London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Professor Michael Petraglia is Co-Director of the Centre for Asian Art, Archaeology and Culture and a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. He specializes in Palaeolithic archaeology and the evolution of human behavior and cognition. His primary geographic areas of interest are the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and Eastern North America.
Professior Petraglia is currently leading the 5-year long “Paleodeserts Project” (2012-2016) in collaboration with multiple universities and institutions in Saudi Arabia, the UK and Europe, as well as with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. The project will study the effects of environmental change in the Arabian Peninsula over the last two million years. In particular, it will focus on how long-term climate change affected early humans and animals who settled or passed through the region, and what responses determined whether they were able to survive.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Professor Petraglia to discuss his current research project. He revealed why the Arabian Peninsula is such an archaeological source of interest, and why there have been so few studies before in this area. Professor Petraglia also outlined his initial findings, as well as the significance of this research with regards to the issue of climate change in general.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What reasons prompted you to conduct the research in this area specifically?
[Petraglia] When I was based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I was invited to Saudi Arabia in 2001. I spent a couple of months working with the National Museum (Riyadh) staff as a USA Fulbright Fellow. I was interested in traveling to Saudi Arabia to see its prehistoric archaeological sites, as I was interested in the human migration patterns of the past. Arabia provides a critical geographic link between Africa, the Levant, and Southern Asia, but we know little about the early prehistoric record. During my Fulbright fellowship in Saudi Arabia, I learned about the archaeological investigations that had been performed, and I synthesized this information into academic journal papers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When did you start working in this area, and what Saudi agency did you coordinate with in this regard?
[Petraglia] My research between 2001 and 2008 was mainly in the form of synthesizing the archaeological literature of Arabia and examining the records relative to surrounding areas. In 2009, I proposed a project to study some key Palaeolithic sites. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities granted the University of Oxford a five year permit to conduct archaeological studies in Saudi Arabia. Our first field season was in Jubbah, in the Nefud Desert.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What results did you come up with in the beginning, and what is your next research step in this area?
[Petraglia] At Jubbah, we found the remains of an old lake. Upon surveying the palaeo-lake, we found buried archaeological sites, one of which dates to the Middle Palaeolithic period. The site contained distinctive styles of stone tools, and we obtained a date of 75,000 years ago for the occupation. We have now conducted follow up work around the Jubbah palaeo-lake and we have identified additional Middle Palaeolithic sites. This demonstrates that early humans, who were probably hunters and gatherers, were camping along the lake shores. We also reconstructed the lake environment, which showed that some trees and grasslands were present during this wet period.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why do you think this area has largely been ignored by scholars despite its critical location?
[Petraglia] Many archaeologists assumed that archaeological sites in desert environments were not well preserved, and that they could not tell us much about the past because they were eroded. However, new archaeological research indicates that Saudi Arabia contains buried Palaeolithic sites that can tell us much about past human activities.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did you decide to conduct a systematic study of the Pleistocene to Holocene periods specifically?
[Petraglia] We now realize that we can say much about the relationship between climate change and human occupation history in Arabia thanks to finding well preserved sites and deep sediments that show changes in environments. We believe that wet periods in the past would have been ideal for human occupation. However, a major question concerns what happened to people once it got arid? Early foraging peoples without the aid of camels and without the technology to drill deep water wells would have experienced difficult situations once the climate got more arid. Once it got more arid, they may have had to contract to favourable habitats, or else they may have migrated to locate better environmental conditions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is your research going to take a long time? How is the work divided?
[Petraglia] We are involved in a new five year study with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. We will work together as a team over the next five years and we hope that many new discoveries and scientific findings are made throughout Saudi Arabia. Our plan is to examine other palaeo-lakes and archaeological sites in different areas, such as along the Red Sea coast and in the Rub al Khali. This is an international collaboration and partnership that will involve many scientific experts in different disciplines.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your last report, you said that the main emphasis of the research team would be on the wider Arabian Peninsula. Why is that? Have you determined specific areas in Saudi Arabia?
[Petraglia] Saudi Arabia of course represents a significant part of the Arabian Desert hence much of our work can concentrate there. However, we are interested in understanding all parts of the Arabian Desert and environmental changes through time, hence this may bring us to other areas. More widely, we are interested in comparing the Arabian Desert to the records found in the Sahara and the Thar Desert of Pakistan and India. This will give us a better appreciation of the similarities and differences between the various deserts of the world and how people may have reacted differently to changes in environments.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How were you able to prove the existence of water in prehistoric Arabia that was the cause of migration of early humans and animals to this area?
[Petraglia] NASA satellite images and Google Earth images reveal the presence of old river channels and palaeo-lakes. Saudi Arabia had many active rivers and lakes during many times in the remote past. We suspect that human migrations were tied to these water sources and future surveys of these areas will tell us the degree to which humans utilized these areas.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us the names of the geographical areas that NASA took images of, where one can see the network of river valleys and lake basins?
[Petraglia] The NASA satellite images cover the entire Arabian Peninsula. We have zoomed in on particular areas, such as the Jubbah palaeo-lake of the Nefud Desert. Another example is the Mundafan palaeolake of the Rub al Khali. Of course, major rivers were active across the peninsula in the past, and this explains the presence of archaeological sites in areas that are now inhospitable desert zones, such as the Rub al Khali.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did long-term climate change affect early humans and animals in the Arabian Desert?
[Petraglia] We think the climate changed many times in the past, fluctuating between wet and dry periods. We are examining the past million years of human history. The earliest archaeological sites that we are investigating are at Dawadmi and the Wadi Fatimah, near Jeddah. Even in the last hundred thousand years, there have been many fluctuations between wet and arid periods.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How could you tell that fish of up to a meter long lived in the area?
[Petraglia] There are reports of fossils in the Nefud Desert that have been recovered and published. The fossil finds also include tortoises and mammals such as wild cattle, elephant, oryx, and carnivores.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As archaeologists, and based on your previous experience, what is the most exciting thing that has caught your attention during this research project in the area?
[Petraglia] The general abundance of prehistoric sites in Saudi Arabia is startling. The archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia are world-class and very significant to our knowledge of the past. We are at the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying well-preserved Palaeolithic archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia. The country is truly blessed with respect to its archaeological record.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that your research project in this area will open the door for more research teams into other scientific areas, like exploration for oil or minerals?
[Petraglia] The most interesting applied aspect of our research is understanding climate change over the long term, and human responses to it. Obviously, this is a concern in Arabia and the wider world. The Arabian record can teach us much about climate change and how rapidly conditions changed in the past. This may give us vital clues to understanding climate change in general.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you going to visit Saudi universities or research centers in the area in order to discuss your work?
[Petraglia] The University of Oxford has a signed agreement with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. We also work in collaboration with King Saud University.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you encountered research conditions in any other area of the world similar to the ones you had to deal with in the Arabian Peninsula?
[Petraglia] The partnership with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities has been a very positive experience. The collaboration has been extremely satisfying in terms of the joint scientific work. The Antiquities staffare very professional and dedicated, and it has been a personally gratifying experience to work with Saudi archaeologists.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there anything further you want to say or care to comment upon?
[Petraglia] The University of Oxford wishes to build additional partnerships and collaborations with colleagues and institutions in Saudi Arabia. One of our goals is to build collaborative scientific exchanges with our Saudi colleagues and to offer educational opportunities for Saudis to study at Oxford. We are actively seeking financial support for studentships and fellowships at Oxford.