Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on

Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on

Hager Harabech elaborates in Phys.Org how Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on.

13 January 2021

Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on
Egypt's Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser: the building of the dam was spearheaded in the early 1950s by charismatic pan-Arabist pr
Egypt’s Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser: the building of the dam was spearheaded in the early 1950s by charismatic pan-Arabist president Gamal Abdel Nasser

Half a century since Egypt’s ground-breaking Aswan dam was inaugurated with much fanfare, harnessing the Nile for hydropower and irrigation, the giant barrier is still criticised for its human and environmental toll.

It is also a stark reminder—amid high tensions today as Addis Ababa fills its colossal Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) upstream—of just how volatile politics over the life-giving, but finite, Nile water resources can be.

The Aswan High Dam was spearheaded in the early 1950s by charismatic pan-Arabist president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Egypt, where the river provides some 97 percent of water for more than 100 million people, is the final section of the Nile’s 6,650-kilometre (4,130-mile), 10-nation journey to the Mediterranean.

For millennia, the North African country was at the mercy of the seasonal rise and fall of the river, dependent on the rainfall in nations far upstream.

But the 111-metre-high and 3.6-kilometre-wide Aswan High Dam, dwarfing the far smaller Aswan Low Dam built under British rule in 1902, crucially gave Cairo power to regulate the flow.

Water power

It was a “very important hydro-political act”, said geographer and author Habib Ayeb, a Nile expert who has taught at universities in Cairo and Paris.

Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on
An Egyptian 'felucca' sailing boat on the Nile at Aswan; before the dam was built, Egypt was for millennia at the mercy of the s
An Egyptian ‘felucca’ sailing boat on the Nile at Aswan; before the dam was built, Egypt was for millennia at the mercy of the seasonal rise and fall of the river

The dam was inaugurated on January 15, 1971, three months after Nasser’s death, by his successor Anwar al-Sadat.

For the first time, “an Egyptian president decided to manage the Nile within Egypt”, to develop agriculture and the economy in the country, Ayeb added.

For Egypt, an otherwise desert nation where 97 percent of the population lives along the green and fertile Nile banks, the dam revolutionised its relationship with the land.

“The dam offered a reprieve to Egyptians by giving them enough water… and protecting them from the hazards of floods, which could be absolutely catastrophic,” said Ayeb.

It also brought electricity to much of the country, a move Nasser said was key to developing the nation.

Abdel Hakim Hassanein, who overlooks the river from his home close to the dam, some 700 kilometres south of Cairo, praised its construction.

“We didn’t have electricity before, we used oil lamps,” the 68-year-old said, adding that work at the dem remains a key source of local jobs.

Ethiopia, the second most populous nation in Africa, today uses similar arguments, saying its 145-metre (475-foot) GERD Blue Nile barrier—set to be Africa’s largest hydro-electric dam—is vital to provide power for its 110 million people.

But Egypt, with the Arab world’s largest population, sees the GERD as an existential threat.

Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on
The Aswan dam created the vast Lake Nasser, which flooded the homeland of Egypt's Nubian people, forcing tens of thousands of le
The Aswan dam created the vast Lake Nasser, which flooded the homeland of Egypt’s Nubian people, forcing tens of thousands of leave
‘Belly of the desert’

In the 1960s, many Egyptians also saw the Aswan dam as a threat to their lives—in a different way.

The lake behind the dam flooded the homeland of Egypt’s Nubian people, forcing tens of thousands to leave.

“For the Nubians, the High Dam is a symbol of oppression,” said rights activist Fawzi Gayer. “It wiped out a civilisation.”

Gayer was born just after his family was relocated to a dusty town its Nubian residents call Abu Simbel “Displacement”.

“We’re talking about a community with a Nilotic identity that breathes the Nile… and we have been thrown into the belly of the desert,” said Gayer.

“The elderly died of shock.”

The Nubians’ long-running demand for a “right of return” was included in the 2014 constitution, but their lands have been swallowed by the 355-kilometre-long Lake Nasser, which stretches south into Sudan.

Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on
The Ramses II Temple at the archeological site of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt; the three-millenia old temples were moved in a g
The Ramses II Temple at the archeological site of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt; the three-millenia old temples were moved in a giant rescue mission before they were drowned by rising waters in Lake Nasser

It was not only people who had to move; the waters threatened to drown the three-millenium-old Pharaonic temples at Abu Simbel, kickstarting a massive UNESCO-led rescue mission that took eight years.

The ancient complex, including giant stone carved statues, was dismantled and moved to a new location, in one of the world’s biggest archaeological rescue operations.

There were environmental consequences too.

The creation of the giant lake also upset the river’s delicate ecosystem, holding back the fertile silt deposits, causing erosion and increasing use of chemical fertilisers.

‘Political bomb’

For Ayeb, the dam also “proved to be a political bomb”.

In building Aswan, Egypt and Sudan agreed a Nile water sharing deal, but did not include any other upstream nations, including Ethiopia.

“It created the foundations for the break-up of the Nile basin as a framework for a common good,” said Ayeb.

Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on
The colossal statues of a seated Ramses II at the entrance of Abu Simbel archaeological site, rescued from the waters of the res
The colossal statues of a seated Ramses II at the entrance of Abu Simbel archaeological site, rescued from the waters of the reservoir behind the Aswan Dam

Today, Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum are mired in long-running fractious talks over the filling and operation of the GERD dam.

But, according to Ayeb, the critical challenge for Egypt is the management of the water it gets at present.

“Even if Ethiopia stopped its dam, there wouldn’t be enough water,” he said, arguing Egypt should halt desert irrigation—where nearly half the water is lost by evaporation—and stop agricultural exports.

Ayeb believes Cairo needs a new water and agricultural policy entirely.

“Egypt must change everything,” he said.

Explore further in Looming crisis of the much decreased fresh-water supply to Egypt’s Nile delta

A Backpacker in Search of Glory near his Land

A Backpacker in Search of Glory near his Land

That is the story of the Dakar 2021 where a certain Al-Attiyah, a backpacker in search of glory near his land. The Dakar Rally 2021 route, features about 5,000 kilometres made up of 12 stages. Despite months of uncertainty mainly due to the pandemic, this 43rd edition is the second to be held in Saudi Arabia. It will start on 3 January from Jeddah and finish on 15 January in the same place. Nasser Al-Attiyah, a native of Qatar, is the favourite candidate to take the top prize. Here is his story as told by the France 24 television edition of today.

2 January 2021

Dakar 2021: Al-Attiyah, backpacker in search of glory near his land

Qatari Toyota driver Nasser Al-Attiyah during a technical check on January 1, 2021 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before the start of the 2021 Dakar
Qatari Toyota driver Nasser Al-Attiyah during a technical check on January 1, 2021 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before the start of the 2021 Dakar FRANCK FIFE AFP

Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) (AFP)

He knew the Dakar when he still arrived in the capital of Senegal and signed his three victories in the famous rally-raid in South America, but Nasser Al-Attiyah still has a dream: to win in Saudi Arabia, in the environment of the Gulf countries that he knows so well.

At 50, the Qatari driver is taking part at the wheel of his Toyota Hilux from Sunday in his 17th edition of the Dakar.

And it is an understatement to say that Al-Attiyah loves the Dakar: since his first participation in 2004, he has posted a worse result, when he did not give up, a 10th place, precisely for his debut in the rally-raid. who was still arguing in Africa.

Since then, he has entered his name on the charts three times (2011, 2015, 2019) with three different cars, and has won at least one stage per edition without stopping since … 2007 for a total of 35 successes!

But Al-Attiyah remains by his own admission on “a big disappointment”: he nevertheless finished 2nd in the 2020 edition, behind the Spaniard Carlos Sainz (Mini), but for the start of the Dakar in the Saudi desert, he was another goal was set.

