrences have been reported. It contains artefacts produced using Levallois technology, indicative of Middle Palaeolithic human exploitation of locally abundant quartzite raw material. The site comprises two horizons with archaeological finds dating to Marine Isotope Stages 5 and likely 7 or even older. During this period, hunter-gatherers would have benefited from bodies of water and streams in the vicinity of the site, which were active during humid phases, contributing to the development of a significant biomass. Our discovery supports the hypotheses of an early colonisation of inland Arabia by hominins and of a solid link with North and East African lithic traditions of the Middle Stone Age, which awaits further refinement.


Saudi Arabia Middle Palaeolithic Optically stimulated luminescence Levallois technology Hominin dispersals 



Archaeological operations at Umm al-Sha’al greatly beneficiated from the authorization and support of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH). The authors thank the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French Embassy in Riyadh, CNRS UMR 8167 and UMR 5133, Sorbonne University, King Saud University and SCTH for financial and technical support. YHH is grateful to the Fondation Fyssen for financial support. Lithic drawings were finalised by G. Devilder (CNRS UMR 5199).


  1. Al-Juaidi F, Millington AC, McLaren SJ (2003) Merged remotely sensed data for geomorphological investigations in deserts: examples from central Saudi Arabia. Geogr J 169:117–130Google Scholar
  2. Armitage S, Jasim S, Marks AE, Parker A, Usik VI, Uerpmann HP (2011) The Southern Route “Out of Africa”: evidence for an early expansion of modern humans into Arabia. Science 331:453–456CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arnold LJ, Bailey RM, Tucker GE (2007) Statistical treatment of fluvial dose distributions from southern Colorado arroyo deposits. Quat Geochronol 2:162–167CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beshkani A, Beuzen-Waller T, Bonilauri S, Gernez G (2017) The first evidence of Middle Palaeolithic Nubian technology in north-central Oman. Antiquity 91(356):E1. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Beyin A (2011) Upper Pleistocene human dispersals out of Africa: a review of the current state of the debate. Int J Evol Biol 2011:615094. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Blechschmidt I, Matter A, Preusser F, Rieke-Zapp D (2009) Monsoon triggered formation of Quaternary alluvial megafans in the interior of Oman. Geomorphology 110:128–137CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boëda É (1994) Le Concept Levallois, Variabilité des Méthodes. CNRS Éditions, ParisGoogle Scholar
  8. Breeze PS, Drake NA, Groucutt HS, Parton A, Jennings RP, White TS, Clark-Balzan L, Shipton C, Scerri EML, Stimpson CM, Crassard R, Hilbert Y, Alsharekh A, Al-Omari A, Petraglia MD (2015) Remote sensing and GIS techniques for reconstructing Arabian palaeohydrology and identifying archaeological sites. Quat Int 382:98–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Clark-Balzan L, Parton A, Breeze PS, Groucutt HS, Petraglia MD (2018) Resolving problematic luminescence chronologies for carbonate- and evaporite-rich sediments spanning multiple humid periods in the Jubbah Basin, Saudi Arabia. Quat Geochronol 45:50–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Crassard R (2009) The Middle Palaeolithic of Arabia: the view from the Hadramawt region, Yemen. In: Petraglia MD, Rose JI (eds) The evolution of human populations in Arabia: paleoenvironments, prehistory and genetics. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 151–168Google Scholar
  11. Crassard R, Hilbert YH (2013) A Nubian complex site from Central Arabia: implications for Levallois taxonomy and human dispersals during the Upper Pleistocene. PLoS One 8:e69221CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Crassard R, Hilbert YH (2016) The Prehistory of Al-Kharj region. In: Schiettecatte J, Alghazzi A (Eds.) Al-Kharj I. Report on two excavation seasons in the oasis of Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia 2011-2012. Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Riyadh, pp. 51–80Google Scholar
  13. Crassard R, Thiébaut C (2011) Levallois points production from eastern Yemen and some comparisons with assemblages from East-Africa, Europe and the Levant. In: Le Tensorer JM, Jagher R, Otte M (eds) The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in the Middle East and neighbouring regions. ERAUL, Liège, pp 131–142Google Scholar
