What Early Neolithic People Left Behind: Levantine Arrowheads Found in Saudi Arabia

Palaeodeserts Project Crassard et al PLoS ONE 2013 Thinking about spending the summer in the sun and sand? Early Neolithic humans may have thought so too, although with more survival-oriented goals in mind. A recent study published in PLOS ONE suggests that early humans, who set up camp in the Eastern Mediterranean (about 10,000 BCE), may have traveled as far as Saudi Arabia in search of game and water.

In this study, researchers unearthed several types of Neolithic arrowheads in the northern peninsula of Saudi Arabia at the site of Jebel Qattar, which suggests a link between Neolithic people of the Levant—modern-day Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Cyprus—to areas as far south as Saudi Arabia. Arrowheads and other tools are, by and large, the main type of early human artifact observable today prior to the introduction of pottery (about 7000 BCE), and are integral to our understanding of the people who created and used them. Tools and arrowheads types, like the ones discovered at Jebel Qattar, provide researchers with evidence of early technology used for hunting.

Beyond the Levant Image

Helwan points found at Jebel Qattar

Accurately identifying early Neolithic artifacts is a tough job—these arrowheads are over 10,000 years old, after all—and requires researchers to carefully sift out other objects uncovered during surface collection and trench excavations. In fact, the researchers discovered a total of 887 stone tools at the site of Jebel Qattar, only ten of which have been identified as Levantine types, known more specifically to researchers as El-Khiam and Helwan points. Named for their places of origin in Israel and Egypt respectively, the El-Khiam and Helwan arrowhead types are common to Levantine sites throughout the Neolithic period. This study, however, represents the first time archaeologists have discovered them in the Nefud Desert of Saudi Arabia.

Levant Map

Current understanding of early people living during the Neolithic period is rooted in excavation sites in the Levant and the larger area of the Fertile Crescent—the area in green on the map above—a geographical region containing parts of Western Asia, including the Levant, as well as parts of the Nile Valley and Nile Delta of northeast Africa. The Fertile Crescent is home to several major innovations, including the domestication of animals and the development of cereal, and is often known as the ‘cradle of civilization’. The discovery of El-Khiam and Helwan arrowheads in Saudi Arabia alludes to this hotspot of innovation and technology and suggests possible interaction between these early Neolithic peoples.

However, because so little evidence from the Neolithic period survives intact today, our understanding of Neolithic peoples is a work-in-progress. Nevertheless, tracing Neolithic people from the Levant as far as Saudi Arabia suggests that we may want to study broader areas when considering their trajectory. Of course, there is further exploration to be done beyond the borders of the Levant.

Citation: Crassard R, Petraglia MD, Parker AG, Parton A, Roberts RG, Jacobs Z, Alsharekh A, Al-Omari A, Breeze P, Drake NA, Groucutt HS, Jennings R, Re´gagnon E, and Shipton C . (2013) Beyond the Levant: First Evidence of a Pre-Pottery Neolithic Incursion into the Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia. PLOS ONE 8(7): e68061. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068061

Images: doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068061

Malaria, tuberculosis caused death on the ancient Nile



Southwest of Cairo, the Nile branches into a network of canals that feed Fayum, a fertile agricultural basin that was a center of civilization and royal pyramid-building for several centuries. The unusual geology responsible for Fayum’s rich terrain may have also led to the prevalence of malaria and tuberculosis in the region during these ancient times.

Ancient DNA (aDNA) from sixteen mummified heads recovered from the region reveals that at least four of these individuals suffered both these infections simultaneously. Many of the others showed signs of infection with either malaria or tuberculosis, as scientists report in a recent PLOS ONE study.

DNA extracted from muscle tissue samples was tested for the presence of two genes specific to Plasmodium falciparum, the malarial parasite, and another gene specific to Mycobacteria, which cause tuberculosis. Two samples tested positive for DNA specific to Plasmodium, one tested positive for the mycobacterial gene, and four individuals tested positive for DNA from both infectious agents, suggesting they suffered both infections together while alive. A previous study suggests that both malaria and tuberculosis were rampant in the Fayum region in the early 19th century, but the age of these mummified samples extends evidence of these diseases in Lower Egypt as far back as approximately 800 B.C.

The World Health Organization estimates that malaria is almost non-existent in the Fayum basin and the rest of Egypt now, but before its eradication, high levels of infection were seen in certain parts of the country, and were strongly linked to certain geological features. The lakes and canals that made the Fayum region so fertile also served as breeding grounds for the mosquito that carries the malarial parasite.

The heads tested here (all were missing bodies) were recovered from a village cemetery on the west bank of the lower Nile, and date from about 1064 BC to 300 AD, a period marked by an agricultural boom and dense crowding in the region, especially under the rule of the Ptolemies. These conditions may have increased the chances of tuberculosis incidence and spread of the disease. As the aDNA from these mummified heads attests, these living conditions and the unique irrigation of the Fayum basin likely created a harbor for both malaria and tuberculosis in ancient populations of this region.

Citation: Lalremruata A, Ball M, Bianucci R, Welte B, Nerlich AG, et al. (2013) Molecular Identification of Falciparum Malaria and Human Tuberculosis Co-Infections in Mummies from the Fayum Depression (Lower Egypt). PLoS ONE 8(4): e60307. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060307

Image: Sailing on the Nile by David Corcoran