Did Humans Migrate Out of Africa Via a Shallow Red Sea?

By Patrick Morgan | January 27, 2011 6:26 pm

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Early humans trekking out of Africa moved faster than we thought they did: New archeological evidence suggests they reached the Persian Gulf 50,000 years before we previously thought.

Archeologists excavating a rock shelter in Jebel Faya, in the United Arab Emirates, found a cache of hand axes and other tools that date back 125,000 years ago. Their age was established by dating the silicon in the chert tools, and also via comparison to other artifacts:

Team member Anthony Marks of Southern Methodist University, an anthropologist, said the tools were made in ways consistent with the 125,000-years-ago time period and therefore raise the inevitable question of how they got to the area near the Persian Gulf…. “Either these people came out of East Africa or they came from nowhere,” he said. [The Washington Post]

The team’s research, published in Science, posits that the area’s climate had a role in spurring mankind’s expansion around the planet. Climate records suggest that the Red Sea was much shallower during an ice age that lasted from 200,000 to 130,000 years ago, because much of the world’s water was trapped in glaciers. This allowed early humans to cross the now-shallow Red Sea for new land in the southern Arabian peninsula, the researchers say. After the crossing, these early humans would have found themselves in a surprisingly fertile place: Towards the end of that ice age, the deserts of Arabia experienced a brief “wet” era with rivers, lakes, vegetation, and wildlife.

This bold argument counters the prevailing theory that humans followed the Nile River north into the Sinai region. There are also implications for why humans dispersed in the first place.

“Up until now, we thought of cultural developments leading to the opportunity of people to move out of Africa,” said archaeologist Hans-Peter Uerpmann at Eberhardt-Karls-University Tübingen, in Germany, the team’s senior scientist. “Now we see, I think, that the environment was the key to this.” [The Wall Street Journal]

Although this is a significant archeological find, it is nevertheless only one archeological site–and naysayers are quick to point out that no human fossils were found at the site.

The discovery has sparked debate among archaeologists, some of whom say much stronger evidence is needed to back up the researchers’ claims. “I’m totally unpersuaded,” Paul Mellars, an archaeologist at Cambridge University, told Science. “There’s not a scrap of evidence here that these were made by modern humans, nor that they came from Africa.” [The Guardian]

The dissenters have some good arguments of their own: The tools could have been made by other early hominids, they say, perhaps related to the Neanderthals that spread out across Europe long before modern humans got there. Also, genetic evidence supports the theory that modern humans didn’t begin to spread out from Africa until around 65,000 years ago.

Related Content:
80beats: Did Early Humans Migrate Across a Watery, Green Sahara?
80beats: Researchers Trace the Pacific Migration Route Using Bacteria and Language
80beats: Did Innovative Stone Tools Spur the First Human Migrations?
Gene Expression: How were the early Americas peopled?
DISCOVER: Did Humans Colonize the World by Boat?


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