  14. Crassard R, Petraglia MD, Drake NA, Breeze P, Gratuze B, Alsharekh A, Arbach M, Groucutt HS, Khalidi L, Michelsen N, Robin CJ, Schiettecatte J (2013) Middle Palaeolithic and Neolithic occupations around Mundafan Palaeolake, Saudi Arabia: implications for climate change and human dispersals. PLoS One 8:e69665CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Delagnes A, Tribolo C, Bertran P, Brenet M, Crassard R, Jaubert J, Khalidi L, Mercier N, Nomade S, Peigné S, Sitzia L, Tournepiche JF, Al-Halibi M, Al-Mosabi A, Macchiarelli R (2012) Inland human settlement in southern Arabia 55,000 years ago. New evidence from the Wadi Surdud Middle Paleolithic site complex, western Yemen. J Hum Evol 63:452–474CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Delagnes A, Crassard R, Bertran P, Sitzia L (2013) Human and cultural dynamics in southern Arabia at the end of the Middle Paleolithic. Quat Int 300:234–243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Drusch M, Del Bello U, Carlier S, Colin O, Fernandez V, Gascon F, Hoersch B, Isola C, Laberinti P, Martimort P (2012) Sentinel-2: ESA's optical high-resolution mission for GMES operational services. Remote Sens Environ 120:25–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Duller GAT (2003) Distinguishing quartz and feldspar in single grain luminescence measurements. Radiat Meas 37:161–165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Farr TG, Rosen PA, Caro E, Crippen R, Duren R, Hensley S, Kobrick M, Paller M, Rodriguez E, Roth L, Seal D, Shaffer S, Shimada J, Umland J, Werner M, Oskin M, Burbank D, Alsdorf D (2007) The shuttle radar topography mission. Rev Geophys 45:RG2004CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fleitmann D, Matter A (2009) The speleothem record of climate variability in Southern Arabia. CR Geosci 341:633–642CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Galbraith RF, Roberts RG, Laslett GM, Yoshida H, Olley JM (1999) Optical dating of single grains of quartz from Jinmium rock shelter, northern Australia. Part I: experimental design and statistical models. Archaeometry 41:339–364CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gandini F, Achilli A, Pala M, Bodner M, Brandini S, Huber G, Egyed B, Ferretti L, Gómez-Carballa A, Salas A, Scozzari R, Cruciani F, Coppa A, Parson W, Semino O, Soares P, Torroni A, Richards MB, Olivieri A (2016) Mapping human dispersals into the Horn of Africa from Arabian Ice Age refugia using mitogenomes. Sci Rep-UK 6:25472. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Goder-Goldberger M, Gubenko N, Hovers E (2016) “Diffusion with modifications”: Nubian assemblages in the central Negev highlands of Israel and their implications for Middle Paleolithic inter-regional interactions. Quat Int 408:121–139CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Grainger D (2007) The geological evolution of Saudi Arabia, a voyage through space and time. Saudi Geological Survey, JeddahGoogle Scholar
  25. Groucutt HS, Petraglia MD (2012) The prehistory of the Arabian Peninsula: deserts, dispersals, and demography. Evol Anthropol 21:113–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Groucutt HS, White TS, Clark-Balzan L, Parton A, Crassard R, Shipton C, Jennings RP, Parker AG, Breeze PS, Scerri EML, Alsharekh A, Petraglia MD (2015a) Human occupation of the Arabian Empty Quarter during MIS 5: evidence from Mundafan Al-Buhayrah, Saudi Arabia. Quat Sci Rev 119:116–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Groucutt HS, Petraglia MD, Bailey G, Scerri EML, Parton A, Clark-Balzan L, Jennings RP, Lewis L, Blinkhorn J, Drake NA, Breeze PS, Inglis RH, Devès MH, Meredith-Williams M, Boivin N, Thomas MG, Scally A (2015b) Rethinking the dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa. Evol Anthropol 24:149–164CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Groucutt HS, Breeze P, Drake NA, Jennings R, Parton A, White T, Shipton C, Clark-Balzan L, Al-Omari A, Cuthbertson P, Wedage OMC, Bernal MA, Alsharekh A, Petraglia MD (2016) The Middle Palaeolithic of the Nejd, Saudi Arabia. J Field Archaeol 41:131–147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Groucutt HS, Grün R, Zalmout IAS, Drake NA, Armitage SJ, Candy I, Clark-Wilson R, Louys J, Breeze PS, Duval M, Buck LT, Kivell TL, Pomeroy E, Stephens NB, Stock JT, Stewart M, Price GJ, Kinsley L, Sung WW, Alsharekh A, Al-Omari A, Zahir M, Memesh AM, Abdulshakoor AJ, Al-Masari AM, Bahameem AA, Al Murayyi KMS, Zahrani B, Scerri ELM, Petraglia MD (2018) Homo sapiens in Arabia by 85,000 years ago. Nat Ecol Evol.