“It was great to be in a new region with incredible landscapes and above all, we were very confident, but from the start of the rally, we started to have punctures. In all, I suffered eleven punctures”, he recalled on the official Dakar 2021 website.

– 150 km of cycling –

The tire problems, used until then for South America, resolved, “NAA” has also adapted its physical preparation.

While he focused on endurance, adapted to low oxygen levels at high altitude in South America, he worked his muscle building to tame the dunes of the Saudi desert on the program of the twelve stages of this Dakar 2021. until January 15.

“I adopted a different physical program which focuses on building muscle,” he told AFP.

With his co-driver since 2015, Frenchman Matthieu Baumel, “we train according to the countries where the Dakar takes place”, underlined the driver born in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

“The program varies between cycling 100 to 150 kilometers per day, running or other exercises,” said the man who is nicknamed “Superman” in his country.

With the confinement imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the champion had to adapt.

– “Dance on the dunes” –

“I have a simulator at home and a gym that kept me in the rally spirit,” he explained.

Al-Attiyah is a symbol of the rise on the international scene of Qatar, a small emirate of the Arabian Peninsula that has become in a few decades an essential name in the field of sport in particular.

Before training in the gigantic and luxurious Aspire sports complex in Doha, Al-Attiyah experienced difficulties in his youth in financing his ambitions to become a great racing driver.

The one who is said to “dance on the sand dunes” has forged an impressive track record in rally as well as in rally-raid: he has been 16 times Middle Eastern champion, WRC2 world champion or four times winner. of the World Cup off-road rallies.

He also shone at the Olympic Games, shotgun in hand, to finish 4th in the skeet event at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and 3rd at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

While waiting for a new Olympic challenge in Tokyo this summer, Al-Attiyah is aiming for a fourth coronation on the Dakar. Everything is looking good: in October he won the Andalusia rally and his car will be struck with the number 301, just like in his successes in 2015 and 2019.

© 2021 AFP

Regreening the Desert

Regreening the Desert

Regreening the Desert would be the ultimate call for action from John D. Liu. Could it be addressed to the MENA region leaders, as part of seeming to be a universal appeal to try and redress the planet’s sad situation?

Can we in the meantime think of a “reforestation campaign” amid a coronavirus crisis? Yes, we can think of everything, since life carries on despite all that is going on.
It would be the height of giving up life on the pretext that we are fighting death! Isn’t the tree life?
Is there a relationship between reforestation and Covid-19? Certainly not, otherwise, it could be felt like a high contortion. But there is undoubtedly a relationship between the tree and life. It’s even excellent that one. There is oxygen, and there is wood, there is chlorophyll, there is shade, there is the fruit, there are colours and certainly other things that ordinary people cannot know.
But do we have the heart to plant plane trees, carob trees and Aleppo pines when the “atmosphere” is to the maddening figures of contamination, the disturbing ambient nonchalance and the not very reassuring news that come to us from the hospitals? Yes, you can plant trees all the time, anywhere. Anyway here is John’s .

“Deserts are advancing and water is becoming scarce. It all seems hopeless… But one man has discovered how to make deserts green and our planet healthy again.”

“It is possible to rehabilitate large scale damaged ecosystems… Why don’t we do that?”

– John D. Liu

John D. Liu filmed Hope in a Changing Climate, following the Loess-plateau in China where local people redeveloped the land from a terribly damaged area into a functioning ecosystem. This documentary follows Liu explain what he’s learned and what he thinks we should do to revitalize ecosystems.

The process looks something like this:

  • Setting aside land for natural vegetation to return
  • Exclude grazing in the first 3 years.
  • Wait for native plants to return to the land.
  • Allow the microbial communities to grow within the habitat.
  • Encourage more organic matter, more biomass and more biodiversity.

“We need to redefine and revalue our belief systems. Money is a belief system. There’s nothing wrong with money, as it turns out. The problem is – what is money based on? If money is based on functional ecosystems, then the future will be beautiful. If money continues to be based on the production and consumption of goods and services we’ll turn everything into a desert.”


