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Volume 31, Number 2March/April 1980

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From the Lakes of Arabia

Written by Jon Mandaville
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

Heavy drenching rains fell for the last time late one winter some 7,000 years ago on the Arabian Plateau. Swollen rivers rushed north and east off the Tuwaiq Escarpment, widening canyons, tumbling rocks and boulders, then dropping them as the waters poured out onto the great flat savannah, pushing into the marshes and shallow lakes before them.

Out on the plain a small hunting band crouched in the high reeds along the edge of a lake, their bows notched with finely worked flint-point arrows, tense as the first great flock of migrating ducks spiraled in. Hunting would be as good this year as last, and for as long back as any could remember or storytellers recount. It had always been thus, in this hot but well-watered and grassy land; why should it change?

It had, in fact, not changed significantly for some 2,000 years before. And it would rain again the following year - but imperceptibly less. And less again the next year, and the next, and the next. Generations later, hunters would tell stories of better times in the good old days when the grass stood higher, the lakes were deeper and the game more plentiful.

The old days would not come again. Over the next 500 years the rain would all but cease. What little plant life remained would remain only because it was able to survive on the annual inch or two of water it might receive. The lakes would dry stone-hard and sand, lifted by the north winds from crumbling mountains and dry river beds great distances away would fill and cover them. The great basin of lakes would become a wilderness of mountain dunes called the Rub' al-Khali - the Empty Quarter.

Those skilled Arabian lake country flint workers of 5000 B.C. stood at the end of an immensely long march of human cultural development through the Stone Age. Massive, crudely shaped axes and cleavers found widely on the Peninsula attest to hundreds of thousands of years of human occupation there by the roving hunter bands which made up man's earliest prehistoric cultures. As the field surveys sponsored by the Department of Antiquities report on their findings, a picture of gradually increasing sophistication of flint work is emerging, with polished knives and small tanged points to go with the introduction of the bow. Crude shelter settlements have been found in the southeast, the north, the northwest, the center of the Peninsula; many more will be found before the surveys are finished. Before the last dry age descended, the Peninsula had been a good land for the Old Stone Age people.

The final tapering off of rainfall was not the first in man's time in Arabia. The preceding half-million years and more had seen periods of very dry, hot years strung together like beads on a string with alternating eras as long of cool moist weather. Europe's glaciers waxed and waned; the climate of Arabia followed. Even after the last great ice sheet that began to form 70,000 years ago, the weather of the Middle East oscillated uneasily a few times more before reaching the tentative balance which holds today.

Man - the sophisticated Neolithic man - adapted to this final ponderous climatic swing as he had before. But this time he shifted into quite a new way of life: a life of tamed and bred sheep, goats, and cattle; of sown and harvested wheat and barley. With these radical inventions in hand, two main patterns of livelihood developed across the lands of the Middle East.

One, emerging where plentiful spring or river water - or an annual rainfall of at least eight inches - allowed, was that of the farming settlement, where people, depending on their grain field for their food, grouped their huts together for protection and support. The other was the herding group, blending the mobility of the traditional hunting life with the new availability of domesticated goats and sheep to create the wandering shepherd, the "pastoral nomad," working those lands too dry for settled farming.

The lake-shore hunters and food gatherers of Arabia adapted, too. As the rains ceased, the marshes dried and the game disappeared, these peoples edged, season by season, outward from the more desolate center toward the promising watered lands around the periphery of the Peninsula. And there they settled.

Was it here on the fringes that they learned of domesticated animals, of planting seed: here on the borders of Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia? Or did the new ways spring up of their own accord out of sheer necessity? Abdullah Masry Director of the Saudi Arabian Department of Antiquities, shrugs the question off impatiently.

"We are not in the business of that nationalist one-upmanship, we did it before you' nonsense. We're studying the history of man." No, what is important is that the times of a relatively simple single culture stretching out across the Peninsula are over. In its place by 4700 B.C., from the Indian Ocean north through eastern Arabia and Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean, are now more than half a dozen cultural styles. We know this because of another invention that comes with this Neolithic - New Stone Age - period: pottery.

Pottery, in color, shape, texture and use, is as rich and varied in man's hands as poetry. And it is as expressive, especially in the hands of the new historian-archeologists of Saudi Arabia like Abdullah Masry, who are reusing these broken bits of clay to shape the history of eastern Arabia in the Neolithic age.

It was through pottery, indeed, that one of the earliest Neolithic cultures in the Middle East - the 'Ubaid culture – was identified. 'Ubaid is not a language or a race. It is simply a peculiarly fine kind of pottery which stands as a flag of cultural identity: bowls and cups and jugs made of greenish-yellow clay with deep red-brown and black geometric designs painted on. But it has also come to include the peoples -the master potters - who developed this culture.

'Ubaid takes its name from the archeological site in southernmost Mesopotamia where it was first found early in this century. Since that first discovery intensive digging in Iraq has shown the 'Ubaid culture to have been not only very early but also very extensive in influence, reaching far up north into the "land between the rivers" - Mesopotamia. The culture that the pottery represents became the baseline for man's earliest civilization; it was shown to be the dominant culture in southern Iraq just before that of the Sumerians, builders of man's first cities.

