Human footprints offer the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens in Arabia

The CENIEH participates in a paper published in the journal Science Advances which presents the discovery of 376 human and animal footprints, 120,000 years old, in the Nefud desert in the Arabian Peninsula

Today, the journal Science Advances publishes a study led by Mathew Stewart, of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena (Germany), with the participation of the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), on the discovery of 376 human and animal footprints in the southwestern part of the Nefud desert, which furnishes new information on the presence of Homo sapiens in the Arabian Peninsula during the onset of the Late Pleistocene.

These footprints, found in deposits associated to an ancient freshwater lake, were dated indirectly by applying the Luminescence (OSL) method to quartz grains, which yielded an age of 120,000 years, and therefore are the earliest evidence for the presence of Homo sapiens in Arabia. A fleeting presence, as is suggested by the absence of stone tools and cut marks on fossil bones.

“Up to now, we had evidence of the presence of our species in the Middle East and Asia over 100,000 years ago, but we didn't have any evidence from Arabia, even though it lies geographically in between, so that this work fills a significant gap in what we know about the origin and dispersion of our species”, declares the CENIEH researcher Mathieu Duval, who participated in dating the fossils associated to the footprints.

Seven human footprints

The region was inhabited by a highly diverse community of elephants, camels, oryxes, horses, buffaloes and humans. Out of the 376 footprints discovered in this landscape, about half could be attributed to a particular species. Elephant and camel footprints are the most abundant, although some buffalo and horse ones were also identified. Seven of the footprints have been identified as human and attributed to two or three persons who traveled together.

“These footprints offer us an unprecedented snapshot of the environmental and ecological conditions prevailing 120,000 years ago, with freshwater lakes and a very diverse fauna, quite different from what we find today in this region”, says Duval.

This study, carried out with the support of the Ministry of Culture of Saudi Arabia, is the fruit of an international collaboration involving researchers from several countries such as Germany, Saudi Arabia, Australia, the United States, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Huellas de Elefante/Paul Breeze


Geochronology and Geology Program

The CENIEH Geochronology and Geology Program has a unique array of laboratories dedicated to dating archaeological, paleontological and paleoanthropological sites using several methods (Luminescence, Cosmogenic Nuclides, Paleomagnetism, Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) and Uranium Series).

Since the inauguration of the Center in 2009, the Program has participated in the dating of several important sites in Spain (such as Gran Dolina (Atapuerca, Burgos), Fuente Nueva 3 (Orce, Granada), Cuesta de la Bajada (Teruel), Porto Maior (Pontevedra)) as well as abroad (for instance, Ain Boucherit (Algeria), Lunery and La Noira (France)).

It has also participated in the direct dating of several human fossils like Homo antecessor from the level TD6 at Gran Dolina, the peculiar Homo naledi in South Africa, Homo sapiens from Misliya Cave (Israel), which is the oldest outside Africa, or the fossil human phalanx from Al Wusta (Saudi Arabia).