Humanity originated on the African continent at least 300,000 years ago. We know from fossil evidence in southern Greece and the Levant (modern-day Israel) that some early members of our species expanded beyond Africa around 200,000 years ago, and again between 120,000 to 90,000 years ago. They likely travelled through the Sinai peninsula, which formed the only land bridge connecting the continent of Africa to the rest of the world, before moving north into a landscape with a Mediterranean climate.
But it was not known at what point humans turned south after crossing the Sinai peninsula, reaching modern day Saudi Arabia. It is also often assumed that they may have taken a coastal route, avoiding the currently harsh desert interior. Previous fossil finds show this was not the case, with humans moving into the heart of Arabia at least 85,000 years ago. Now, new research pushes this date back even further.
Colleagues and I discovered human and other animal footprints embedded on an ancient lake surface in the Nefud Desert in Saudi Arabia that are around 120,000 years old. These findings represent the earliest evidence for Homo sapiens on the Arabian Peninsula, and demonstrates the importance of Arabia for understanding human prehistory.
The Nefud Desert in modern-day Saudi Arabia lies around 500km to the southeast of the Sinai Peninsula. Today, the Arabian deserts are some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. They would form an impassable barrier for prehistoric humans or large mammals. Imagine standing at the foot of a hyper-arid desert equipped with stone tools and not much else. Could you get across? Probably not.
Scientific analysis shows that for most of their recent history, they were climatically similar to today: hyper-arid and impassable. But there is also evidence to show that at certain times in the past, the deserts transformed into savannah-like grasslands littered with freshwater resources. These “green” phases were likely short, probably lasting no more than a few millennia. Nonetheless, they provided windows of opportunity for humans and other animals to move into a new green landscape.
We know from fossil lake sediments that the Nefud Desert was one of those that periodically transformed into a more attractive landscape in the past, and the new footprints prove that early humans took advantage of one such window.
We were able to date the footprints by using a technique called luminescence dating to a period of time 102-132,000 years ago. Based on wider regional evidence for increased rainfall, we suggest they date to a period roughly 120,000 years ago, called the last interglacial.
We know that around this time that vast river systems spread across the Sahara Desert, with Middle Palaeolithic archaeology scattered along them. Other evidence for increased rainfall at this time comes from fossil stalagmites found in caves in desert regions in Arabia and ~500 km north of the Nefud in the Negev Desert. These features only grow in conditions where rainfall is greater than 300mm per year; substantially more than the amount (<90mm per year) they receive today.
While it is difficult to know for sure which species of human left these prints, we think they were most likely left by our own, Homo sapiens. This is based on the fact that Homo sapiens were present in the Levant, 700km to the north of the Nefud Desert, at a similar time. Neanderthals were absent from the Levant in this period and did not move back into the region until thousands of years later, when cooler conditions prevailed. Estimates of the humans mass and statue based on the footprints are also more consistent with our species than Neanderthals.
In addition to human footprints, elephant, horse and camel prints were also found. These footprints, studied in detail by Mathew Stewart at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, provide a wealth of new information regarding prehistoric interactions between humans, animals and the environment.
Footprints are a unique form of fossil evidence as they provide precise snapshots in time that typically represent a few hours or days. This is a resolution we do not get from other records. They also allow us to understand the behaviour of their makers, which is something we cannot get from fossils.
This allows us to understand the relationship between humans and other large mammals at a geologically precise moment in time.
Environmental analysis on the lake sediments show that the lake contained fresh “drinkable” water, while the variety of footprints shows that humans, elephants, camels and horses were using this resource at a similar time. Human and large-mammal movements would have been closely tied to fresh water and the pattern of footprints show both foraged on the lake bed when it was temporarily exposed. Humans may have been drawn to the area as they tracked large mammals, who would potentially serve as prey.
Surveys and analysis of fossils recovered from the site also shows that there are no stone tools or butchery of fossils. This indicates that the footprint-makers only very briefly visited the lake, foraging for resources before continuing on their journey.
