The Lower Palaeolithic of Arabia (in Tübingen)

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A view over Tübingen from the castle where the Department of Prehistory and Archaeological Sciences is based. Photo: R. Inglis.

One of the perks of being an academic is travelling to universities all over the world to talk shop with other archaeologists in exotic locations. Last week I was in Tübingen, Germany, visiting the Department of Prehistory and Archaeological Sciences at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen with a small but amiable band of researchers to discuss the Lower Palaeolithic of the Arabian Peninsula.

Spanning >2 million to 300,000 years ago the Lower Palaeolithic covers the earliest part of the Palaeolithic, the period in which Homo species are first identified in East Africa, and their subsequent dispersal out of Africa. Arabia, adjacent to Africa, has a known Lower Palaeolithic record. Whilst some researchers have suggested that some of these tools could belong to the oldest part of the Palaeolithic, the Oldowan (

Roughly marking the dispersal of Homo erectus across the globe after 1.8mya, one of the defining hallmarks of the Acheulean is the handaxe. These are tools that have been shaped by knapping on both sides to create often exceptionally beautiful tools (e.g. the 500,000 year old beauties at the British Lower Paleolithic site of Boxgrove). Because of the skill involved in making these tools, and the ability required to imagine the finished product, their appearance in the archaeological record, and their aesthetic quality, has been held up as representing a major shift in the cognitive abilities of hominins. Debate has also raged over the cultural implications of the variation symmetry and shape of these handaxes.

As you may therefore expect for a conference on the Lower Palaeolithic of Arabia, there was a LOT of discussion of handaxes in Tübingen, but not before discussion was neatly placed in context through an overview of Arabian Lower Pal research by SURFACE collaborator Abdullah Alsharekh. Adrian Parker followed this with a review of the little we know about landscape and the environment during the Lower Palaeolithic, but also highlighted the massive potential for future research into how the Peninsula’s landscape has changed over its history of occupation.

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Inside the castle! Photo: R. Inglis.

Handaxe discussion began in two talks detailing the work of the Palaeodeserts team: Huw Groucutt and Eleanor Scerri’s presentations, based on the setting and detailed morphology of handaxes associated with fossil lake deposits in Northwestern Saudi Arabia, posed questions of potential links to the Lower Palaeolithic industries of the Levant, as well as a potential chronological trend in the shape of handaxes changing with occupations during each phase of lake development. Stephanie Bonilauri reported a hint of the possible Lower Palaeolithic record of Northern Oman in the form of two handaxes found during the survey of the extensive Middle Palaeolithic depositsfrom that area.

My presentation marked a bit of a break (perhaps mainly, but not completely, due to our lack of beautiful handaxes in SW Saudi Arabia), focussing on an overview of the approaches we’ve taken and are developing in SURFACE, the types of Lower Palaeolithic types of artefacts we are finding, and what their distribution in the landscape can tell us about past behaviour. Ceri Shipton presented how the landscapes and lithics of Dawadmi and other interior regions can begin to tell us about Lower Palaeolithic landscape use with a record that is strikingly similar to those from our Red Sea study area.

Knut Bretzke introduced a potential Lower Palaeolithic surface assemblage from Sharjah, UAE, and discussion surrounded grappling with the issues of assigning a date or time to surface assemblages through technological attributes. Knut also read a presentation sent by Hizri Amirkhanov detailing some tantalising glimpses of the Lower Palaeolithic in Yemen. The last Arabian presentation came from Yamandú Hilbert, who presented an overview of the variability of handaxes across sites in Oman and Saudi Arabia. Strikingly, one theme that began to emerge in the workshop was that that only in NW Saudi do we see Boxgrove-quality handaxes in the Arabian record – the rest of our handaxes are a bit more rough and ready…but what, Yamandú asked, did this matter if a few rough blows gave you enough of an edge to catch and butcher your next meal?

To sum up, and kick-start a leisurely but stimulating discussion, Nick Conard put the Arabian material into context of work he coordinates at Tübingen as part of the ROCEEH (The Role of Culture in Early Expansions of Humans) Project. Over ten years into a twenty-year run, this project encompasses work in Arabia, South Africa, Armenia, and beyond, and is an enviable model of comparative study of trajectories of cultural change across time and space during the Palaeolithic.

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Descending into the current excavations at Hohle Fels. Photo: R. Inglis.

No workshop would be complete without a fieldtrip, and, whilst Arabia was a little far for a day trip, Tübingen’s history of leading excavations at world-famous Middle to Upper Palaeolithic sites in the Swabian Jura provided an excellent opportunity to be shown the classic sites of Hohle Fels (currently under excavation) and Geisenklösterle, as well as a myriad of museums displaying finds from the  both in Tübingen and the region. The material recovered from these sites, and others nearby, is absolutely exceptional, including amazingly preserved carved ivory figurines of people and animals, bone flutes, and most recently a potential rope maker, providing an unparalleled insight into early Upper Palaeolithic symbolism 30-40,000 years ago.  A truly memorable visit.

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More than a little larger than life, a bronze copy of the 4.7cm ivory bird figurine found at Hohle Fels on display in the castle courtyard. Photo: R. Inglis.

Overall, the chance to join (nearly) all the researchers examining the Lower Palaeolithic in Arabia at the same table – at the moment, we do fit around one table! – to discuss the state of knowledge, compare notes, and identify future avenues for research and collaboration was an fantastic one, made all the more enjoyable through the wonderful hospitality of Knut, Nick and the Department at Tübingen, in its beautiful castle surroundings. Thanks to all involved!

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