Updated on Sunday 22 November 2020

Climate Change Devastates the Sahel

Climate Change Devastates the Sahel

OrientXXI ENVIRONMENT in Torrential rains and persistent drought making it that Climate Change Devastates the Sahel by RÉMI CARAYOL, Journalist could well be another stone in the path towards full awareness of our common destiny all the world over. The trend might as well impact the bordering MENA region to the north amongst the first. There is no definite borderline but only a vast desert space that split Africa’s peoples for millennia and that would not prevent the devastating effects of what is reported here to reach the Mediterranean.

22 September 2020

Translated from French by Noël Burch.

The Sahel is a region made increasingly arid by the encroaching desert and yet it must deal periodically with devastating floods. A double bind with many causes.

Climate Change Devastates the Sahel
Niamey, 27 August 2020, Kirkissoye district Boureima Hama/AFP

A man wading across an expanse of water carrying a mattress on his head. A woman piling onto a makeshift rowboat the pots and pans she has been able to rescue. Youths hastily trying to mount a sand dike in front of half-destroyed mud huts… For the past few years, these and similar pictures have become commonplace in the Sahel. Recently, on the social networks, we even saw an SUV dragged miraculously out of the water at the end of a cable while a crowd cheered.

At odds with what has been for years the region’s customary image—an increasingly parched savannah as the desert pursues its advance and where there is a penury of everything, especially water—the Sahel is now regularly devastated by severe flooding. Rainfall, vitally important for millions of farmers and livestock breeders, is not always impatiently awaited. Quite the contrary. In the bigger towns especially, everyone knows it will be coming sometime around the end of August or the beginning of September and will bring about huge rises in river levels and tragic flooding that will cause enormous damage and plunge thousands of families into mourning. “Every year it’s the same thing, there’s water everywhere. But what can we do?” Ali laments. He lives in Lamordé, a neighbourhood in Niamey, flooded again by the waters of the Niger at the beginning of September and who had to send his family to stay with friends while he cleaned his house.


The capital of Niger was especially hard hit this year. Several neighbourhoods were flooded, including those on the right bank where the university is located, when a dam burst under the pressure of the river water. By 7 September, the authorities had counted no less than 65 deaths (14 by drowning), 32,000 collapsed houses, some 330,000 homeless and thousands of acres of crops destroyed all over the country.

Another country that has greatly suffered this year is Sudan, where some hundreds have died, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Nearly 71,000 houses were destroyed and over 720,000 people are homeless, victims of heavy rainfall (in the West) and the rise of the level of the Nile (in the East). In that country, where a state of national emergency has been declared for a period of three months, it is thought that these floods are the worst since 1946. The government has announced that the level of the Nile has reached 17.43 metres, the highest ever recorded in the last century.

Torrential rains have also fallen on Burkina Faso, where a state of national disaster was decreed on 9 September, when there had already been 13 dead; on Nigeria, where over 30 people died; on Chad, on Mauritania as well as on Senegal, where the capital, Dakar, was especially hard hit. In a single day, 5 September, more water fell on the city than during the three months of what is described as a “normal” rainy season. According to the OCHA, nearly 760,000 people have been affected by the flooding which has hit West Africa and a part of Central Africa over the past few weeks.

What shocked everyone ten years ago is no longer surprising today. “We finally got used to it,” observes our Ali, the Nigerien quoted earlier. “Today we’ve learned to live with it.” In 2019, torrential rains affected over a million people in eleven sub-Saharan countries. In most of the Sahelian countries, flooding has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years, especially in the big cities: Niamey in 2010, 20121, 2013, 2016, 2017; Ouagadougou in 2009, 2012 and 2015…

On 1 September 2009, an unprecedented 263 millimetres of rain fell on the Burkinese capital in a matter of 12 hours. Eleven years later, the people of the city still remember that. The reservoirs overflowed. Forty-five districts were flooded and at least 125,000 people lost their homes. “My wife and I had only just time to scoop up our boy and run. It happened so quickly. The water rose by a metre and a half, the house collapsed,” a survivor named Antoine recounted a few years ago. He had been provided with downtown lodgings by the public authorities. On that same day, 1 September 2009, a very violent rainstorm hit northern Niger, in the middle of the desert, causing a big rise in the level of the wadi Teloua which flooded the city of Agadez causing enormous damage (3 dead, 80,000 homeless, devastated crops).