It is not clear what happened to the people who left the footprints, but evidence suggests that they, along with the other early Homo sapiens explorers, either died out or retreated to more favourable environments as aridity returned to the desert.
As militant attacks get closer, Katarina Höije tells the story of a Malian town defiantly continuing its annual tradition of replastering a mosque. Here is :
An Ancient Mud Mosque Annually Restored
Rickety plastic chairs and tables line the winding streets around Djenné’s main square, where the mosque looms over the town’s low mud-brick houses. There are plates of riz au grastasty rice with meat and vegetables—and chilled soft drinks. Ivorian Coupé-Décalé music reverberates on soft mud walls. Djenné, a town of about 35,000 in the central region of Mali, is famous for its traditional mud-brick architecture and its UNESCO-protected mosque. Fifty-two feet (16 meters) high and built on a 300-foot-long (90-meter) platform to protect it from flooding, the mosque is the world’s largest mud-brick building.
Young men and boys run down the front steps of the mosque after dropping off baskets of mud. (Photo: Annie Risemberg, The New Traditional)
Touching up its walls each year—crépissage, the French word for ‘plastering’—is a proud and exuberant ritual that involves the whole town. “The crépissage is the most important event of the year, even bigger than Eid al-Fitr, Tabaski (the Malian equivalent of Christmas), and marking the end of Ramadan,” says Yaro, a 30-year-old lawyer and host of the celebration known as ‘la nuit de veille.’ Sitting under a tarpaulin strung between two neem trees, Yaro watches as the crowds sway through the street.
The partygoers won’t sleep until after the event. The revelry will strengthen them ahead of tomorrow’s big task, Yaro claims, sipping a soft drink. “Tonight we party, and tomorrow we will celebrate our mosque and Djenné’s cultural heritage.” The residents of Djenné come together to put a new layer of clay on their mosque every April, just before the rainy season. The crépissage is both a necessary maintenance task to prevent the mosque’s walls from crumbling and an elaborate festival that celebrates Djenné’s heritage, faith, and community. It’s also an act of defiance.
The increasing instability in Mali’s central region—fueled by inter-tribal conflicts and growing numbers of militant and jihadist groups exploiting the absence of state security forces—now threatens Djenné and its sacred annual ritual. Local militants—some linked to the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), formed by the 2017 merger of several extremist groups operating in Mali—have invaded towns, destroyed markets, and spread their influence in central Mali.
A group of women carrying water needed for the mud mixture. Men and boys are responsible for bringing the mud to the mosque, while and women and girls are tasked with bringing water from the river. (Photo: Annie Risemberg, The New Traditional)
So far, Djenné and its mosque have been spared, but the security situation in the region continues to deteriorate, and more frequent attacks are being carried out in Djenné’s orbit. “We knew that the militants were getting closer to Djenné,” says town chief Sidi Yéya Maiga at his home the day before the crépissage. This year the town council even took the extraordinary step of debating whether or not to cancel their cherished tradition.
In an act of collective resistance, they decided the show must go on. On the day before the crépissage, Nouhoum Touré, the master among Djenné’s 250 masons, heads down to the riverbank to check on the mud that has been left to soak for 20 days.
The crépissage is the most important event in Mali. (Photo: Annie Risemberg, The New Traditional)
It’s the height of the dry season, and the river has shrunk to shallow puddles and inlets. The round pools that store clay until it’s time for the crépissage look like pockmarks on the riverbed. The mud comes from further down the river and is transported here by trucks and donkey carts. Younger masons then break the blocks into smaller chunks and mix them with water. In the final stages, rice husks are added to the mud, turning it into a soft and sticky paste. The rice works like a glue, holding the mud together and keeping it from cracking as it dries. The young masons then carry the mixture, in wicker baskets, to pits in front of the mosque in preparation for the event.
Early in the morning on the long-awaited day of the crépissage, Djenné’s residents gather by the mosque and wait for Touré to smear the first blob of mud on the wall. This is the starting gun.
