An analysis of thousands of stone tools - including large flakes, handaxes, and cleavers - at the site of Saffaqah, located in present-day Saudi Arabia, has enabled the secure dating of ‘Acheulean’ technology for the first time in Arabia. The results, reported in Scientific Reports this week, suggest that Acheulean hominin occupation spread along water networks, such as rivers and lakes, into the heart of Arabia from approximately 240,000 until at least 190,000 years ago. This would make Saffaqah the youngest documented Acheulean site in Southwest Asia.
The Acheulean represents a key stage in hominin evolution, characterized by the production of large cutting tools such as handaxes. Eleanor Scerri, Michael Petraglia and colleagues report that Saffaqah is the largest Acheulean site documented in Arabia to date. The authors discovered over 500 stone artifacts in new excavations. Previous excavations at the site in the 1980s recovered 8,395 artifacts, but they had not been dated and their distribution within the sediment had not been discussed in detail. By dating sediment layers below and within those containing the artifacts, the authors were able to determine the time during which the artifacts were deposited and, from that, when the hominins who manufactured and used these tools were present. Based on their findings, the authors suggest that the artifacts contained in the upper sediment layers were deposited less than approximately 188,000 years ago. The authors argue that Acheulean culture persisted alongside typically later Middle Palaeolithic technology in Southwest Asia, and may have overlapped with the presence of Homo sapiens in the region.
The authors also note that the Acheulean technology from Saffaqah can be contrasted with Acheulean artifacts found at other excavation sites, which document very different technological characteristics within the Acheulean tradition. They suggest that the individual sites may reflect several waves of Acheulean dispersal.