Then, 10 years ago, the tidy world of Mesopotamian history was shaken. Four hundred miles south of 'Ubaid on the western coastline of the Arabian Gulf, archeologists, in their ongoing quest for knowledge, found more 'Ubaid pottery.

To archeology this discovery was astonishing and at archeological conferences around the world, the corridors were filled with gossip, questions and surmises. Was it really 'Ubaid ware? And if so, what were the 'Ubaid people, precursors of Sumer, doing in the middle of the east coast of the Arabian peninsula? Who, after all, were the 'Ubaid peoples, and where did they come from?

Since the 'Ubaid pottery was found in Saudi Arabia Abdullah Masry was naturally interested; in fact he has concentrated his research on these questions and now, as a result, the haphazard collection of pottery on the coast of Arabia has given way to scientific excavations under his guidance; for several seasons his people have been digging into settlement sites, both on the coast and inland. More excavation remains to be done, but the results already are conclusive: this was where the migrants from the drying lakes of the Empty Quarter came in the next stage of their long march into history. Historians, as one result of this work, must now draw a new picture in which 'Ubaid cultural influence sprawls from the middle of Mesopotamia to the borders of the Empty Quarter, shading out into the deserts rather as later cultures and civilizations of the Middle East will do through economic, social, and political interrelationships with the wandering peoples of those regions.

From nearly its beginnings, 'Ubaid culture is evident in eastern Arabia; on the fringes of the desert as well as among the gardens and coves of the coast. At 'Ain Qannas, for example, a spring mound at the oasis of Jabrin, halfway to the coast from the Empty Quarter, the lowest sequence of levels show 1,000 years or more of pre-pottery flint tools, the earliest carbon -14 dating (although not of the earliest level) reading about 4935 B. C. The flints are those of the lakeshore people. Then, in the next levels, pottery appears - 'Ubaid pottery of an early style. But the flint points and blades continue alongside the pottery, in level after level from early to middle 'Ubaid style.

Flint, in fact, dominates the 'Ubaid horizons of this far inland site. From this fact - and from bones and other excavated material - the following story emerges.

Here at the inland sites bands of hunters and food gatherers, like those who once crouched by the lakes in the Empty Quarter, made their regular encampment around the sure waters of the springs. They probably had some domesticated cattle but they still hunted - focusing primarily on the onager, gazelle and wild goat. When they traveled they ranged widely, trading with the settlements on the coastline - perhaps for the pottery which they carried with them or left broken at their spring encampment for archeologists to find later.

Some joined the coastal settlements permanently, where they combed the sea as well as the land for a livelihood. There, in much larger settlements - call them fishing villages - they lived a settled life in plastered reed houses of the same design as those of lower Mesopotamia, with round cattle pens nearby. But in place of the cattle, onager and gazelle bones of the camps of the inland people, here enormous quantities of fish bones and clam and oyster shells are scattered in and around the coastal villages. The hunters had become fishermen.

Like other fishermen of other times and places, however, they were also traders. Chemical analysis suggests that much, if not all, of the 'Ubaid pottery (no kilns used for 'Ubaid ware have been found yet) was imported from Mesopotamia. Now, that bespeaks a very large volume of trade - and also poses a problem. What did the south offer in return for the northern pottery? It is early yet to say, but every evidence points to luxury goods: beads of shell and semiprecious stone; powdered stone and earth for cosmetics; mother of pearl - and, yes, pearls. All of these have been found in the coastal sites, and would be lacking on the mud plains of Mesopotamia. In our terms, these would not have been earth-shaking quantities of goods - it was after all, the beginnings of man's maritime commerce - but the pattern was established; and in less than 1,000 years, it would reach out to tie India to the world of Sumer.

About 3700B.C. the 'Ubaid settlements of eastern Arabia dwindle; some are abandoned. For the next 1,000 years the region seems to fall into the doldrums. It is as if much of the population simply moved away. The process was one of steady attrition - and apparently, cultural decentralization. The peoples of the 'Ubaid world seem to have withdrawn each to their own small region, engrossed in their own problems and troubles.

And well they might. It was a momentous 1,000 years for man, by all current archeological accounts. Writing appears for the first time. Metal - copper - is worked into tools of agriculture and war for the first time. A cataclysmic flood occurs and cities emerge after it - the first cities in man's sojourn on earth - all in the far south of Mesopotamia, the old 'Ubaid heartland.

Each of these events in itself is a revolution in the history of man. And three of the four - copper, cities, and the flood - have emerged as inextricably entwined with the people and the land of eastern Arabia, the people who adapted once thousands of years earlier to the drying of the lakes and the shifting of the climate, and now would have to adapt again to fundamental changes in the organization and technology of human society.

They would adapt. And when the new elements combined to create a new experience in man's history - the civilization of the city - they would be there and prepared to play their part in it.

This article appeared on pages 8-13 of the March/April 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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