July 8, 2012

Late Middle Paleolithic industry of Yemen

Yet another South Arabian industry has been researched and described, this time in the mountain range of Western Yemen, which runs parallel to the Red Sea coast.


The recovery at Shi’bat Dihya 1 (SD1) of a dense Middle Paleolithic human occupation dated to 55 ka BP sheds new light on the role of the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the alleged expansion of modern humans out of Africa. SD1 is part of a complex of Middle Paleolithic sites cut by the Wadi Surdud and interstratified within an alluvial sedimentary basin in the foothills that connect the Yemeni highlands with the Tihama coastal plain. A number of environmental proxies indicate arid conditions throughout a sequence that extends between 63 and 42 ka BP. The lithic industry is geared toward the production of a variety of end products: blades, pointed blades, pointed flakes and Levallois-like flakes with long unmodified cutting edges, made from locally available rhyolite. The occasional exploitation of other local raw materials, that fulfill distinct complementary needs, highlights the multi-functional nature of the occupation. The slightly younger Shi’bat Dihya 2 (SD2) site is characterized by a less elaborate production of flakes, together with some elements (blades and pointed flakes) similar to those found at SD1, and may indicate a cultural continuity between the two sites. The technological behaviors of the SD1 toolmakers present similarities with those documented from a number of nearly contemporaneous assemblages from southern Arabia, the Levant, the Horn of Africa and North Africa. However, they do not directly conform to any of the techno-complexes typical of the late Middle Paleolithic or late Middle Stone Age from these regions. This period would have witnessed the development of local Middle Paleolithic traditions in the Arabian Peninsula, which suggests more complex settlement dynamics and possible population interactions than commonly inferred by the current models of modern human expansion out of Africa.

The dates are relatively late, considering we know now of sites in the area since c. 130,000 years ago (in Palestine, Dhofar and Sarjah) but the site is still an interesting addition to the collection of reconstructed stories of the peoples who lived in Arabia early on, whose genetic remnants are still present most probably according to Behar 2008

I find particularly interesting that the peoples of this culture made blade tools, which are previously only common in South Asia. But some "Levallois blades" are known to exist in Mousterian contexts for examples, being different in production from Aurignacoid ones - and this seems to be the case.

In fact the review article I could find at USA Today (h/t Pileta), rather suggests Mousterian affinities in fact:

Most intriguing, the stone tools found at the site fall into the tradition of older Stone Age tools, rather than ones associated with the early modern humans thought to have left Africa roughly 60,000 years ago. They might have belonged to descendants of earlier modern human migrants from Africa who established themselves in Arabia despite its desert conditions. Or maybe they belonged to a sister human species, our Neanderthal cousins, suggest the researchers:

"Our fieldwork at the Wadi Surdud in Yemen demonstrates that during the period of the supposed expansion of modern humans out of Africa (60,000 to 50,000 years ago), and their rapid dispersal toward south-eastern Asia along the western and southern Arabian coastlines, the interior of this region was, in fact, occupied by well-adapted human groups who developed their own local technological tradition, deeply rooted in the Middle Paleolithic. Future research will likely reveal whether the archaeological assemblages recovered from the Wadi Surdud can be associated with the descendents of anatomically modern human groups who occupied the Arabian Peninsula during (this era) or the southernmost expansion of the Neanderthals."

Everything is possible but we should not forget that the Homo sapiens of Palestine did use Mousterian technology, a fact that may be related to Neanderthal genetic introgression among us. 

See also category: Out of Africa in this blog. And specially, besides the links in-text, this entry on the various options for the OoA migration, which are necessarily much older than this group.


  1. Very interesting indeed!

    Talking about lithic affinities, i think we must (always) take one question into account:

    When an affinity is an affinity?

    Or: When an affinity can actually be a parallel-but-independent tecnical innovation? That is, the independet arrival to similar technological solutions.

    The question spawns from my consideration that there's a finite number of technical solutions to create flakes, blades, retouched edges, etc... and there's evidence of some independent inventions of the very same procedures in different places & times (a typical example is the flat retouch with soft percussion technique);

    This evidence goes together, ofc, with the evidence of affinities and evolutions/developments between different lithic management systems -examples: Aurignacian --> Gravetian, or Magdelenian --> Azilian.

    Both hypothesis (affinity vs. independent invention)should be considered as equally possible aprioris, for every case; then they should be tested. Otherwise we could be creating social or ethnic (even taxon-level) relationships from the air.

    NOTE that I'm NOT making a judgement about Levallois/Mousterian/Blade technologies shown in this paper, or about Maju's considerations (wich i find quite pertinent).
    Its only a general reflexion.

    1. Thanks for the approval, Millán, I knew I was on a not-too-certain terrain: the very concept of Levallois blades (extracted as regular Levallois flakes and then thinned by retouch) , as oppossed to what we could call true "mode 4" blades, extracted from a turtle core, is something I have only recently learned about, precisely in a discussion with you.

      But instead of writing five paragraphs without any specifics, I'd rather focus on the details, trying to make the distinctions, as well as the similitudes as clear as possible for all.

      So in this case, I'd emphasize the methodology (Levallois flake made blade, as in the three drawings of the left corner) versus "true mode 4 blade" extracted from a turtle core. Is that correct?

    2. The knapping techniques illustrated on the paper (and found at the studied site) are basically (simplifing) three:

      - A more or less "typical" UP blade production.

      - A production of blades and ellongated flakes directly from ellongated, rectangular, Levallois cores. You can call them blades, they are just different blades, compared to the others.

      - A more centripetal production... what we could call a typical Levallois flake production.

      This is a very interesting co-existence of quite different knapping systems.

      Specifically, i find interesting the co-existence of UP-style blade production with Levallois blade/ellongated flakes production, wich is quite rare.

      As there are some examples of UP-style blade production on European MP (OIS 4 Northern France and Belgium), it's very rare to find those blades at the very same time and place than a Levallois blade production.

  2. Sorry, i didnt awnswer your specific question: You're right, but the picture you posted illustrade the older level (SD2), wich is a bit more "MP-ish" than the other one (SD1) wich is richer on UP-style technology.

    1. That's most interesting, Millán (I do not have access to the paper, so I could not discern all those details). It means that this is one of the oldest UP sites in West Eurasia (and hence the World) and it's not an obvious location at all.

      Generally I tend to associate earliest UP with the former "Neanderlands" (but these seem to end at roughly the latitude of Jerusalem or so -certainly no Nenderthals or Mousterian is known south of the Nefud Desert) and the AMH advance into them, which eventually led to Neanderthal extinction (but also innovations like Chatelperronian). I'm not too well informed but there may be "mode 4" precursors (certainly blades) in South Asia, since c. 74 Ka. ago, specially in the Northwestern areas near the Thar Desert, what is consistent with the overall genetic-described pattern of back-flow from South Asia (and maybe in some cases from as far as SE Asia) once the tropical belt of Asia got rather crowded, pushing some groups to the less desirable periphery: the western "Neanderlands" and the North-Eastern frozen lands of Siberia.

      But an offshoot of this process (or maybe a key precursor?) in Yemen, separated from the rest of Eurasia by large desertic belts, is a bit unexpected so early. It is most interesting potentially if it can be fit into the general push against the West I just described, because it could help explain some flows into Africa like mtDNA M1 or Y-DNA T, both important in East Africa but with South Asian or Arabian origins.


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