Thursday, 7 November 2019

Out of Africa: the Emergence of Anatomically Modern Humans

The site at Faya-1

It's a little appreciated fact, but on the edge of the desert interior of Sharjah lies a site which marks the beginning of the human history of the Emirates - Faya-1. It is here that archaeologists found, at the bottom of a number of well defined strata, evidence of the passage of humans through the area between 130,000 and 125,000 years ago - the emergence of anatomically modern humans from Africa. This is where I have started the story of Children of the Seven Sands because, well, it's the start of everything.

We now know, from a combination of two emerging threads of evidence, that this passage was part of a wider dispersal - humanity left its home in Africa through a northern route (via Egypt, Suez and the Levant) and a southern route (via Djibouti, Aden and the Gulf). Those two threads are woven from our ever-richer understanding of archaeology and our exploration of DNA research to unravel the mysteries of who we are and where we came from.

Last week, one particularly controversial piece of DNA research dropped, which traces Homo Sapiens Sapiens (that's us, folks) to an enormous primordial lake in modern-day Botswana some 200,000 years ago. It's controversial because other researchers postulate an earlier origin for humanity and argue the study was based on a limited study of the mitochondrial genome. While the data is considered useful as part of the wider picture, some academics reckon it's wrong to view the Botswana study's evidence presented in a standalone fashion. That viewpoint was even expressed by researchers at the German University of Tübingen, the university whose archaeologists found Faya-1 in the first place.

What we do know - and today widely accept - is that climactic change drove the movement of those people to populate the continent of Africa before, some 70,000 years later, they started to travel further afield via the land bridge of Egypt and that of the Bab Al Mandab Straits between Africa and Yemen which, at that time, would have been a shallow and narrow crossing. Global sea levels back then were much lower thanks to glaciation, see?

Another view of Faya-1. You wonder how they knew to dig here...

Our early adventurers would have travelled along the east coast of what is now Yemen and Oman before, presumably, finding their way through the Hajar Mountains to the west coast through one of the three crossings - there are basically three great wadis that intersect the mountain range - Wadi Jizi, Wadi Hatta and Wadi Ham.

At Jebel Faya, just south of the Sharjah town of Mleiha, our early explorers found a natural formation that provided shelter as well as a source of precious water, collected in aquifers which wash up against the rocky outcrop of Faya, which divides the gravelly plain below the mountains from the deep desert beyond to the sea.

You can visit Faya-1 today and stand up on a platform to contemplate this lonely, strange place where our distant ancestors - and those of all humankind - paused to knap their flint tools. You'll find it well marked when you visit the Mleiha Archaeological Centre and you can read the story of Faya-1 - and the remarkable slice of our common history that is buried at the foot of Jebel Faya - at the Centre.

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