An Oasis in the Persian Gulf

I’d heard about this article while ago, and I finally got around to tracking down and reading New Light on Human Prehistory in the Arabo-Persian Gulf Oasis by Jeffrey I. Rose, which appeared in issue 51 no. 6 (December 2010) of Current Anthropology. The article is about the possibility that humans in the past lived in what is now the floor of the Persian Gulf, which was exposed by the lower sea levels during the Late Pleistocene.

It has been known for quite a while that the entire gulf is shallow enough to have been dry land during the most recent glacial episode, between roughly 74,000 and 8,000 years ago. The Tigris, Euphrates, and several other rivers flowed through it; the tracks of their former beds can still be traced on the sea floor, along with the site of a large lake. In addition, there are locations today where local aquifers release fresh water into the gulf; when the sea level was lower, these would have been springs. The combination of rivers and fresh water springs would have made the gulf habitable even during extremely dry glacial periods, when much of the surrounding regions were unable to support a human population. The author proposes that this area could have been a refuge for human populations when the climate was too arid to make surrounding regions livable.

Unfortunately, while the author spend a significant amount of space discussing the possible implications of this refuge on Paleolithic populations moving out of Africa, he gives far less attention to the much more interesting (to me) question of how it might have impacted the development of sociopolitical complexity and sedentism during the Neolithic. This was, after all, the Cradle of Civilization, and the final filling of the gulf took place not too long before the first settlement of Eridu. It was an era of rapid (compared to what went before) technological change, which readers of this blog should know is a major interest of mine. Is there evidence of Neolithic sedentism beneath the waters of the gulf? What about cereal cultivation? Animal husbandry? Early experimentation with metallurgy? We could easily imagine that people living in a highly productive environment that is somewhat limited in size and surrounded by much less productive regions might experience population pressure and adopt agriculture as a form of intensification. Is that what actually happened, or was the trajectory quite different? Given the current political/military reality in the Middle East, we might have to wait a while before any answers can be sought. Still, the idea is intriguing, and well worth pursuing as soon as it can safely be done.


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