There is a roar from the crowd as dozens of young men—some masons, some apprentices—run to the mosque. Smaller groups of boys raise wooden ladders against the mosque wall. Carrying wicker baskets full of dripping-wet clay from the pits next to the mosque, the young men begin scrambling up the façade, using ladders to reach the wooden poles protruding from the walls. Perching perilously on the wooden scaffolding, they pick up large blobs of clay and smear them on the walls.
The Djenné mosque the day before the crépissage. (Photo: Annie Risemberg, The New Traditional)
Nientao, the mosque’s guardian, weaves through the crowd, his pockets filled with sweets for the workers. Thousands of muddy feet trample the paths around the mosque. As the sun begins to rise over Djenné, turning shapeless shadows into dark silhouettes, a group of boys and masons tackle the minarets from the roof of the mosque.
Four hours later, the morning sun shines on the newly plastered mosque. Dark, wet clay patches on the dried mud give it a sickly look. Touré is covered in mud all the way from his plastic sandals, which have miraculously stayed on his feet, to the top of his turban. “I think we did very well,” he says, sitting in the shade of the mosque. “Normally, we re-mud the mosque over two days. This time we managed to get it done in only one day.”
Residents carrying mud, from pits to the mosque ahead of the crépissage. (Photo: Annie Risemberg, The New Traditional)
A little later, there is a crack as the loudspeakers come on, then the sound of Djenné’s mayor, Balfine Yaro, clearing his throat. Everyone looks on in silence as he makes his way to the front of the crowd. He declares Djenneka Raws the winning team. Djelika Kantao and Yoboucaïna have prevailed. For the winners, there is pride, honor, and a cash prize of 50,000 West African francs, or about $90 (€80). “With the money,” says Kantao, beaming with pride, “I will buy new solar panels for the neighborhood, so we no longer have to live in darkness.”
Delve into a world of traditions being kept alive unique individuals through The New Traditional. This story and images are featured in the book.
Around 3,300 years ago, the port city of Ugarit was a vibrant urban centre, located strategically on the overland network linking Egypt with Asia Minor and on the route between Persia and India in the east and Greece and Cyprus in the west. The city’s origins date back to 3000BC and the first alphabet and alphabetic writing system are believed to have developed there in the 14th century BC.
Today Ugarit is a Bronze Age archaeological site in northwest Syria, first excavated in 1929. It can tell us a huge amount about the past, but Ugarit is also a place in its own right. The conservation of the site needs to help us understand the site’s history, as well as preserving and restoring what remains. Our work on virtual reality and reconstruction can meet both these goals.
Although only 30% of Ugarit has been excavated, the discovered areas give clues about the organisation of the city. The buildings include royal palaces, large houses, tombs, sanctuaries, public buildings and temples. Ugarit’s golden age was between the 14th and 12th century BC, and the excavated ruins show that interesting political, social and economic evolution took place in the city.
The royal area shows evidence of a developed political system, with complex defensive architecture and a well-structured palace. Domestic areas reveal important information about the Ugaritic people’s everyday life and their veneration of the dead. However, the structures are in a ruined condition and some are deteriorating, thanks to being exposed for more than 90 years with only minimal maintenance and repair work.
A shift toward using virtual technologies as preservation methods to document historic sites and provide educational opportunities has taken place in recent years. This prevents misguided architectural conservation, which can damage a site.
Augmented reality can project reconstructions onto archaeological ruins, such as at the medieval village of Ename in Belgium. Elsewhere, virtual reconstruction has produced 3D textured models, including of the “Sala dello Scrutinio” at the Doges’ Palace in Venice.
We have used computer-aided design modelling to test out conservation options for Ugarit and to investigate the effects of possible conservation interventions on the ruins. This led to changes in design concepts and materials to better fit the aims of the conservation.
Preserving a sacred route
Excavations have revealed a key sacred route that linked the Royal Palace with the main Temple of Baal and passed through public areas of Ugarit. Researchers believe that the king followed this sacred path to practice cult sacrifices at the temple.
