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Tools Suggest Humans Left Africa Earlier Via Arabia

Some primitive stone hand-axes and scrapers unearthed in a desert on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula suggest that the first modern humans may have left Africa earlier and by a different route than scientists had previously thought.

What it does is push back, by quite a lot, the timeframe in which we think anatomically modern humans — so, you and me — migrated out of Africa.

Archaeologists led by Hans-Peter Uerpmann from Eberhard Karls University in Tubingen, Germany, found the 100,000- to 125,000-year-old tools in a rocky, sheltered indentation in a bare, arid mountain in the United Arab Emirates. The tools seem to have been made with a technology similar to that used during that time period in East Africa, suggesting that early humans may have left that continent by crossing what is now the bottom of the Red Sea.

Unusual climate conditions back then would have mostly dried up the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which separates the Horn of Africa from Arabia, researchers report in the journal Science. And once early humans made the easy crossing, perhaps using rafts or boats, they would have arrived at a welcoming world of rivers, lakes and grassland, instead of the deserts seen today.


"I think our findings are going to be of interest and some contention within the archaeological community," says Simon Armitage of the Royal Holloway, University of London. "What it does is push back, by quite a lot, the time frame in which we think anatomically modern humans — so, you and me — migrated out of Africa, where we'd evolved, and subsequently began to populate the rest of the world."

'A Very Intriguing Find'

Previously, scientists generally suspected that modern humans first evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and then left the continent about 60,000 years ago, either along the Mediterranean Sea or the Arabian coast.

Other researchers called the new find fascinating but cautioned against making too many assumptions based on just a few stone tools.

While the tools were found at a site outside the range of Neanderthals, they weren't found with any fossil evidence that would prove a link to modern humans. What's more, there's no guarantee that the people who made these tools were part of our ancestral group that fanned across the globe.


"I think that the comparisons to Africa from a few stone tools are always basically just a hypothesis. We need more work and more stone tools to really cement that connection," says Alison Brooks, an archaeologist at George Washington University. "Certainly it's a very intriguing find, and it should hopefully spur research in all kinds of places and directions that haven't been undertaken before."

That's already happening now, says Tony Marks, an archaeologist with Southern Methodist University who did the tool analysis in this new study. He says traditionally, the wind-swept deserts of Arabia were not seen as a good place to find artifacts buried in a way that would preserve their history. But these discoveries at the Jebel Faya rock shelter — which Uerpmann says was previously seen as just a nice shady spot for a weekend picnic — shows that treasures are there for those who look.

"The general idea about Arabia was that there was really nothing very old in place," Marks says. "The fact that this material was actually in the ground, undisturbed, was really exceptional."

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