Since primeval times, humankind has lived near coasts and rivers in order to survive. Since the first day it has also experienced the change of climate very closely. And this change was often impressive.
During the ice age the sea level was relatively low and during a time span, which covers about 90% of the history of humankind, it was about 40 to 130 meters lower than it is today. The relatively high sea level as we know it was therefore only reached about 6,000 years ago. One consequence of these significant changes is that today a large part of the prehistoric sites of our ancestors is covered with water. Grottoes with the traces of the first humans are often flooded with water today, such as the Cosquer Grotto in France, which’s entrance is now more than 30 meters below the water surface, or the Hoyo Negro in Mexico, a tunnel system that was once accessible.
It is therefore generally expected that the greatest archaeological discoveries of the future will be made under water.
It was only about a century ago that people began to study these sea level changes and their effects on humanity when an English geologist, Clement Reid, discovered sunken forests. Since then research has continued and it is now estimated that there are up to 20,000 prehistoric underwater sites in the northern seas of Europe that can be dated back between 6,000 and 300,000 years.
Although they are more difficult to reach, these sites have a great advantage: organic materials, such as wood or fibers, are generally better preserved under water than on the surface. In comparable archaeological excavations in Sweden, 2% of biological materials were found on land and 98% under water.
Dogger Bank’s lost land
One of the most significant discoveries in this respect is Dogger Bank in the North Sea. This sandbank, which forms a 17,600 sq-km underwater plateau, is now located 100 km off the English coast under the North Sea. It has been studied several times and skeletons of animals such as mammoths, rhinos and hyenas, stone tools, human bones and objects have been found. Clement Reid was the first to formulate the hypothesis that these discoveries could not be isolated finds, but that they were evidence that the plateau was in prehistoric times a gigantic forested plain located on the site of today’s southern North Sea.
In order to unravel the mystery of the prehistoric past, studies were conducted in the Dogger Bank area. Professor Bryony Coles of Exeter University even called the prehistoric landscape “Doggerland”. His work and the rather lurid title stimulated interest in the North Sea. In 2007, the University of Birmingham studied Dogger Bank’s underwater soil by analyzing seismic data from the region collected by commercial companies. These and subsequent studies showed that northern Europe was buried in the Mesolithic, about 10,000 BC, under a layer of ice containing so much water that sea levels were about 50 meters lower than today. When the ice age ended, temperatures rose, the ice melted and sea levels rose rapidly, submerging the deepest parts of the area formerly inhabited by prehistoric nomads. This is more or less what threatens us today.
The Dogger Bank is by far not the only such sunken site. The underwater findings of Denmark, for example, are well known to researchers. The Tybrind Vig and Mollegebaet II sites are the best known. Other examples are the Neolithic sites of Bulgaria and Bronze Age villages at the bottom of the Black Sea, the Neolithic village of Atlit Yam off the coast of Israel, or sites with Paleo-Indian settlements in America, in the Gulf of Mexico and along the coast of Florida.
The Persian Gulf – The true cradle of civilization?
All this research leads to the need to rewrite the early history of mankind. The exploration of the Persian Gulf could here be of particular importance.
Recent research has shown that thousands of years ago the Gulf was an accessible plain crossed by rivers and lakes. So far only a few investigations of the seabed there have been carried out, but there are indications that unknown sites are to be expected.
Scientists think that modern humankind is descended from an original population group that came from Africa. A new theory questions the date of the departure of the first human being from the African continent and suggests that the Gulf region – now under water – served as a refuge for the first human beings almost 100,000 years ago, and that they spread to the entire planet much later. The reason for the migration was the rise in sea level due to climate change.
The research preceding this assumption is extensive. As early as 1930, archaeologists found a large number of stone tools in areas of the Arabian Peninsula that are now uninhabitable because they have become deserts. Only significant climate change can explain this earlier settlement.
Jeffrey Rose, an expert in prehistoric archaeology on the Arabian Peninsula, was then the first to contradict the classical theses about the first migration of people from Africa.
Jeffrey Rose’s journey began when he wanted to find evidence to confirm the thesis that people had left Africa via Ethiopia, Yemen and Oman. The first theories in this regard were formulated after the discovery of traces in mitochondrial DNA in 1990. The scientist initially assumed that it must have been a migration of people near the coast who followed the coast to the Arabian Peninsula.
However, when Rose and his team arrived in Oman in 2010, they were confronted with unexpected results: they found sites where stone tools had been produced using a special technique originally used in the “Nubian Complex” by a nomadic hunting population in the Nile Valley. This very special Nubian technology allows the production of spearheads and was originally known only to the people of North Africa. The Nubian origin and the place of discovery of the finds in the interior of Oman were unexpected. This was the first time that the Nile Valley was identified as the starting point for the first migrants and that the route chosen for the migration turned out to be in the middle of today’s – underwater- areas of the Arabian Peninsula and not along the coast.
A sample of the stone tools was analyzed using the optically stimulated luminescence technique (OSL), which determines the date of the last exposure of a grain of sand by measuring the energy trapped in it. The results showed that the investigated tool was 106,000 years old. This meant that it was created at the same time as the Nubian complex was flowering. This implies that according to Rose, the migration of people from Africa took place much earlier than previously thought. So far, it was thought that the migration took place only about 60,000 years ago.
The new theory is inspiring research. Since then, Qatar has been developing a national database to analyse the impact of sea levels on the Gulf region and to study surface and underwater areas.
It is well known that the Gulf is indeed a region which’s sea level has changed considerably. It has been filled with water since the beginning of the Holocene geological period and this sea-level rise continues with fluctuations to this day. This means that instead of the sea in this region there was previously a fertile landscape crossed by rivers. There were paths and several fertile lakes.
The importance of this new research for understanding human history is evident.
The Mesopotamian region, the estuary of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers into the Persian Gulf, is for now considered the cradle of humankind. But perhaps it was not the cradle, but already the kindergarten.
The ancient city of Ur was discovered in the 1920s and explored in the 1930s. Ur was an important Sumerian city-state between 2025 and 1738 BC. Archaeologists have long suspected that the population that inhabited Ur came from the plains that are now under water. The conclusion is strengthened by the new research. As a result, it cannot be ruled out that in the future one will find a “pre-Ur” under water.
This discovery would revolutionize our knowledge of our origins. It would also improve our understanding of the development of societies in relation to their environment.
Climate change today raises new questions for our society, such as how to meet the challenge of rising sea levels. In fact, however, such situations have already been experienced by previous human societies. If we look at the history of humanity as a whole, what is happening to us is therefore not a new constellation. This may mean that we have to accept that it is normal for human societies to move in the long term.
The Bible tells us the story of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt and their march through the Red Sea. There have always been doubts about this story. But perhaps an ancient memory has been preserved. Falsified as so often in history, but still no smoke without fire. Maybe it wasn’t the Hebrews, but the Sumerians and maybe it wasn’t the Red Sea, but the Persian Gulf. And maybe that was all a long time ago…
Image: Atlit Yam