[This entry provides a broad survey of the history of the Arabian Peninsula as known primarily from archaeological discoveries. It is chronologically divided into three articles:

In addition to the related articles on specific countries, subregions, and sites referred to in this entry, see History of the Field, article on Archaeology in the Arabian Peninsula.]

The Arabian Peninsula in Prehistoric Times

The earliest hominoid finds from the Arabian Peninsula are fossil remains of dryopithecine type recovered in northeastern Saudi Arabia and dated to the Lower Miocene (c. seventeen–fourteen million years BCE). Eastern Arabia must have been a relatively lush environment then, for the fossil record contains evidence for the presence of various members of the giraffe, bovine, pig, crocodile, and rhinoceros families. A great quantity of important fossil remains has also recently been discovered in western Abu Dhabi, but thus far no remains of hominoids. The earliest traces of artifactual remains, possibly of hominid origin, come from a site north of Hail in Saudi Arabia, where a pre-Acheulean industry, thought to be related to Oldowan B in East Africa, has been identified. Much of northern, western, and south-western Arabia, in what is geologically part of the Arabian shield formation, has yielded remains of Lower Pleistocene date (c. 1.2 million–100,000 BP), where a population using a variety of Lower, Middle, and Upper Acheulean industries lived. Typical Acheulean handaxes, bifaces, chopping tools, and flakes have been found throughout this region. The Middle Pleistocene is equally, if not better represented by sites with Middle Paleolithic tools of Mousterian or Mousterian of Acheulean tradition, dating to about 75,000–30,000 BP. Sites in the Rub al-Khali were recently studied that contain an industry typologically related to the Aterian of North Africa, and that probably date to about 35,000–20,000 BP. The existence of human occupation in presently desertic areas such as this was made possible by considerably moister conditions during the Late Pleistocene, probably as a result of a northward displacement of the monsoon at that time. The Rub al-Khali was an area of savannahlike grassland then.

It is noteworthy, however, that Upper Paleolithic remains of Late Pleistocene date are rare in northern Arabia. No evidence of Lower, Middle, or Upper Paleolithic industries has yet been recovered anywhere on the Arabian shelf—that is, in eastern Arabia (Oman included), where the earliest industries found date to about 5000 BCE. Sites dating to this period were first identified in Qatar, where they were assigned to the so-called Qatar B group. More recently, contemporary and, to a limited extent, typologically related sites belonging to the Wadi Wutayya facies have been found on the coast of Oman. The blade arrowheads that characterize the Qatar sites show a clear affinity to Levantine types. This suggests that the southward spread of pastoral groups from the Levant, via northern Arabia, may have occurred then, perhaps coinciding with what has been described as an early/mid-Holocene “climatic optimum” in the region. Moister conditions throughout eastern Arabia probably prevailed through the fifth millennium, when a veritable explosion in the number of late prehistoric sites belonging to the “Arabian bifacial tradition” (i.e., characterized by stone tools flaked with fine retouch on two sides) occurred. Fine pressure flaking, and the use of tanged and/or barbed arrow-heads in northeastern Arabia, Qatar, the Rub al-Khali, Yemen, and the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are common features, whereas arrowheads are absent on the coast of Oman proper in the so-called Saruq facies.

In spite of the fact that the prominence of the arrowhead in their tool kit might argue otherwise, the bearers of this culture were not exclusively or even primarily hunters. Sites in eastern Arabia of this period routinely contain remains of domesticated sheep and goat, neither of which was, in its wild state, native to the region. (They may have been introduced by those Levantine/North Arabian immigrants who brought with them the blade-arrowhead technology of the Qatar B sites.) Moreover, the coastal sites always show evidence for extensive shellfish gathering as well as fishing, routinely yielding ovoid and subrectangular stone crushing platforms, often deeply pitted in the center, that were probably used, together with a particular kind of stone chisel, to open shellfish. Various forms of net sinkers are also common on these sites. Thus, sites of the Arabian bifacial tradition probably represent the remains of pastoralists who moved seasonally between the coast, where they did some shellfish gathering and fishing, and the interior, where they could graze their herds during the winter. Hunting was an option and helped to conserve their herds (perhaps used principally for milk products, hair, and fleece) by providing another source of protein. [See Pastoral Nomadism; Sheep and Goats; Fishing; Hunting.]

