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updated 12/10/2010 10:50:06 AM ET 2010-12-10T15:50:06

Veiled beneath the Persian Gulf, a once-fertile landmass may have supported some of the earliest humans outside Africa some 75,000 to 100,000 years ago, a new review of research suggests.

At its peak, the floodplain now below the Gulf would have been about the size of Great Britain, and then shrank as water began to flood the area. Then, about 8,000 years ago, the land would have been swallowed up by the Indian Ocean, the review scientist said.

The study, which is detailed in the December issue of the journal Current Anthropology, has broad implications for aspects of human history. For instance, scientists have debated over when early modern humans exited Africa, with dates as early as 125,000 years ago and as recent as 60,000 years ago (the more recent date is the currently accepted paradigm), according to study researcher Jeffrey Rose, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

"I think Jeff's theory is bold and imaginative, and hopefully will shake things up," Robert Carter of Oxford Brookes University in the U.K. told LiveScience. "It would completely rewrite our understanding of the out-of-Africa migration. It is far from proven, but Jeff and others will be developing research programs to test the theory."

Viktor Cerny of the Archaeogenetics Laboratory, the Institute of Archaeology, in Prague, called Rose's finding an "excellent theory," in an e-mail to LiveScience, though he also points out the need for more research to confirm it.

The findings have sparked discussion among researchers, including Carter and Cerny, who were allowed to provide comments within the research paper, about who exactly the humans were who occupied the Gulf basin.

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"Given the presence of Neanderthal communities in the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates River, as well as in the eastern Mediterranean region, this may very well have been the contact zone between moderns and Neanderthals," Rose told LiveScience. In fact, recent evidence from the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome suggests interbreeding, meaning we are part caveman.

Watery refuge
The Gulf Oasis would have been a shallow inland basin exposed from about 75,000 years ago until 8,000 years ago, forming the southern tip of the Fertile Crescent, according to historical sea-level records.

And it would have been an ideal refuge from the harsh deserts surrounding it, with fresh water supplied by the Tigris, Euphrates, Karun and Wadi Baton Rivers, as well as by upwelling springs, Rose said. And during the last ice age when conditions were at their driest, this basin would've been at its largest.

In fact, in recent years, archaeologists have turned up evidence of a wave of human settlements along the shores of the Gulf dating to about 7,500 years ago.

"Where before there had been but a handful of scattered hunting camps, suddenly, over 60 new archaeological sites appear virtually overnight," Rose said. "These settlements boast well-built, permanent stone houses, long-distance trade networks, elaborately decorated pottery, domesticated animals, and even evidence for one of the oldest boats in the world."

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Rather than quickly evolving settlements, Rose thinks precursor populations did exist but have remained hidden beneath the Gulf. [ History's Most Overlooked Mysteries ]

"Perhaps it is no coincidence that the founding of such remarkably well developed communities along the shoreline corresponds with the flooding of the Persian Gulf basin around 8,000 years ago," Rose said. "These new colonists may have come from the heart of the Gulf, displaced by rising water levels that plunged the once fertile landscape beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean."

Ironclad case?
The most definitive evidence of these human camps in the Gulf comes from a new archaeological site called Jebel Faya 1 within the Gulf basin that was discovered four years ago. There, Hans-Peter Uerpmann of the University of Tubingen in Germany found three different Paleolithic settlements occurring from about 125,000 to 25,000 years ago. That and other archaeological sites, Rose said, indicate "that early human groups were living around the Gulf basin throughout the Late Pleistocene."

To make an ironclad case for such human occupation during the Paleolithic, or early Stone Age, of the now-submerged landmass, Rose said scientists would need to find any evidence of stone tools scattered under the Gulf. "As for the Neolithic, it would be wonderful to find some evidence for human-built structures," dated to that time period in the Gulf, Rose said.

Carter said in order to make for a solid case, "we would need to find a submerged site, and excavate it underwater. This would likely only happen as the culmination of years of survey in carefully selected areas."

Cerny said a sealed-tight case could be made with "some fossils of the anatomically modern humans some 100,000 years old found in South Arabia."