How can we explain that water is causing so much damage in a region known to be beset by drought and threatened by the encroaching desert? Global warming immediately comes to mind. “Global warming is affecting West Africa more than other regions with a rise of 1.2° Celsius as against an average of 0.7° elsewhere. And the result seems to be an intensification of heavy rainfall episodes”, the French National Research Institute (IRD) observed in 2016. “These episodes are not more frequent than in the past but they are heavier”, says Luc Descroix, director of hydrological research at the IRD, a specialist on the Sahel. “Since 2005, we have established that rainfall in the Sahel is more intense than previously and we believe this is due to global warming. As elsewhere, the phenomenon is producing what are celled ‘extreme events’”.

“This intensification of the hydrological cycle is in keeping with the Claudius-Clapeyron theory, a warmer atmosphere containing more water vapour and thus becoming more explosive”, a group of French scientists wrote two years ago. “It has been observed in other parts of the world, but the Sahel seems to be the area of the African continent where it is most evident”. Thus, the populations of this region are subjected to something akin to double jeopardy. “This climate change has especially serious consequences […] the periods of drought are more severe making crops more uncertain […] and flooding more frequent.”


However, the multiplication of heavy rainfall episodes is not the only explanation for the flooding in recent years of rivers like the Niger or the Nile. Luc Descroix suggests a further factor: the drought episode that impacted the region so heavily in the seventies and eighties: “For 25 to 30 years, sometimes longer, an area of 4 to 5 million km2 had a rainfall deficit of from 15 to 35%. Today we may consider that this drought episode is over because since 1995 [1999 West of the Sahel], the annual rainfall has returned to the levels and year-to-year irregularity of the first half of the 20th century, the fifties and sixties being considered wet decades.” In his Processus et enjeux d’eau en Afrique de l’Ouest soudano-sahélienne (IRD Éditions, 2018), Luc Descroix wrote that “during that period soils became degraded, one speaks of ’soil-crusting”. Thus climate-induced drought was followed by edaphic or soil-induced drought. When the rains came again, after 1994, reaching their 1940 levels, the soils no longer had the capacity to absorb all that water. This brought about an overland flow which caused the flooding of the waterways.”

According to Luc Descroix, the increased overland flow is also tied in with the way farmers have stripped the soil. In his view, the rapid population growth in Niger since the fifties (from 3.2 million in 1960 to 15.4 million in 2015) has had a serious impact on the use of the soils. The spread of crop cultivation, the curtailing of fallow periods has produced much soil-crusting. “The fallow periods, allowing the earth to recover its original properties and especially those involving the infiltration of rainwater, are no longer respected when the population to feed is over 20 to 30 individuals per km2. Today, in some places, the figure is over 100 and the population is still growing at a brisk pace”, the IRD observed in 2016.

What with climate change and galloping demography, local decision makers would appear to have little leeway. And yet some scientists single out their responsibility … or rather their irresponsibility. Take the case of Niamey. True, the Nigerien capital, on account of its topographical location and the silting up of the Niger River observed over the past few years (and due mostly to desertification and deforestation) is especially vulnerable to flooding. But the risk has been aggravated by uncontrolled urbanisation and the lack of efficient drainage structures.

“In Niamey, the water disposal systems are inadequate and sometimes non-existent, precisely in neighbourhoods known to be most exposed to flooding,” says Hamadou Issaka, research fellow at the Niamey Institut de recherches en sciences humaines (IRSH). “Besides which, people settle in flood-prone areas and the authorities don’t lift a finger, all the while knowing the risks involved”. These bad habits were acquired during the long drought, when it was thought the river would never return to its former level.