Some of the coastal Arabian bifacial sites in Saudi Arabia, Qatar (Qatar groups A, C, D), Bahrain, and the UAE have also yielded small amounts of imported Mesopotamian pottery of Ubaid 3–4 type. Those sherds that have been analyzed come almost certainly from Ur and al-῾Ubaid in southern Iraq, presumably from vessels traded to the local inhabitants by Mesopotamians in return for local products, perhaps pearls, dried fish, and copper. It appears, however, that this contact did not lead to the birth of an indigenous ceramic tradition in eastern Arabia. Some sites in eastern Saudi Arabia on which painted Ubaid sherds have been found also contained examples of a coarse, red, chaff-tempered pottery; however, as this tends not to occur on sites without the imported ware, it would not seem to be an indigenous product. Certainly there is no indication of an evolution of local ceramic technology postdating the period of Ubaid contact with the area. [See Ur; Ubaid.]

The archaeological record of Oman, northeastern Arabia, and Yemen shows conclusively that sites of the Arabian bifacial tradition continued to exist right down to the third millennium. The latest sites of this type on the coast of Oman (Bandar Jissa facies), although aceramic, do contain small amounts of copper or bronze but would never be classified as Bronze Age sites. Thus, the users of the Arabian bifacial tradition presumably represent a segment of the local population that coexisted with those other, sedentary groups, yet did not move down a social evolutionary path leading ultimately toward a complex, “Bronze Age” way of life. To what extent the Arabian bifacial groups were part-time agriculturalists is an open question. Some sites in the desertic regions of eastern Saudi Arabia have yielded grinding stones, though these need not have been used to grind domesticated cereals. The site of Ras al-Hamra 5, on the coast of Oman near Muscat, may have the earliest evidence of domesticated sorghum—during the fourth millennium—but this was recently disputed. At Hili 8, in the interior of Abu Dhabi, domesticated cereals and dates are present by about 3100 BCE, along with domesticated sheep, goats, and cattle; however, the origins of the cereals (the date [i.e., datepalm] was indigenous) is unknown.

[See also Agriculture; Cereals; Kuwait; Oman; Qatar; United Arab Emirates; and Yemen.]

Bibliography

  • Amirkhanov, Khizri A. Paleolit Iuga Aravii (The Paleolithic in South Arabia). Moscow, 1991. The most extensive account of the subject ever written, with an English summary.
  • Andrews, Peter, et al. “Dryopithecines from the Miocene of Saudi Arabia.” Nature 274 (1978): 249–251.
  • Di Mario, Francesco. “A New Lithic Inventory from Arabian Peninsula: The North Yemen Industry in Bronze Age.” Oriens Antiquus 26 (1987): 89–107. To be read in conjunction with the article by Uerpmann (below) for lithic facies of the Bronze Age.
  • Di Mario, Francesco. “The Western ar-Rub' al-Khali ‘Neolithic’: New Data from the Ramlat Sab῾atayn (Yemen Arab Republic).” Annali dell'Istituto Orientale di Napoli 49 (1989): 109–148. The most recent statement on the western Rub al-Khali Neolithic.
  • Edens, Christopher. “The Rub al-Khali ‘Neolithic’ Revisited: The View from Nadqan.” In Araby the Blest: Studies in Arabian Archaeology, edited by Daniel T. Potts, pp. 15–43. Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publication, 7. Copenhagen, 1988. Comprehensive study of the Late Prehistoric stone-tool assemblages from the Rub al-Khali; an excellent bibliography refers to earlier works on the subject.
  • Inizan, Marie-Louise. Préhistoire à Qatar. Mission Archéologique Française à Qatar, vol. 2. Paris, 1980. Final publication of the work of the French mission under Jacques Tixier on the Qatar peninsula. Supersedes all earlier publications on the prehistory of Qatar by the Danish, British, and French missions.
  • Inizan, Marie-Louise, and Luc Ortlieb. “Préhistoire dans la région de Shabwa au Yemen du sud (R.D.P. Yemen).” Paléorient 13.1 (1987): 5–22.
  • McClure, Harold A. “Late Quaternary Palaeogeography and Landscape Evolution of the Rub῾ al-Khali.” In Araby the Blest: Studies in Arabian Archaeology, edited by Daniel T. Potts, pp. 9–13. Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publication, 7. Copenhagen, 1988. Brief survey of the environmental history of the Rub al-Khali in the period 35,000–20,000 BCE.
  • Potts, Daniel T. The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity. Vol. 1. Oxford, 1990. The entire prehistoric record of eastern Arabia, from the earliest hominoid finds through the late prehistoric period.
  • Tosi, Maurizio. “The Emerging Picture of Prehistoric Arabia.” Annual Review of Anthropology 15 (1986): 461–490. Synthetic look at the peninsula in prehistory, emphasizing processes of cultural evolution.
  • Uerpmann, Margarethe. “Structuring the Late Stone Age of Southeastern Arabia.” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 3 (1992): 65–109. The first comprehensive presentation of the late prehistoric stone-tool assemblages on the Oman peninsula.

Daniel T. Potts