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Early humans lived in lava tubes in the scorching Arabian deserts

The deserts of Saudi Arabia are home to a unique kind of treasure: caves and lava tubes. These natural formations were created by the intense heat from volcanic eruptions long ago. Today, these lava tubes offer insights into the lives of the early humans who managed to survive and thrive in this harsh landscape.

Conducted by Griffith University‘s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE), this remarkable research focuses on one such site, the Umm Jirsan cave.

The study highlights new evidence of ancient human activities. It provides a deeper understanding of how people once lived in Saudi Arabia.

Umm Jirsan lava tubes

Deep within the expansive Harrat Khaybar lava field of Saudi Arabia lies the archaeological treasure of lava tubes called Umm Jirsan.

This sprawling underground lava tube serves as a natural shelter and a time capsule preserving millennia of Arabian prehistory.

Led by Dr. Mathew Stewart, a team of archaeologists has discovered a wealth of artifacts at this site. The cave has yielded numerous insights into the daily lives, cultural practices, and environmental adaptations of its ancient inhabitants.

“Our findings at Umm Jirsan provide a rare glimpse into the lives of ancient peoples in Arabia, revealing repeated phases of human occupation and shedding light on the pastoralist activities that once thrived in this landscape,” said Dr. Stewart.

Rock art in Saudi Arabia’s lava tube

Archaeologists have managed to reconstruct a detailed account of how ancient travelers and inhabitants used this underground sanctuary. Among the fascinating discoveries within these ancient walls is an array of rock art.

The lava tube’s surfaces are adorned with artistic depictions of cattle, sheep, goats, and even dogs. These images provide a window into the types of animals that were raised by these early peoples. They offer insights into the nascent days of animal domestication.

The rock art found within the Umm Jirsan lava tube serve as historical records, narrating the story of early domestication practices. Each scene offers insights into the animals that were raised and revered by these early communities.

Archaeologists have meticulously analyzed these drawings to construct a vibrant and detailed portrayal of life in and around Umm Jirsan. These illustrations reveal the daily survival strategies of ancient humans.

Moreover, it also signified the cultural and social activities that flourished in this unique environment. Umm Jirsan was a key site for both practical survival and the development of early societal norms.

Bones offer human life clues in Saudi Arabia’s lava tubes

The story doesn’t end with the artwork. Animal bones, left behind after feasts of the past, give us even greater detail. Scientists analyzed these remains and made a fascinating discovery.

“Isotopic analysis of animal remains indicates that livestock primarily grazed on wild grasses and shrubs, while humans maintained a diet rich in protein,” explained Dr. Stewart. This tells us they were skilled herders, moving with the seasons to find grazing for their animals.

The detailed analysis of the rock art and other archaeological findings within the Umm Jirsan lava tube also reveals a significant shift in the human diet over time. It points to a major developmental milestone in the region: the rise of oasis agriculture.

The rise in consumption of C3 plants, including various grasses and trees, hints at a shift toward a settled agricultural lifestyle.

This dietary change suggests that ancient inhabitants started to cultivate and depend more on local plant sources. They strategically moved away from a lifestyle solely based on hunting and gathering.

Early humans demonstrated environmental adaptation

This move towards agriculture is a critical indicator of the evolving human adaptation to the environment. It implies that the historically arid landscape of Arabia may have undergone periods of climatic change. The change made it more hospitable for settled life and enabling the growth of oasis agriculture.

The emergence of this type of farming likely transformed the social structures of the time. These findings challenge the traditional view of ancient Arabia as an unchanging desert landscape. They highlight the dynamic nature of human adaptation to environmental changes.

Lava tubes and early humans beyond Saudi Arabia

This isn’t just about a single lava tube or the people who sheltered there. “This site likely served as a crucial waypoint along pastoral routes, linking key oases and facilitating cultural exchange and trade,” Dr. Stewart emphasized.

Imagine Umm Jirsan as a prehistoric highway rest stop, a place where ideas, goods, and people from all over Arabia mingled.

“While underground localities are globally significant in archaeology and Quaternary science, our research represents the first comprehensive study of its kind in Saudi Arabia,” said Professor Michael Petraglia, Director of ARCHE. 

What happens in the lava tubes of Arabia helps us better understand the grand story of human resilience and adaptation all across the globe.

Cultural significance of Saudi Arabia’s lava tubes

As discussed, the artifacts and rock art found in Saudi Arabia’s lava tube serve as vibrant cultural expressions. These historical treasures shed light on the beliefs, values, and social structures of the people who created them.

The symbolism in the cave‘s rock art is especially revealing. It shows a society that was deeply connected to its surrounding environment and the animals that inhabited it.

The scenes painted and carved onto the walls of Umm Jirsan include depictions of cattle, sheep, goats, and dogs, which were crucial to the livelihood and survival of these ancient communities.

These images suggest that pastoralism was not merely an economic activity but also held significant cultural importance.

The prominence of these animals in the art could indicate their role in religious or ritual activities, suggesting a reverence for the life-sustaining resources these animals represented.

Community organization

The variety of species depicted can tell us about the social stratification and community organization of the time. For instance, the ownership and breeding of larger herds might have been a sign of wealth and status. It could influence social hierarchies within the group.

Additionally, the communal nature of pastoral life, as suggested by the art, implies a collaborative social structure where group cooperation was necessary for managing herds and sustaining the community.

The art also provides clues about the spiritual and existential views of the people. Animal figures could have been totemic symbols or part of mythological narratives, serving as protectors, symbols of fertility, or emblems of clan identities.

Such depictions allow archaeologists to infer not only the economic priorities of these ancient peoples but also their cosmological and spiritual landscapes.

Redefining ancient knowledge

The discovery of such art in the secluded and enduring space of a lava tube highlights the importance of these locations not just as shelters but as cultural repositories.

Saudi Arabia is changing our understanding of the ancient world. It isn’t all about Egypt or Mesopotamia – the desert has its own epic to tell. Umm Jirsan is just the beginning.

“These findings underscore the immense potential for interdisciplinary investigations in caves and lava tubes, offering a unique window into Arabia’s ancient past,” Professor Petraglia explained.

The study is published in PLOS ONE.


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