Palaeolithic to Neolithic
Our earliest human ancestors, known as hominids, evolved in East Africa. Most of the evidence for them has been discovered in the Great Rift Valley, which stretches from the Red Sea thousands of kilometres into Southern Africa. The Palaeolithic Period (Old Stone Age) is distinguished by the development of the first stone tools and covers roughly ninety-nine per cent of human history. It extends from the invention of stone tools by hominids approximately 2.4 million years ago to the development of agriculture around 12,000 years ago. Traces of the Palaeolithic exist throughout the Arabian Peninsula. There appears to have been a series of movements of hominids out of Africa into the peninsula during different periods coinciding with favourable climatic conditions. The Palaeolithic was followed by the Neolithic (Late Stone Age) Period, which saw rapid advances in human technologies and skills, including the domestication of animals.
Cruising the Coasts
The Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record in Arabia provides crucial evidence for understanding human movements around the region. Recently discovered evidence has highlighted some of the routes taken by the earliest humans out of Africa, including the possible use of boats across the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait at the mouth of the Red Sea, which was once a land bridge between Africa and Arabia. This crossing would not have been difficult during periods of lower sea levels and the earliest migrants would have readily adapted to the hospitable Arabian environment, similar to that of East Africa. However, this favourable situation would not last as climatic fluctuations caused the advance of the desert, forcing the early inhabitants to relocate or adapt.
Palaeolithic stone tools collected on Jebel Barakah may well have been made from the ample supplies of raw material present in the area. 5 separate sites have been found, rich in stone artefacts that may date back as much as 200,000 years ago. They include ‘Levallois' type cores, named after a 19th century discovery of flint tools at Levallois-Perret in France. This technique for creating stone tools was more sophisticated than earlier methods and involved the striking of sharp flakes from a prepared stone core. The sharp-edged flakes would be used for cutting the flesh of hunted animals and other uses.
The earliest known hominid inhabitants of Abu Dhabi were hunter-gatherers who survived by hunting wild game, collecting plants and fruit. Traces of them have been found at Jebel Barakah, just west of Jebel Dhanna in the Al Gharbia region, a strategic location on the eastern edge of the Sabkha Matti where a river once flowed northwards into the Gulf basin. These inhabitants may have used the strategic higher ground to survey the surroundings for prey or approaching dangers.
During the Neolithic period, beginning approximately 11,500 years ago, humans produced their own food by cultivating crops and domesticating animals, but still relied upon stone as the raw material for tools and weapons. Various innovations during this period in the Fertile Crescent (The Levant and Tigris-Euphrates areas) led to the development of the earliest towns in the region. The beginning of this period coincided with a more humid climate known as the Holocene Climatic Optimum where increased rainfall created numerous rivers and lakes across Arabia, a direct result of the northwards migration of the Indian Monsoon. This meant that areas such as Umm az-Zamul in south-eastern Abu Dhabi became habitable and provided abundant grazing for livestock, in stark contrast to the inhospitable, arid conditions of today.
A series of significant Neo-lithic settlements, dating from around 7,500 years ago, have been found on Dalma and Marawah islands, west of Abu Dhabi. The coastal and island communities of this time raised domestic sheep and goats but primarily relied on sustenance from the sea. A wide variety of fish were exploited, as well as dugongs, turtles, dolphins, sea urchins and shellfish. The Neolithic settlement on Dalma Island has produced the earliest evidence in Arabia for the consumption of dates from the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), although it is not known whether they were collected from wild or cultivated palms.
The Neolithic peoples moved with the changing seasons, spending part of the year on the coast and the rest either at the higher elevations of the Hajar Mountains or the desert interior where they frequented its many lakes or oases. Although the reasons may be different, this seasonal migration away from the summer heat and humidity of the coast is mirrored today as residents of Abu Dhabi City seek relief in inland locations such as Al Ain.
Evidence of Trade
A characteristic feature of the Neolithic sites on the islands of Dalma and Marawah is the presence of Ubaid pottery imported from southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Clearly, the Neolithic settlers on Abu Dhabi's coast and islands had extensive trading and cultural contacts with the peoples of the northern Gulf and were capable seafarers.