The route contains important tangible elements, such as the remains of the palace, houses, and the temple, for example. But the conservation strategy also intends to reconstruct the intangible aspects of the route – the monumental fortifications, the scale of the temple, and the experience of walking the sacred path, all of which cannot be easily grasped from the remaining ruins.
Virtual reconstruction is an effective tool to assess these proposals and judge their ability to protect the ruins, as well as revealing intangible aspects, such as the atmosphere of a street, which are lost to time. We have developed virtual tours which create an opportunity for screen displays to be installed on the site before the actual proposal is implemented.
These virtual tours include an area of the site that historically featured a plaza and tavern. Here the conservation approach includes the creation of a social and entertaining hub. This will allow the urban environment of the plaza and the dim and cosy interior of the tavern to be restored.
The tours provide reliable evidence for the second stage of the conservation proposal, the design stage and community consultation. However, the political situation in Syria has put the consultation process on hold.
This political situation also means that it is not possible to visit Ugarit at the moment – a position shared by hundreds of archaeological sites around the world. So the virtual reconstructions serve another purpose: they allow those interested a glimpse of this fascinating city and provide an opportunity to raise awareness of the site’s cultural importance with an international audience.
In an attempt to develop Tahrir Square and to show the whole world Egypt’s unique civilisation, eight blocks of one of Ramses II’s obelisks, found in his temple at San Al-Haggar archaeological site in Zagazig, arrived in Cairo on Friday.
They will be restored, assembled and erected in Tahrir Square.
Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said that the transportation of the parts of the obelisk was carried out under tight security by the tourism and antiquities police, within the framework of the government’s plan to beautify and develop Tahrir Square as part of the Historic Cairo Development project.
The obelisk is carved in red granite and decorated with scenes depicting Ramses II standing before the gods with his different titles written alongside. After restoration and assembly, the obelisk will be 17 metres tall and weight 90 tonnes.
Mohamed Al-Saeidy, director of the SCA’s Technical Office, said that the antiquities ministry completed the first phase of the development project at San Al-Haggar archaeological site last September.
A collection of two obelisks, two colossi and two columns from the temple of Ramses II were restored, assembled and re-erected in their original location.
Now, he continued, the ministry has started the second phase of the project, which aims to restore, assemble and re-erect more obelisks, colossi and columns.
In collaboration with the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo (IFAO), the antiquities ministry has recently launched a project to upgrade the facilities and services provided to the site’s visitors, including the establishment of a visitor centre, the installation of signage, and the development of a website for the site.
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey has started filling a huge hydroelectric dam on the Tigris river, a lawmaker and activists said, despite protests that it will displace thousands of people and risks creating water shortages downstream in Iraq.
Citing satellite images, they said that water was starting to build up behind the Ilisu dam, a project that has been decades in the making and which aims to generate 1,200 megawatts of electricity for southeast Turkey.
Turkish officials have not commented on work at the dam. Turkey’s State Hydraulic Works (DSI), which oversees dam projects, referred questions to the Presidency, and the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry was not available to comment.
However, President Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this year that Turkey would start filling the Ilisu dam in June, a year after it briefly held backwater before backing down following complaints from Iraq about reduced water flows in mid-summer.
The dam, which first gained Turkish government approval in 1997, is a key part of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project, designed to improve its poorest and least developed region.
Iraq says the dam will create water shortages by reducing flows in one of two rivers which the country depends on for much of its supplies. Around 70% of Iraq’s water supplies flow from neighboring countries, especially via the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which run through Turkey.
Satellite images from the past two weeks show the dam has started holding water, said Necdet Ipekyuz, a lawmaker from Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). He said a road in the area has already been submerged.
“They are taking steps slowly to decrease the reactions to water being held. That is why they are not informing the public,” he said, adding that several HDP lawmakers tried to visit the dam in July but were prevented by police.
Environmental campaigners have unsuccessfully challenged the dam project at the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds it would damage the country’s cultural heritage.
The rising waters of the dam are also expected to eventually submerge the 12,000-year-old town of Hasankeyf. Residents are being moved from the ancient town to a “New Hasankeyf” nearby, while historic artefacts have also been transported out of the area.
A group of NGOs, lawmakers and labor unions shared satellite images of the dam showing the increase in water levels between July 19-29.
“The current situation is strengthening the idea that the valves have been closed permanently,” the group, known as Hasankeyf Coordination, said in a statement.
“Because the dam lake is growing every day, the people who live in these areas are worried. They cannot know when the water will reach their residential or agricultural areas.”
The Iraqi government said in a statement that Turkish and Iraqi officials had discussed the water resources of the two rivers in Baghdad on Wednesday to see how they could “serve the interests of both countries”.
Turkey proposed setting up a joint research center in Baghdad for water management and to work together on some agriculture plantations in Iraq, as well as projects for development of drinking water infrastructure. FILE PHOTO: The Tigris river flows through the ancient town of Hasankeyf, which will be significantly submerged by the Ilisu dam being constructed, in southeastern Turkey, August 26, 2018. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar
The European Court of Human Rights in February dismissed the case brought by environmental campaigners to block the dam project, saying heritage protection is the responsibility of Turkish authorities and it had no jurisdiction.
The government needs to make an announcement, even if the dam were being filled for a trial run, said HDP’s Ipekyuz. “They are trying to tie a belt around the Tigris river’s neck and suffocate it,” he said.
Additional reporting by John Davison and Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; Editing by Dominic Evans and Susan Fenton
RUINS OF BABYLON, Iraq (Reuters) – The ancient city of Babylon, first referenced in a clay tablet from the 23rd century B.C., was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Friday, after a vote that followed decades of lobbying by Iraq.
The vote, at a UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, made the ancient Mesopotamian city on the Euphrates River the sixth world heritage site within the borders of a country known as a cradle of civilization.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said the city, now an archaeological ruin, was returned to its “rightful place” in history after years of neglect by previous leaders.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also welcomed the news.
“Mesopotamia is truly the pillar of humanity’s memory and the cradle of civilization in recorded history,” he said.
The government said it would allocate funds to maintain and boost conservation efforts.
Babylon, about 85 kilometers (55 miles) south of Baghdad, was once the center of a sprawling empire, renowned for its towers and mudbrick temples. Its hanging gardens were one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar II.
Visitors can stroll through the remnants of the brick and clay structures which stretch across 10 square kilometers, and see the famed Lion of Babylon statue, as well as large portions of the original Ishtar Gate.
As the sun began to set on the crumbling ruins, activists and residents flocked to the replica Ishtar gate at the site’s entrance to celebrate what they called a historic moment.
“This is very important, because Babylon will now be a protected site,” said Marina al-Khafaji, a local who was hopeful the designation would boost tourism and the local economy.
It would allow for further exploration and research, said Makki Mohammad Farhoud, 53, a tour guide at the site for more than 25 years, noting that only 18% of it had been excavated.
“Babylon is the blood that runs through my veins, I love it more than I love my children,” he said.
DECADES OF NEGLECT
Excavations of what was once the largest city in the world, began in the early 19th century by European archaeologists, who removed many artifacts.
In the 1970s, under President Saddam Hussein’s restoration project, the southern palace’s walls and arches were shoddily rebuilt on top of the existing ruins, causing widespread damage.
This was exacerbated during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when U.S. and Polish troops stationed nearby built their military base on top of the Babylonian ruins.
Many inscriptions written by soldiers can still be seen on the ancient bricks.
The site is in dire need of conservation, Farhoud said. Unlike three other World Heritage sites in Iraq, UNESCO did not designate Babylon as one in “in danger” after objections from the Iraqi delegation.
Iraq is replete with thousands of archaeological sites, many of which were heavily damaged or pillaged by Islamic State during its barbaric three-year-rule which ended in 2017.
The other five World Heritage Sites are the southern marshlands, Hatra, Samarra, Ashur and the citadel in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.
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