And there's a hint of mythology here, too, Rose pointed out. "Nearly every civilization living in southern Mesopotamia has told some form of the flood myth. While the names might change, the content and structure are consistent from 2,500 B.C. to the Genesis account to the Qur'anic version," Rose said.

Perhaps evidence beneath the Gulf? "If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands," said Rose, quoting Douglas Adams.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Tales of seven cities, lost and found

  • Science / AAAS

    The Lost City of Z, a fabled metropolis of unimagined riches deep in the Amazon rain forest, has eluded explorers for centuries. But recently documented traces of a well-planned constellation of walled settlements arranged around central plazas and linked together with arrow-straight roads in the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon may be the civilization that gave birth to the legend, scientists say. This image shows the charred remains of a house in the region that was uncovered as part of an archaeological project led by the University of Florida's Michael Heckenberger.

    Click the "Next" label for six more tales of cities lost or found.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Atlantis legend inspires hotel chain

    Joel Ryan  /  AP

    According to the Greek philosopher Plato, Atlantis was a powerful society that disappeared under the sea in a torrent of earthquakes after it failed to take the city of Athens. Some scholars consider Plato's account as purely fictional; others have scoured the world for evidence of its existence. One disputed theory holds that Atlantis was on a portion of the Mediterranean island Cyprus that was submerged during an earthquake thousands of years ago. The mythical allure of the lost city has spawned a luxury hotel chain. In this image, fireworks explode over the opening of the Atlantis resort in Dubai.

  • What happened to the lost colony of the Americas?

    Gerry Broome  /  AP

    Sometime in the late 1580s, 117 English colonists disappeared while attempting to become the first to settle the New World. Their settlement on what would become Roanoke Island, N.C., was found abandoned in 1590. To this day, scientists, scholars and the plain curious can't agree on what happened. Some people believe the colonists assimilated with neighboring Native Americans; others think they were either killed by their neighbors or sunk at sea while trying to flee. In the image shown here, Frank Ray, a member of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research looks for clues that could help solve the mystery.

  • Lost city of Ubar found

    NASA

    From about 2,800 BC to AD 300, the city of Ubar in the Arabian Desert served as an outpost for the lucrative trade in frankincense, a sweet-smelling gum resin. Then, according to myth, the city sank in the sand, lost forever. And so it was until archaeologists armed with everything from ancient texts to remote-sensing technology on the space shuttle went looking for the lost city. The diffuse reddish streaks in this radar image from the space shuttle show ancient paths leading to and around the ancient site, which had literally sunk into an underground water hole. Ubar's discovery is an example of scientific sleuthing verifying ancient lore.

  • Lost city of the Incas remains a mystery

    Giulio Magli

    In 1911, U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham scrambled up a steep mountain side in southern Peru and encountered an ancient city of sorts beneath the undergrowth. The site, Machu Picchu, is popularly known as the Lost City of the Incas. What exactly the city was, however, remains a mystery. Scholars have variously theorized it was the birthplace of the Incas, a private estate, and a spiritual destination. Prior to Bingham's encounter, the city was lost to the jungle for about 500 years.

  • Itil, lost capital of Khazars, found?

    Dmitry Vasilyev  /  AP

    The excavated buildings shown here south of Moscow, Russia, may be remains of Itil, the capital city of the Khazars, a Russian scientist has reported. The Khazars ruled the steppes from Northern China to the Black Sea between the seventh and 10th centuries. Once conquered by the Russians, Itil disappeared without a trace. Some scholars believe it was swamped by the nearby rising Caspian Sea in the 14th century. Scientist Dmitry Vasiley at Astrakhan State University believes these flamed brick buildings are part of what was once Itil.

  • Layers of Troy found in Turkey

    Warner Bros. via Reuters

    Homer's epic poem the "Illiad" famously describes a war in the city of Troy, replete with tales about the heroic Greek warrior Achilles and a wooden horse. Questions about whether the city really existed appeared resolved in the 1800s when journalists, archaeologists and others zeroed in on a site and excavated the ancient city. The so-called archaeological Troy consists of nine cities built on top of one another and denoted with Roman numerals. Scholars believe Troy VI and Troy VII correspond with the city described in the Iliad. This image from the movie "Troy," which was based on the Iliad, shows the famous Trojan horse.

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