Footprints in Saudi Arabia could prove humans were there 120,000 years ago

Archeologists working in Nefud Desert noticed the footprints left in the sediment amid hundreds of footprints by animals.

The Nefud desert in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula (photo credit: CHARLES T.G. CLARKE / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The Nefud desert in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula
Seven footprints found in a dry lake bed in the north of Saudi Arabia could prove that humans were present in the area 120,000 years ago, according to an article just published in Science Advances.
The article states that, “The findings... likely represent the oldest securely dated evidence for Homo sapiens in Arabia. The paleoecological evidence indicates a well-watered semi-arid grassland setting during human movements into the Nefud Desert of Saudi Arabia.” These findings might reveal how humans traveled when they left Africa in search of new lands.
Archaeologists working in Nefud Desert noticed the footprints left in the sediment amid hundreds of footprints by animals that may have included elephants, camels, buffalo and creatures similar to modern-day horses.
“The presence of large animals such as elephants and hippos, together with open grasslands and large water resources, may have made northern Arabia a particularly attractive place to humans moving between Africa and Eurasia,” Michael Petraglia, one of the study’s co-authors, who is an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Science and Human History, said in a statement released to the Smithsonian Magazine.
Researchers believe that the majority of people living outside Africa today have ancestors who left Africa in a mass migration about 60,000 years ago. But there is evidence that small bands of Homo sapiens left Africa thousands of years earlier and traveled into the Middle East via the Sinai Peninsula and other routes.
“From these observations, it appears that the Alathar lake [where the footprints were found] was only briefly visited by humans. It may have served as a stopping point and place to drink and forage during long-distance travel, perhaps initiated by the arrival of dry conditions and dwindling water resources,” the authors of the paper conclude.
Prof. Erella Hovers, Moshe Stekelis professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post, “To the degree that they [the footprints] represent the fossil anatomy, they are indeed the earliest on the Arabian peninsula, and as such would add interesting information about the routes of dispersal into Eurasia and Asia. Some uncertainties are noted in the supplementary material of this publication — the ages obtained by the various dating methods and the stratigraphic relationship leave some room for alternative interpretations.”
While the authors of the Science Advances article wrote that they found that the footprints seem to have been made by hominins who were taller and thinner than Neanderthals, Hovers said, “The comparative data on the basis of which the footprints were assigned to Homo sapiens are heavily biased towards our own species. Several commentators have already raised the idea that the footprints might belong to Neanderthals, though of course there is no skeletal evidence that testifies to members of this group on the Arabian peninsula. Another possibility that one has to bear in mind is that, although the researchers place their finding (implicitly) in the context of out of Africa dispersals into Eurasia, the bigger picture suggests a possibility of back to Africa, as there is no reason to assume that traffic was one-way only.”
Asked about the importance of these seven footprints for future research, Hovers said, “I would say that the main implication is that one should keep an open head to the possibility that this might happen, and keep a sharp eye while doing fieldwork in contexts that may preserve tracks. With luck and detailed study, such tracks can provide a wealth of information... On the whole, the data are important, and I think that the prints as well as the sediments below and above them can be mined for much more information that may prove significant.”