Yet our Nigerien researcher rejects the notion of “uncontrolled urbanisation.” In his view, “the flood-prone zones are well known and have been mapped”, but the public authorities and traditional elders do nothing to prevent people settling there. In a study published in 2009, Hamadou Issaka pointed out that “in areas liable to flooding, it was easy for poor people to buy land which was not sought after by the wealthy”. He quoted a neighbourhood chief in the capital who explained the situation in these terms2“Every seven years the neighbourhood is flooded. Houses often collapse after these floods. The reason for all that is that these people are fed up with renting houses in town. If someone comes along and even if they are forewarned that this is a flood-prone area, they will say ‘no problem’, what matters for them is finding land where they can build a shelter.”


At regular intervals, people living in flood-prone areas are moved away by the public authorities. But as a former Nigerien Minister of Interior Affairs, who wishes to remain anonymous, pointed out: “when you clear people out, it makes for a lot of tension, because they don’t want to be resettled anywhere else”. “Some people are relocated but they come back despite the risk of losing everything,” Luc Descroix observes.

Various governments have, moreover, undertaken projects to deal with the problem—especially in Niger, Senegal, Burkina—often with the financial and technical backing of donors that have made it one of their priorities. “Increased efforts to prepare for emergencies and anticipate them have been made” noted recently Julie Bélanger, head of OCHA for Central and West Africa. But she also admitted that there is a lack of resources, and “possibly” a lack of real willingness on the part of governments to make the problem an absolute priority.

In Senegal, a controversy arose in the wake of the latest floods. Several homeless people called on the government to honour its promises: what about the drainage systems announced in his last electoral campaign by President Macky Sall and which are still practically non-existent? What about the rehabilitation of the flood zones? What about the 766 billion CFA francs (over 1.06 billion pounds or 1.16 billion dollars) allocated in 2012 to the Ten-Year Program of flood control?

In Niger, authorities have announced the creation of a 372 billion CFA Francs fund (over 519 billion pounds or 671 billion dollars) to relocate the homeless, provide food for them but also to build sanitation facilities and dams in Niamey and other cities across the country. “It’s a good thing, but a bit late,” says Ali ruefully, our homeless contact person from the district of Lamordé. As a teacher, he remembers the day when he and his neighbours were struggling to keep back the river water while the president was hosting in grand style the umpteenth summit of the Economic Community of West-African States (ECOWAS), with sirens screaming across the capital and red carpets rolled out in front of the posh hotels that have sprung up in recent years, and which Issoufou’s backers are so proud of. “With the money used to build those hotels or the new airport, how many culverts could have been laid, or simply used to finance cleaning up the city, how many really solid dams could have been erected?” he wonders. His question is relevant all across the Sahel.


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Earliest Evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula

Earliest Evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula

Prehistoric desert footprints are earliest evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula and are elaborated on by Richard Clark-Wilson, Royal Holloway.

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.

Map of modern day Saudi Arabia.
Key locations for early Homo sapiens outside-of-Africa (red stars). The Nefud Desert is highlighted inside the black rectangle. Google Maps

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.

Faint footprint in yellow rock.
First human footprint discovered at the Alathar ancient lake. © Klint Janulis, Author provided

Fossilised footprints

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.

A man walks across a desert landscape.
Earliest Evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula
Researcher surveying the Alathar ancient lake deposit for footprints. © Palaeodeserts Project, Author provided

High-res history

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.

Animal prints in stone.
Earliest Evidence for Homo sapiens on Arabian Peninsula
Animal fossils eroding out of the surface of the Alathar ancient lake deposit. © Badr Zahrani, Author provided

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.

Richard Clark-Wilson, PhD Candidate in Geography, Royal Holloway

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation