Stone tools reveal new insights into hominin presence in Arabia

Published online 30 November 2018

Stone handaxes in the Saudi Arabian desert indicate that an ancient style of tool making belonging to our hominin ancestors continued till as recently as 190,000 years ago.

Monica Hoyos Flight

Stone handaxes were found at the site of Saffaqah in Saudi Arabia.
Stone handaxes were found at the site of Saffaqah in Saudi Arabia.
Palaeodeserts (Ian R. Cartwright)
The dating of the tools, conducted by an international team of researchers, suggests that the archaeological site of Saffaqah, near the town of Dawadmi in central Saudi Arabia, is the youngest known ‘Acheulean’ site in Southwest Asia. 

The Acheulean tradition of stone tool making is the longest lasting tool making style in prehistory. Some of the oldest Acheulean tools were found in Africa, but some ancient examples, dated to 1.5 million years ago, were found in the nearby Levant. Much younger Acheulean tools, dated to around 130,000 years ago, have been reported in India. The spatial and temporal distribution of these tools is key to understanding the early dispersal of hominins across the Old World. 

Due to its location between Africa and Eurasia, the Arabian Peninsula is a geographically critical area for exploring the migration of hominins out of Africa and their evolution during the Pleistocene Epoch, between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago. The wealth of prehistoric sites in the Arabian Desert has attracted great archaeological interest in recent years.

Eleanor Scerri of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History is part of a team of researchers working on the European Research Council-funded project Palaeodeserts, which is examining the effect of environmental change on early human settlements in the Arabian Desert over the last one million years. In their latest study, they characterize and date Acheulean tools excavated from Saffaqah in central Saudi Arabia. 

“Saffaqah is a unique site because it preserves buried layers of archaeology and because of the sheer abundance of artefacts at the site,” Scerri explains. When the site was discovered in the 1980s, over 8,000 artefacts were found, but they were not precisely dated. 

Scerri and colleagues used different methods to date sediment samples from the archaeological layers at the site, and were surprised to find that some of the Acheulean tools dated from around 190,000 years ago and shared features with the much older African tools. 

The fact that Saffaqah sits at the interface between two major extinct river systems suggests that early hominins, perhaps from the Horn of Africa, used these rivers to disperse into the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. 

The findings also indicate that Acheulean hominins persisted for a long time in the Arabian Peninsula, even long after populations living elsewhere had begun to use more advanced stone tool-making technologies.

Interestingly, at around the same time that the tools in Saffaqah were being used, Earth got colder and areas such as Arabia got drier. “The survival of hominins at Saffaqah into the beginning of this global climatic downturn suggests that they may have, at least initially, managed to cope with a certain amount of environmental stress,” explains Scerri. 

There is still a lot to learn about the Acheulean hominins in Arabia. “We are currently investigating other sites in different regions of Arabia that are already giving clues as to the chronological and cultural diversity of Acheulean tool users here,” she says.


Scerri, E. M. L. et al. The expansion of later Acheulean hominins into the Arabian Peninsula. Sci. Rep. 8, 17165 (2018).