  30. Guichard J, Guichard G (1965) The Early and Middle Palaeolithic of Nubia: a preliminary report. In: Wendorf F (ed) Contributions to the prehistory of Nubia. SMU Press, Dallas, pp 57–116Google Scholar
  31. Hershkovitz I, Weber GW, Quam R, Duval M, Grün R, Kinsley L, Ayalon A, Bar-Matthews M, Valladas H, Mercier N, Arsuaga JL, Martinón-Torres M, Bermúdez de Castro JM, Fornai C, Martín-Francés L, Sarig R, May H, Krenn VA, Slon V, Rodríguez L, García R, Lorenzo C, Carretero JM, Frumkin A, Shahack-Gross R, Bar-Yosef Mayer DE, Cui Y, Wu X, Peled N, Groman-Yaroslavski I, Weissbrod L, Yeshurun R, Tsatskin A, Zaidner Y, Weinstein-Evron M (2018) The earliest modern humans outside Africa. Science 359:456–459CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hilbert YH, Crassard R, Rose JI, Geiling JM, Usik VI (2016) Technological homogeneity within the Arabian Nubian Complex: comparing chert and quartzite assemblages from central and southern Arabia. J Lithic Stud 3.
  33. Hilbert YH, Crassard R, Charloux G, Loreto R (2017) Nubian technology in northern Arabia: impact on interregional variability of Middle Paleolithic industries. Quat Int 435:77–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Holm DA (1960) Desert geomorphology in the Arabian Peninsula. Science 132:1369–1379CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hublin JJ, Ben-Ncer A, Bailey SE, Freidline SE, Neubauer S, Skinner MM, Bergmann I, Le Cabec A, Benazzi S, Harvati K, Gunz P (2017) New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens. Nature 546:289–292CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jarvis A, Reuter HI, Nelson A, Guevara E (2008) Hole-filled SRTM for the globe version 4. Available from the CGIAR-CSI SRTM 90 m Database Retrieved from
  37. Jennings RP, Singarayer J, Stone EJ, Krebs-Kanzow U, Khon V, Nisancioglu KH, Pfeiffer M, Zhang X, Parker A, Parton A, Groucutt HS, White TS, Drake NA, Petraglia MD (2015) The greening of Arabia: multiple opportunities for human occupation of the Arabian Peninsula during the Late Pleistocene inferred from an ensemble of climate model simulations. Quat Int 382:181–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Jenson SK, Domingue JO (1988) Extracting topographic structure from digital elevation data for geographic information system analysis. Photogramm Eng Remote Sens 54:1593–1600Google Scholar
  39. Kreutzer S, Schmidt C, Fuchs MC, Dietze M, Fischer M, Fuchs M (2012) Introducing an R package for luminescence dating analysis. Ancient TL 30:1–8Google Scholar
  40. Lahr MM, Foley RA (1998) Towards a theory of modern human origins: geography, demography, and diversity in recent human evolution. Yearb Phys Anthropol 41:137–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lézine AM (2009) Climatic history of the African and Arabian deserts. Compt Rendus Geosci 341:569–574CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lowick SE, Preusser F, Wintle AG (2010a) Investigating the linear region of quartz optically stimulated luminescence dose response curves at high doses. Radiat Meas 45:975–984CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lowick SE, Preusser F, Pini R, Ravazzi C (2010b) Underestimation of quartz OSL dating towards the Eemian: comparison with palynostratigraphy from Azzano Decimo, northeastern Italy. Quat Geochronol 5:583–590CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Macaulay V, Hill C, Achilli A, Rengo C, Clarke D, Meehan W, Blackburn J, Semino O, Scozzari R, Cruciani F, Taha A, Shaari NK, Raja JM, Ismail P, Zainuddin Z, Goodwin W, Bulbeck D, Bandelt HJ, Oppenheimer S, Torroni A, Richards M (2005) Single, rapid coastal settlement of Asia revealed by analysis of complete mitochondrial genomes. Science 308:1034–1036CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Matter A, Neubert E, Preusser F, Rosenberg TM, Al-Wagdani K (2015) Palaeo-environmental implications derived from lake and sabkha deposits of the southern Rub’ al-Khali, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Quat Int 382:120–131CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Matter A, Mahjoub A, Neubert E, Preusser F, Schwalb A, Szidat S, Wulf G (2016) Reactivation of the Pleistocene trans-Arabian Wadi ad Dawasir fluvial system (Saudi Arabia) during the Holocene humid phase. Geomorphology 270:88–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Mellars P (2006) Why did modern human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60,000 ago? A new model. PNAS 103:9381–9386CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Müller G, Gastner M (1971) The ‘Karbonat-Bombe’, a simple device for the determination of carbonate content in sediment, soils, and other materials. N Jb Mineral 10:466–469Google Scholar
  49. Murray AS, Wintle AG (2000) Dating quartz using an improved single-aliquot regenerative-dose (SAR) protocol. Radiat Meas 32:57–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Parton A, Farrant AR, Leng MJ, Telfer MW, Groucutt HS, Petraglia MD, Parker AG (2015a) Alluvial fan records from southeast Arabia reveal multiple windows for human dispersal. Geology 43:295–298CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Parton A, White TS, Parker AG, Breeze PS, Jennings R, Groucutt HS, Petraglia MD (2015b) Orbital-scale climate variability in Arabia as a potential motor for human dispersals. Quat Int 382:82–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Petraglia MD (2011) Trailblazers across Arabia. Nature 470:50–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Petraglia MD, Alsharekh AM, Crassard R, Drake NA, Groucutt H, Parker AG, Roberts RG (2011) Middle Paleolithic occupation on a marine isotope stage 5 lakeshore in the Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia. Quat Sci Rev 30:1555–1559CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Petraglia MD, Alsharekh A, Breeze P, Clarkson C, Crassard R, Drake NA, Groucutt HS, Jennings R, Parker AG, Parton A, Roberts RG, Shipton C, Matheson C, al-Omari A, Veall MA (2012) Hominin dispersal into the Nefud Desert and Middle Palaeolithic settlement along the Jubbah Palaeolake, Northern Arabia. PLoS One 7:e49840CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Petraglia MD, Groucutt H, Parton A, Alsharekh A (2015) Green Arabia: human prehistory at the crossroads of continents [special issue]. Quat Int 382:1–302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Platt DE, Haber M, BouDagher-Kharrat M, Douaihy B, Khazen G, AshrafianBonab M, Salloum A, Mouzaya F, Luiselli D, Tyler-Smith C, Renfrew C, Matisoo-Smith E, Zalloua PA (2017) Mapping post-glacial expansions: the peopling of Southwest Asia. Sci Rep UK 7:40338CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Powers RW, Ramirez LF, Redmond CD, Elberg EL (1966) Geology of the Arabian Peninsula. Geol Surv Prof Pap 560:1–147Google Scholar
  58. Preusser F (2009) Chronology of the impact of Quaternary climate change on continental environments in the Arabian Peninsula. Compt Rendus Geosci 341:621–632CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Preusser F, Kasper HU (2001) Comparison of dose rate determination using high-resolution gamma spectrometry and inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry. Ancient TL 19:19–23Google Scholar
  60. Rabus B, Eineder M, Roth A, Bamler R (2003) The shuttle radar topography mission-a new class of digital elevation models acquired by spaceborne radar. J Photogramm Remote Sens 57:241–262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Rausch R, Simon T, Al-Ajmi H, Dirks H (2014) The Scarplands of Saudi Arabia. Arab J Geosci 6(7):2437–2450Google Scholar
  62. Richter D, Richter A, Dornich K (2015) Lexsyg Smart—a luminescence detection system for dosimetry, material research and dating application. Geochronometria 42:202–209Google Scholar
