TechLava Tubes as Ancient Homes: 10,000-Year-Old Saudi Arabian Shelter Unveiled

Lava Tubes as Ancient Homes: 10,000-Year-Old Saudi Arabian Shelter Unveiled

People inhabited lava tubes in the territories of today's Saudi Arabia.
People inhabited lava tubes in the territories of today's Saudi Arabia.
Images source: © Proyecto Green Arabia

4:27 PM EDT, April 27, 2024

Archaeologists have discovered evidence suggesting that people lived in lava tubes in present-day Saudi Arabia, utilizing these underground formations for shelter over the span of at least 10,000 years. These natural tunnels, created by lava flows, offered a haven to the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula.

In Saudi Arabia, the exploration revealed dozens of artefacts implying habitation within a lava cave dating back to 10,000 years ago, and possibly earlier. These findings emerged from the Umm Jirsan lava tube system, situated approximately 77.7 miles north of Medina.

The research findings and their descriptions have been published in the journal "PLoS ONE" (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0299292).

Umm Jirsan

The investigation, spearheaded by scientists from Australia's Griffith University and in collaboration with experts from various other institutions, focused on Umm Jirsan – a significant lava tube spanning 0.93 miles in length, 39 feet in height, and up to 147.6 feet in width. It stands as the largest known lava tube in Saudi Arabia. These lava channels or tubes result from hot lava flows, and interestingly, similar structures on the Moon could potentially shelter astronauts.

It is widely recognized that the Arabian Peninsula has been inhabited for millennia. However, the harsh dry and hot climates of the region pose significant challenges to the preservation of archaeological remains, as organic materials rapidly deteriorate. In light of this, scientists embarked on a search for locations where evidence of ancient human activity could be safeguarded, places that were shielded from the elements over the course of millennia. The Umm Jirsan lava tube emerged as an ideal candidate for this purpose, offering a unique opportunity to delve into the region's ancient past.

Within these subterranean caves and lava channels, researchers discovered rock art, human and animal bones, along with various artefacts such as pottery, fabric fragments, worked pieces of wood, and stone tools. The age of these items suggests the Umm Jirsan lava tube was used as a shelter around 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic period, continuing for at least seven thousand years, likely until the Bronze Age.

Life of the ancient inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula

The research indicates that caves and lava tubes were used intermittently, offering shepherds a reprieve from the desert's conditions as they moved between oases for trade. Dr. Mathew Stewart, the study's lead author, explained that their findings in Umm Jirsan offer a unique glimpse into the ancient lives of the people of the Arabian Peninsula. He noted that the lava tube was periodically occupied and highlighted the pastoral activities that thrived in the region. He also said that the site likely served as an important waypoint on pastoral routes, fostering cultural exchanges and trade.

The sheepherders' use of the lava tubes is evidenced by rock art and depictions of fauna. These artworks enabled scientists to piece together the lifestyle of the Arabian Peninsula's ancient inhabitants. Illustrations of cattle, sheep, goats, and dogs corroborate prehistoric breeding practices.

Isotopic analysis of animal bones suggested that the livestock predominantly consumed wild grasses and shrubs. Meanwhile, studies of human remains indicate a protein-rich diet among the locals, with an observed increase in plant consumption, particularly cereals and fruits over time, hinting at the emergence and evolution of agriculture.

Rock art
Rock art© Stewart et al., 2024, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

Locations like Umm Jirsan are invaluable to archaeologists, as the items left behind are well-preserved from wind, extreme sun, and other weathering effects. Michael Petraglia from Griffith University acknowledged that these discoveries highlight the vast potential of interdisciplinary research within caves and lava channels, offering a distinctive perspective into the ancient history of the Arabian Peninsula.

Stewart remarked that the exact time when Umm Jirsan was last filled with lava remains uncertain. He noted that over the past 1500 years in Arabia, there have been about 1500 volcanic eruptions, with even more occurring in ancient times.

Source: EurekAlert!, Live Science, photo by Green Arabia Project

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