  63. Rose JI, Usik VI, Marks AE, Hilbert YH, Galletti C, Parton A, Geiling JM, Černý V, Morley MW, Roberts RG (2011) The Nubian complex of Dhofar, Oman: an African Middle Stone Age industry in southern Arabia. PLoS One 6:e28239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Rose JI, Petraglia MD (2009) Tracking the origin and evolution of human populations in Arabia. In: Petraglia MD, Rose JI (eds) The evolution of human populations in Arabia. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 1–12Google Scholar
  65. Rosenberg TM, Preusser F, Fleitmann D, Schwalb A, Penkman K, Schmid TW, Al-Shanti MA, Kadi K, Matter A (2011) Humid periods in southern Arabia: windows of opportunity for modern human dispersal. Geology 39:1115–1118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Rosenberg TM, Preusser F, Risberg J, Plikk A, Kadi KA, Matter A, Fleitmann D (2013) Middle and Late Pleistocene humid periods recorded in palaeolake deposits of the Nafud desert, Saudi Arabia. Quat Sci Rev 70:109–123CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Scerri EML, Groucutt HS, Jennings RP, Petraglia MD (2014) Unexpected technological heterogeneity in northern Arabia indicates complex Late Pleistocene demography at the gateway to Asia. J Hum Evol 75:125–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Schiettecatte J, al-Ghazzi A, Charloux G, Crassard R, Hilbert YH, Monchot H, Mouton M, Simeon P (2013) Al-Kharj oasis through time: first results of archaeological fieldwork in the province of Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). Proc Sem Arab Stud 43:285–308Google Scholar
  69. Schiettecatte J, Chabrol A, Fouache E (2016) Landscape and settlement process in al-Kharj oasis (province of Riyadh). In: Luciani M (ed) The archaeology of North Arabia, oases and landscapes. Proceedings of the International Congress held at the University of Vienna, 5–8 December, 2013 (Oriental and European Archaeology, Band: 4). Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna, pp 257–280Google Scholar
  70. Stringer C (2000) Coasting out of Africa. Nature 405:24–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Usik VI, Rose JI, Hilbert YH, Van Peer P, Marks AE (2013) Nubian Complex reduction strategies in Dhofar, southern Oman. Quat Int 300:244–266CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Van Peer P (1992) The Levallois reduction strategy. Monographs in World Prehistory, vol 13. Prehistory Press, MadisonGoogle Scholar
  73. Van Peer P, Vermeersch P, Paulissen E (2010) Chert quarrying, lithic technology and a modern human burial at the Palaeolithic site of Taramsa 1, Upper Egypt. Leuven University Press, LeuvenGoogle Scholar
  74. Vaslet D, Al-Muallem MS, Maddeh SS, Brosse JM, Fourniquet J, Breton JP, Le Nindre YM (1991) Explanatory notes to the geologic map of the ArRiyad Quadrangle, Sheet 24 I, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian Deputy Ministry for Mineral Resources, Jeddah. Geosciences Map 121, 1–54Google Scholar
  75. Vincent P (2008) Saudi Arabia: an environmental overview. Taylor & Francis Group, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Wintle AG, Murray AS (2006) A review of optically stimulated luminescence characteristic and their relevance in single-aliquot regeneration dating protocols. Radiat Meas 41:369–391CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Zander A, Degering D, Preusser F, Kasper HU, Brückner H (2007) Optically stimulated luminescence dating of sublittoral and intertidal sediments from Dubai, UAE: radioactive disequilibria in the uranium decay series. Quat Geochronol 2:123–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CNRS, USR 3141 ‘CEFAS’, Centre Français d’Archéologie et de Sciences SocialesKuwait CityKuwait
  2. 2.MEAE, Ambassade de France au Koweït, CEFAS, S/C de la Valise DiplomatiqueChâtillon CEDEXFrance
  3. 3.CNRS, UMR 5133, ‘Archéorient’, Maison de l’Orient et de la MéditerranéeUniversité de LyonLyonFrance
  4. 4.Institut für Geo - und UmweltnaturwissenschaftenAlbert-Ludwigs-Universität FreiburgFreiburgGermany
  5. 5.CNRS, UMR 8167 ‘Orient & Méditerranée’Ivry-sur-Seine CEDEXFrance

Personalised recommendations